King Hussein is dead
Jordan's peacemaker king walked a narrow line in the Mideast
Web posted at: 5:16 a.m. EST (1016 GMT)
AMMAN, Jordan (CNN) -- His Majesty Hussein bin Talal, king of Jordan, is dead. The Middle Eastern leader lost a long battle to cancer on Sunday at the age of 63.
Hussein died in his homeland after returning from the Mayo Clinic on Friday.
He had spent six months in the United States undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at the clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, returning triumphantly to Jordan on January 19. Within days, the king named his eldest son Abdullah his successor, replacing Hussein's brother Hassan as crown prince.
And then Hussein, with a recurrent fever, abruptly returned to the U.S. clinic January 25 for further treatment. He underwent a bone marrow transplant earlier this week, but the transplant failed, and the king returned home to die.
Hussein guided his country through the volatile Cold War and four decades of Arab-Israeli conflict, successfully balancing the pressures of Arab nationalism and the allure of Western-style development against the stark reality of Jordan's geographic location. He left Jordan economically stronger and politically stable as it institutes democratic reforms that he himself launched.
Beginning his rule as a 17-year-old schoolboy, he evolved by the end of his life into a respected statesman and the Middle East's longest-serving ruler. Overcoming the humiliating loss of the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, he would emerge as a pivotal peacemaker, signing a peace accord with Israel and, later, helping to salvage deadlocked talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
For more than 40 years, Hussein was the ruler and the symbol of a kingdom not much older than he was -- a modern monarch with the ancient name Hashemi.
Rulers of the holy city of Mecca for over 700 years (ending in 1925), Hussein's family claims a line of descent from the Islamic prophet Muhammad and Ismail, son of the biblical prophet Abraham.
"We are the family of the prophet and we are the oldest tribe in the Arab world," the king once said of his Hashemite ancestry.
The king himself -- at the time of his death the longest-serving executive head of state in the world -- held the reins of Jordan since May 1953, just a month before Elizabeth II was crowned queen of England.
The story of Hussein's rise to head the kingdom carved out of the British colonial empire is one of intrigue, death and luck.
Hussein's grandfather, King Abdullah, ruled Jordan from its inception in 1920 until his assassination -- at the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem -- in 1951.
A Palestinian extremist, fearing the king might negotiate a peace with the newly created state of Israel, opened fire on Abdullah and his grandson on July 20 of that year as the pair walked into the mosque for Friday prayers. Abdullah was killed, but the 15-year-old Hussein pursued the gunman.
The assailant turned his weapon on the young prince, who was saved when the bullet was deflected by a medal on his uniform given to him by his grandfather.
At the time, Crown Prince Talal, Hussein's father, was undergoing treatment for schizophrenia in a Swiss mental hospital. He was returned to Jordan and crowned king, a position he held until the Jordanian parliament forced his abdication a year later.
With his father's abdication, Hussein was named king of Jordan at the age of 17, although a Regency Council ruled for him while he completed his education in Britain. On May 2, 1953, he assumed full constitutional powers when he turned 18 by the Islamic calendar.
"At seventeen, I knew the end of a dream," Hussein later wrote in his memoirs. "I would never be a schoolboy again."
The young king was thrust immediately into the vagaries and difficulties of Middle Eastern politics.
"The King and country were alike," wrote John Newhouse in a New Yorker magazine profile in 1983, "young, inexperienced, poor, and unpromising."
Hussein had inherited an economy with few natural resources and a populace that had just absorbed a large number of displaced Palestinians following the 1948 creation of the state of Israel.
The early years of Hussein's rule were an almost literal trial by fire. In 1956, with Arab nationalism on the rise, he sacked his British-born military commander Sir John Bagot Glubb, replacing him and the other senior British officers with Jordanians to quiet criticism that he was overly influenced by the former colonial ruler.
A year later, the young monarch foiled an attempted coup -- fueled by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's pan-Arabic politics -- by personally appealing to the troops.
But in 1958, the Iraqi military overthrew and killed Hussein's cousin King Feisal. That coup ended a budding federation between Jordan and Iraq, a potential political counterweight to Egypt and Syria. And then pro-Nasser sympathizers in Jordan organized another coup attempt, stopped only by the arrival of British and American troops.
With British and American help, the king held onto his throne, and put growth into Jordan's economy, doubling the annual output from 1956 to 1963. But Palestinian guerrillas based in Jordan -- while staging strikes against Israel that prompted retaliatory strikes by the Jewish state -- were also actively working against Hussein.
