This interview took place in the context of changing relations between Jordan, the Palestinians and Israel. Jordan had declared its disengagement from the West Bank only nine months before, handing full responsibility to the PLO. The Palestinian intifada (uprising) which began in 1987 was still in full swing, and Israeli Prime Minister Shamir had grudgingly put forth a limited proposal to talk with elected Palestinian representatives. Meanwhile, economic difficulties had led to a spate of rioting in southern Jordan.
In the interview, King Hussein expresses his optimism that newly-elected US President Bush will exert efforts to advance the Arab-Israeli peace process. His Majesty stresses the importance of moving quickly towards a comprehensive peace settlement, and predicts that Palestinians will be "on their way" to achieving a state within two years.
CNN "Evans & Novak"
Interviewers: Robert Novak, John Wallach
April 22, 1989
Robert Novak: I'm Robert Novak. Rowland Evans is on assignment covering the Wyoming special election. In his absence, John Wallach of the Hearst Newspapers and I will interview one of the central figures in the Mideast: King Hussein of Jordan.
King Hussein has not visited Washington since 1986, a sign he disapproved of Reagan Administration policies in the Mideast. The fact that he was here this week, therefore, signaled his high hopes for President Bushas expressed by the King after their meeting at the White House.
King Hussein (on tape): You are the right leader in the right office at the right time.
Robert Novak: The president was equally upbeat.
President Bush (on tape): The time has come to encourage fresh thinking, to avoid sterile debate and to focus on the difficult but critical work of structuring a serious negotiating process. His Majesty committed Jordan to this task, and I commit the United States to this task.
Robert Novak: Hussein fully endorsed Bush's plans, but was less clear about Israel Prime Minister Shamir's proposed plans for a Palestinian election in the occupied territories. When we come back, we'll talk to King Hussein of Jordan. Please stay with us.
Robert Novak: Your Majesty, thanks for coming with us. Again, we appreciate it. Could you tell us exactly what your position is on the Israeli proposal for elections in the occupied territories for the Palestinians?
King Hussein: I don't believe it is my place to comment on the Israeli position; it's the right of the Palestinians to do so, and the representative, the PLO. On the other hand, I believe that we can't look at such a suggestion as an isolated one. I believe that the question of elections, which as a form of Palestinian self-expression, must be within the context of a process that deals with the entire problem: the Arab-Israeli problem and certainly the Palestinian-Israeli problem.
And then it makes sense to look at it. But to look at it just as an objective in itself leads us nowhere.
Robert Novak: Could you say whether you think that it does contribute to a solution to the problem, in your opinion?
King Hussein: It is a suggestion that should be looked at within the context of the whole process leading us to the establishment of a final and just peace in the area.
Robert Novak: So the news reports that came out of Washington this past week, describing you as giving qualified endorsement of Prime Minister Shamir's proposal, are not entirely accurate.
King Hussein: I don't believe that they are accurate, because I don't have any right to give any opinion on such a suggestion. But I'd like to say, if you look at the suggestion for the electionselections under whose auspices, elections for what, to achieve which?you can certainly look at the right of the Palestinians to elections, but under the right conditions as part of the process, a complete, comprehensive process that will lead us to a final status negotiation and a resolution of the entire problem.
John Wallach: Your Majesty, the PLO itself has said that it opposes the venue, the objective of these elections, and the guarantees of these elections. But they are keeping an open mind.
Under what conditions do you think such elections could serve or might serve a useful purpose?
King Hussein: I really can't begin to think under what conditions, but certainly they could be looked at I believe within the context of a whole series of events, a whole series of actions that would bring us to our objective, which is the establishment of a just comprehensive peace, and negotiations to achieve that.
John Wallach: Well, Your Majesty, obviously everyone is very skeptical that the Israelis are trying to somehow divide the Palestinians, and choose a group of local indigenous leaders who might somehow turn their back on the PLO.
Could something be built into the process to prevent thatfor example, after these elections take place on the West Bank, having those Palestinians be elected by the PLO to positions on the Palestinian National Council?
