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Western Press Review: Assessing Hussein's Death

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 8 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today and over the weekend focuses largely on the death of Jordan's King Hussein, whose funeral today in Amman is being attended by more than a score of world leaders. Analysts discuss the king's contribution to Middle Eastern stability during the 47 years of his reign. They also seek to assess the likely effects of his disappearance both on Jordan and on the region.

IRISH TIMES: Hussein was trusted and admired

The Irish Times today sets the laudatory tone for much of the comment on Hussein, saying: "It was all too easy to take Jordan's stability for granted under (his) long reign....His experience and sheer political nous were fundamental. Although a small state, Jordan has a pivotal position in the Middle East's politics, straddling many of its fault lines. Hussein was trusted and admired by most of its key figures, as by their Western interlocutors. They will miss him deeply."

The editorial goes on: "Hussein was certainly not a democrat, but he presided over a vibrant kingdom in which many who opposed him had much greater freedom than in neighboring Arab states. Throughout his career he maintained the ability to control Jordan's political and administrative systems, and -- crucially -- its armed forces. The care he took to ensure a satisfactory dynastic succession by transferring it from his brother Prince Hassan to his son Prince Abdullah illustrated these concerns well."

That transfer, the IT notes, "brings a political neophyte to power, which could be a source of instability in the months and years to come.... But from the point of view of dynastic succession it may be more important to keep the armed forces on (the new monarch's) side." The paper concludes: "(Hussein) gained credibility and legitimacy as a regional leader in the successive efforts to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians.... His departure leaves much uncertainty in Israel, in Syria and in Lebanon, where his role in guaranteeing a stable Jordan can no longer be taken for granted."

TRIBUNE DE GENEVE: Hussein's passing opens a period of uncertainty

In a signed editorial in Switzerland's Tribune de Geneve today, Jean-Francois writes: "In the great Middle Eastern political game, King Hussein did not always play the role the West expected of him. He was not always the docile interlocutor or the partner attentive to all suggestions offered by London or Washington.... Amid contradictory (Jordanian and regional) interests, he managed to take care of local necessities first, sometimes above and beyond what his U.S. and British partners judged to be reasonable."

Hussein's disappearance, the editorial continues, "opens a period of uncertainty not only in Jordan but in the entire region, whose present delicate diplomatic balance could soon be changed." The paper goes on to say that Hussein's death poses many important questions.

"First and foremost (among them)," it writes, "has to do with the way he organized the transfer of royal power to Crown Prince Abdullah. By law, of course, nothing stopped Hussein from designating his oldest son, and not his brother Hassan, as heir.....(But) his decision nevertheless revealed several things which until now have been largely hidden -- the excessive power of a monarch who had become too sure of his own impunity, clear rivalries within the royal family and a government unsure of what to do next."

FINANCIAL TIMES: The region needs a just settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict

Britain's Financial Times also discusses the uncertainties created by Hussein's death. The paper asks in its editorial: "Will [Hussein's] successor be able to consolidate this inheritance (of stability the king left behind)" It responds: "Most concern centers on (Abdullah's) untested ability to govern.... The new king, at 37 (years of age), is twice the age Hussein was when he took the throne.... The main danger he faces internally is hostility to the 1994 peace his father signed with Israel."

The FT goes on: (A) second worry is (Jordan's) neighbors. In the past three years, Jordan has been able to fend off intrigues on its territory by Israel, Iraq and Syria. But many aging Arab leaders are also ill -- President Assad of Syrian, (Palestinian leader) Yasser Arafat, and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. And nobody knows how Iraq will emerge from under Saddam Hussein or indeed whether the new Israeli government to be elected in May will be able to strike a peace deal with the Palestinians." ` The paper concludes: "Jordan therefore needs aid and support from its Western and Arab allies. But what it most needs is what the region needs: a just and comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. King Hussein always argued there would be no stability in the Middle East without justice for the Palestinians. The best tribute to him would be to remember that essential truth."

GENERAL ANZEIGER: It is questionable whether the transfer of power will be completely frictionless

Two German newspapers also comment briefly today on Hussein's passing. The General Anzeiger, published in Bonn, is somewhat skeptical of the new power structure in Jordan. It writes in its editorial: "Whether or not it was prudent for King Hussein to have designated his heir to the throne just days before his death is far from certain as yet." The paper wonders "whether the transfer of power [to Abdullah] will be completely frictionless."