Under pressure from Jordan's rapidly growing Palestinian population, Hussein made what many historians believe was his biggest mistake: He joined forces with Egypt in the Six-Day War against Israel in 1967, despite the grave warnings of his military advisors.
Israel soundly defeated its Arab opponents in that war -- and Jordan lost the West Bank and east Jerusalem -- Islam's third-holiest city -- to its Jewish neighbor. Joining the war may have saved Hussein from the wrath of his Palestinian subjects, but its cost was tremendous. The West Bank was Jordan's top agricultural region, and the war cost the king his entire air force and 15,000 troops.
"The loss of the West Bank was a shock to everyone," said former Jordanian Prime Minister Bahjat Al-Talhuni.
Five months after the war, Hussein helped draft U.N. Resolution 242, which called on Israel to return those occupied territories in return for an Arab guarantee of its right to exist within secure borders. The idea of "peace for territory" in the Israeli conflict was born.
"The king was among the first leaders to realize what it meant to lose part of the territory," said another former prime minister, Taher Al-Masri. "He was able to reduce the negative implications."
After the war, the Jordan-based Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) continued to attack Israel, threatening to depose the king if he interfered.
Finally, Hussein had had enough. In September 1970 -- the month Palestinian radicals would come to call Black September -- the 34-year-old monarch ordered his army to drive the PLO out of the country. Syrian troops came to the aid of the Palestinians, while Israeli soldiers massed across the border.
When the fighting finally ended, the Palestinian radicals had lost. And although Hussein remained popular at home, the Arab world largely isolated him throughout most of the 1970s.
In 1974, Arab leaders declared the PLO "the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," taking away Hussein's role as spokesman for the West Bank's Palestinians.
And in 1978, he was excluded from the Camp David summit between U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. A year later, he denounced the accords in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
That position helped re-establish the friendship -- and money -- he and his country needed from other Arab leaders.
But the king and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were never able to reconcile, and Hussein finally renounced Jordan's claim to administrative and legal control of the West Bank in 1988.
Jordan did represent Palestinian interests when Middle East peace talks began in Madrid. A separate delegation eventually joined the negotiations, but the monarch whose kingdom still included more than 1 million Palestinians remained very much on their side.
Hussein always walked a tightrope between his Middle Eastern neighbors and Western powers.
"He's between Israel on one side, Iraq and Syria on the other," former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said. "He knows that the Palestinians have tried to overthrow him on a number of occasions, so he has to navigate with extraordinary delicacy."
His balancing act never stopped the succession of coup and assassination attempts. The plots have been so common, Hussein wrote in his memoirs, "that sometimes I have felt like the central character in a detective novel."
That act seriously strained relationships with the West, particularly the United States, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.
Jordan depended on Iraq economically and politically, and the Iraqi invasion enjoyed strong support among Jordanians. While Jordan officially stayed neutral in the 1991 Gulf War -- in part because of Western pressure -- unofficially, king and country once again supported the losing side.
While the decision to stay neutral cost Jordan a heavy economic price as Western agencies withdrew millions of dollars in aid, it also helped Hussein solidify his popularity with the people.
Then, in July 1994, under pressure from the United States, Hussein signed an agreement with his old adversary, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, ending hostilities between the two countries. And a year and a half later, he traveled to Jerusalem to bury his new friend, shot down by an Israeli opponent of peace.
"As long as I live, I'll be proud to have known him," Hussein said.
Conscious of his own mortality, the king had already begun to change the nature of Jordan's government. Long opposed to communism, he authorized multi-party elections for 1993 and allowed political opposition and religious conservatism for the first time in years.
The year he turned 57 and survived his first bout with cancer, Hussein said he had to establish political institutions -- democracy, pluralism, and respect for human life -- that would allow the country to outlive the only monarch most Jordanians had ever known.
Last October, during this most recent round of cancer treatment, he helped broker and witness an interim agreement between Israel and the Palestinians -- both former adversaries of Jordan.
It was a path Hussein believed he was meant to take.
"By the way, many in our part of the world, in different parts of the world have written me off," he said during a recent interview. "But I have a lot of faith in God and I believe one lives one's destiny."
A king turned peacemaker and philosopher, Hussein bin Talal will be remembered as a man who matured with his country, and helped foster peace in a region torn by conflict.
King Hussein returning to Jordan after cancer treatment fails
The Office of King Hussein I of Jordan
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