King Hussein: This is very much of a possibility. What I think we should be wary of is the possibility of waste of time. We can't afford to lose any time. The conditions are as ripe as they've ever been for progress towards a final comprehensive peace in the area. And everything should be done to ensure that we do not waver from attempting to attain that objective as soon as possible.
John Wallach: If I understand you correctly, you are saying that you are not particularly enthusiastic about the Shamir proposal for elections, but if the Americans advance their own conception of the circumstances under which these elections might take place, you might support such an idea.
King Hussein: Yes, indeed.
Robert Novak: Your Majesty, in view of the fact that last summer you withdrew from the West Bankthe Jordan government withdrew from the West Bankwhat do you think your personal role is today in effecting a solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis?
King Hussein: I believe that our disengagement legally from the West Bank has helped us all overcome an impasse. It certainly resulted in the Palestinians opting to have their own say regarding their own fate, their own future, and accepting Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, renouncing violence, and how every indication of their intent to do everything they could for the establishment of peace in the area.
I believe that, as far as Jordan is concerned and myself we have the longest borders with Israel of any Arab state, we are very close to the Palestinians, as we have always been. But our relations with them now are on a different foundation, a foundation of trust and confidence. We realize that we never should deny them their right to speak for themselves, or to destroy their identity, which is dear to them, but that our fate is linked together. And hopefully in the future, when we are able to build under the proper circumstances, we will be able to build our relationship on a very, very solid foundation.
John Wallach: You've in a sense liberated them, one might say. Is it easier for you now in the new situation to take some steps vis-à-vis Israel that might address the Israeli public? You know, Israel for a long time has begged you to come to the peace table, to the negotiating table. For a long time you were handicapped by the fact that you couldn't do that unless you brought the Palestinians with you.
Now the PLO in a sense has earned a place at the negotiating table on its own, is there anything that you can do to address the Israeli public or say to address the Israeli public directly?
King Hussein: Well, I can do that right now. I believe that what we need is to act and act soon, to transform the area in which we live from one of hostility and suspicion, and the danger to all of us of a continuation of the state of affairs that is intolerable to any real peace.
Only through peace can we have security, only through peace can we give future generations a chance on both sides.
And if you take me, for example, what I live for is the hope that I will contribute my share towards the establishment of such a peace that future generations can enjoy and hopefully
John Wallach (interrupting): Is it easier for you to do that now? That was my question.
King Hussein: When we were involved with the problem, when we tried to woo, Israel wouldn't look at us. It seems now that they are very interested in us once again. I believe they should deal with the Palestinians themselves and their legitimate representatives. And certainly we are ready ourselves, as are the other Arab parties to the conflict, to move to resolve it in total.
Wallach: Do you see the Israelis moving in that direction? Are you optimistic on that score?
King Hussein: I'm optimistic from what I gather is happening, that the Israelis are thinking that there is certainlyover half the population in Israel is for a dialogue, is for examining every possibility for a solution to the problem. I believe that this is the case in the rest of the world.
So in that respect I am optimistic, and I hope that the leadership in Israel will heed the voices of those who are seeking peace.
Robert Novak: Do you think the uprising, the intifada, has been the factor that has ironically or paradoxically brought the situation closer to peace?
King Hussein: I believe it has contributed towards that end. It has forced people to finally look at realities that we've been pointing to for many, many years. There was a demographic problem, there was a very serious problem on our doorstep.
All of us the intifada has helped and maybe our disengagement has helped. Certainly the Palestinian attitude has helped, now supported by the entire Arab family, certainly all of us within the Arab Cooperation Council and the rest, and the world and its interest. So I think we are closer than we've ever been.
Robert Novak: In moving closer, Your Majesty, what difference do you think President Bush has made? You said at the White House the other day that he was the right man at the right time. What change does he make in the picture, in your opinion?
King Hussein: From my vantage point, I see him as a man I respect and I've known over a number of years, a man of integrity, a man of knowledge in terms of the world in which we live.