FULDAER ZEITUNG: A long shadow will be cast on the King�s coming decisions

The Fuldaer Zeitung takes a more historical view of Hussein's death. It writes: "When Hussein took Jordan's throne in 1953, it was a country that, besides having been under the dictate of England, was only on the threshold of civilization." The paper notes that the newly crowned King longer has these kinds of difficulties."

"Nonetheless," the Fulda daily adds, "the heir to the throne will be forced quickly to come to grips with the dimensions of the problems he has inherited as he makes his first steps onto the international scene, confronting issues like autonomy for Palestine or the conflict in Iraq." The paper also says in its editorial: "In each and every one of the new King's coming decisions, there will be a long shadow cast by his father's life work."

WALL STREET JOURNAL: He achieved a moral authority unparalleled in his corner of the globe

The Wall Street Journal Europe also looks back at Hussein's achievements, writing in its editorial today: "When Jordan's King Hussein ascended to the throne in 1952 at the age of 17, it was widely predicted that he would be the fist among the region's rulers to lose his head. But before he died yesterday at the age of 63," the paper adds, "he had become the Arab world's longest serving leader. He had not only retained the loyalty of his 4.6 million subjects, but had achieved a moral authority unparalleled in his corner of the globe."

The WSJ continues: (Hussein's) special status was earned despite the fact that his reign often seemed marked more by cold calculation than by adherence to principle. He joined in the attack on Israel in 1967 after judging that if he did not, he probably would fare worse under victorious Arabs than from a beating administered by Israel.... He made peace with the Jewish state only in 1994 after prior Egyptian and PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) accords made it safe for him to follow."

The paper also says: "That the king's heart was in the right place was evident early on. In 1959, when regional powers like Syria and Egypt were falling under the sway of the Soviet Union, he boldly declared: "In the great struggle between communism and freedom, there can be no neutrality.'" It adds: "Ironically, the force of Hussein's personality now presents the greatest immediate challenge to his son, King Abdullah. For although Hussein made tentative steps toward democracy, his charisma, not shared political institutions, was what bound the restless and multicultural Jordanian population together."

NEW YORK TIMES: The Middle East is losing its most durable ruler

In an editorial over the weekend (Feb. 6), the New York Times said that, with Hussein's demise, "the Middle East is losing its most durable ruler and most determined peacemaker.... Filling the ominous void left by his departure may be the (region's) most urgent challenge."

The paper continued: "Thanks in large measure to Hussein, a just and lasting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors is a realistic possibility. The king was not always on the same side of Middle East conflicts as Israel and the United States. But the two main exceptions, his participation in the June 1967 war against Israel and his diplomatic support for Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, were based on misplaced calculations of immediate Jordanian interests. In 1967 he feared that Jordan's large Palestinian population would revolt if he tried to stay out of the conflict. In 1991 he worried that Jordan could be shattered economically by the air and ground war against its largest trading partner, Iraq. Both blunders cost Jordan dearly."

The NYT said further: "There is good reason to believe that the special friendship between Jordan and Israel will continue under Abdullah. But at least until the new heir consolidates his position, other Arab leaders will have to nudge along the peace process and rescue it from future crises." For the paper, "the logical candidate is Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak. Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, and Cairo enjoys good relations with Palestinian leader Arafat."

WASHINGTON POST: Abdullah will succeed, but probably with inevitable changes in the governance system

On the same day, Jordanian political analyst Rami Khouri contributed a commentary to the Washington Post that concentrated on King Abdullah's prospects as he takes over from Hussein. He wrote: "Abdullah...has his father's combination of amiable character, military-bred humility and a regal presence tempered by the modesty of youth and humble national power."

"What Abdullah lacks," the commentary went on, "is a track record in national leadership and experience in the primary duty of Hashemite kingship: mediating among domestic, regional and global players to promote Jordan's stability, credibility and national development. His education and army training in the U.S. and Britain, including a brief stint at Georgetown University (in Washington, D.C.), helped form his character. But his policy as crown prince, regent and future king will reflect only the geopolitical dictates of statehood that have driven all leaders of this land."

Khouri believes that "Jordanian policy will not change under Abdullah, because it is not a function of personality. Jordanian policy aims to achieve two goals: (a) domestic stability and progress through human development, private investment, foreign support and state security and largess, and (b) regional political stability and economic progress in fields such as transit, trade, commerce and exploitation of water, arable land and other limited natural resources."

And the commentator concludes: "The country has succeeded to date largely because of the efforts of its enlightened, security-minded monarchy. Can Abdullah continue his father's achievements? He will succeed, but probably with inevitable changes in the governance system."