King Hussein: Washington Ex Post Facto

Twice in three months writers for The Washington Post have, in reviewing King’s Counsel: A Memoir of War, Espionage, and Diplomacy in the Middle East, by Jack O’Connell with Vernon Loeb (a Post veteran), presented incomplete accounts of Jordanian King Hussein’s policy toward Israel and vice versa. Paul R. Pillar and David Ignatius acknowledge mistakes by the king, but ahistorically leave virtually all blame for the absence of Arab-Israeli peace with Israel.

Pillar, a former CIA officer for the Near East and South Asia now teaching at Georgetown University (“The CIA’s Man in the Middle East,” July 17), and columnist and spy novelist Ignatius (“No more Mideast games,” May 5) omit basics about the 90-year clash between Arabs and Jews in what for part of that time was British Mandatory Palestine. The resulting review and syndicated column reflect the chronic lack of context that cripples much Post Arab-Israeli news reporting.

King’s Counsel, about Hussein’s long service as a CIA asset, may be a better book than these accounts of it intimate, but they suggest an old-style Arabist work shaped by clientitis.

Pillar writes of the 1967 Six-Day War “in which Israel seized the West Bank from Jordan.” He never mentions that King Hussein discounted a secret Israeli promise not to attack if Jordan stayed out of Egyptian and Syrian aggression.

Ignatius gives these events a half-twist, referring to “the king’s foolish decision to ally with Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser on the eve of the 1967 war, which gave the Israelis a reason to attack.” What gave Israel a reason to attack was Jordanian artillery bombardment of western Jerusalem on June 5. The Jewish state had not attacked when Jordan allied militarily with Egypt on May 5.

Ignatius says that “what anguished O’Connell was watching Hussein struggle in vain for four decades to recover the West Bank from Israel.” The Post columnist, like Pillar, does not remind readers that the monarch’s struggle was to regain territory occupied in aggressive war in violation of the U.N.’s 1947 partition plan or that Jordan’s possession was accepted as legal only by Britain and Pakistan.

Pillar erroneously describes U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, adopted some months after the fighting, as “the framework for what was supposed to be Israel’s withdrawal from territories in occupied in the 1967 war.” Resolution 242 was and is the framework for a general Arab-Israeli peace. Israeli troop withdrawal from parts but not all the territory that included the Sinai Peninsula, Golan Heights, West Bank, Gaza Strip and eastern Jerusalem were to come in the context of 242’s call for “a just and lasting peace in which every State in the area can live in security.”

Pillar and Ignatius are silent also on the fact that even before the Security Council adopted 242, the Arab League, meeting in Khartoum and rejecting Israeli peace feelers, adopted the infamous “three no’s” — no recognition of Israel, no negotiations, no peace.

According to Pillar, “O’Connell’s account makes it clear that the United States promised Hussein that [Israeli] withdrawal meant a full pull-out subject only to ‘minor reciprocal border rectifications.’” If so, Pillar owed it to readers to add that U.S. co-authors of Resolution 242, Under Secretary of State Eugene Rostow and U.N. Ambassador Arthur Goldberg, said in public that the measure meant no such thing.

Ignatius says King Hussein bungled by allowing “the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] to put down deep roots in Jordan and is repaid with a civil war in 1970 that nearly topples him ….” The columnist does not say that one reason the king held on was Israel’s mobilization to discourage Syrian intervention on behalf of the PLO.

Pillar declares that after Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994, “Israel continued colonizing the occupied territory, and the Palestinians were left without a state.” He does not say that the PLO failed to uphold the 1993 Oslo peace process — intended to lead to “final status” talks in 1998 — but instead continued anti-Israeli incitement and terrorism. Nor does he note that the West Bank is disputed territory, to which Jews as well as Arabs have claims and that Jewish settlement, in particular on state land, was encouraged by the Palestine Mandate, incorporated by the U.N. Charter.

Ignatius says that at King Hussein’s funeral in 1999, “O’Connell met Efraim Halevy, a former Mossad chief who was also, in his way, Hussein’s case officer. ‘You had a leader here with his hand out,’ he bluntly tells Halevy. ‘I think you blew it.’ Reading this book, it’s hard to disagree with that judgment.”

Pillar quotes O’Connell that “for the risks the king took in this search for peace he was betrayed by both the Israelis and the Americans. It was a price he paid to find out that the Israelis preferred land to peace and that the Americans didn’t care which of the two the Israelis chose.”

One only can agree with O’Connell’s reported judgement or claim Israel — which returned the entire Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in exchange for a peace treaty — preferred land to peace by ignoring the larger record, of which O’Connell’s relationship with King Hussein was but a part. Both reviewers make clear that tie was remarkably close. That may well make for a fascinating memoir. But for full Arab-Israeli perspective, a little distance might be in order and neither Pillar nor Ignatius provide it for Post readers.

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