And certainly at the helm of the great United States an able group of advisors and collaborators, and I believe a genuine determination to contribute to the establishment of peace in our area, as part of the movement in this world to resolve problems wherever they threaten regional stability or international peace.
Wallach: Does the fact that a man whom you've known so well, and who you talk to on the phone from time to time, who I understand writes you personal notes from time to timethe fact that he is at the helm, does that give you a little bit more confidence about playing a role yourself in the peace process at some pointa direct role?
King Hussein: I have never run away that, I am always ready, I have always been ready. But beyond that I can tell you briefly that I feel more comfortable and much happier and much more optimistic on this visit to Washington than I have felt in a long time over many years that have passed.
John Wallach: I can understand your skepticism about Shamir's proposal, but, you know, he is addressing the Palestinians; he is no longer saying the answer to the Palestinian problem is through Jordan; he is also saying he will abide by the results of any elections on the West Bank regardless if those people are supporters of the PLO or notas he says, we won't look into their heart.
Will you give him a little bit of credit for having moved, perhaps under the pressure of the intifada?
King Hussein: I understand that there is some movement, and I hope the movement will continueand rapidly, to enable us to settle this situation and to arrive at our objective before too long.
Robert Novak: Your Majesty, I'd like to ask you to comment on the bloodshed in Lebanon. Who's to blame for this, in your opinion, and what can be done?
King Hussein: Maybe all of us have the blame. But obviously we feel that there is much that we can do within the Arab world. There are suggestions that another summit would be held between the 20th and 21st of next month. Certainly a summit of the Arab Cooperation Council will be held on the 10th of next month. And hopefully we can contribute towards resolution of the problem.
We must address it, we must see what can be done to give the Lebanese a chance, and to live up to our commitments and our statements regarding our interest in safeguarding the unity, the freedom, the territorial integrity of Lebanon.
And maybe the rest of the world ought to help, too. Maybe one of the areas that we should address is the possibility of generating momentum to ensure that outside influences in Lebanon are limited.
Robert Novak: Do you think that Syrian reaction, the Syrian shelling in Beirut, has been excessive?
King Hussein: I believe that whatever Is happening in Beirut is intolerable; I can't sleep with it. I can't understand it. It's not a war between armies; it is something that is affecting human beings, as it does even in a warbut more so the innocent. I can't really stand the ordeal that people are having to face there myself. And I will do everything I can to contribute towards bringing an end to that.
John Wallach: There are thirty to forty thousand Syrian troops there. Should they leave?
King Hussein: This has to be discussed at an Arab summit, and I believe that an Arab summit should contribute towards a solution by looking at what can be done to remove all foreign forces from Lebanon maybe; on the other hand, to call the different factions in Lebanon and to hammer out with them necessary reforms to resolve the problem once and for all.
John Wallach: There's been bloodshed in your own country, Your Majesty, perhaps as many as 15 or 16 people killed, from what I understand.
King Hussein: That's very sad, sir, but our losses are eight. However, conditions have returned hopefully to normal. As of today we haven't had any more incidents.
Wallach: What are the underlying causes of this unrest? I know you raised food prices, and that's the symptom of them, but what are the underlying causes?
King Hussein: The underlying causes are the reality of foreign debt incurred and equivalent to commitments made by certain Arab states as a result of the Baghdad summit, to be paid over the ten years that elapsed since.
Robert Novak: Which Arab states are those?
King Hussein: They range from Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, as well as Iraq. Our foreign debt is half military and half economic in terms of our development projects so far.
And the foreign debt of Jordan is equivalent to the amounts that were not forthcoming despite promises of help and support by (inaudible). So suddenly we faced a situation that we couldn't pay our creditors, and except with enormous difficulty we had to get in touch with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, we had to take actions. And recently we arrived at an agreement with the International Monetary Fund.
It' s not easy for Jordanians. I am sad that these incidents have happened, but on the other hand I'm proud of the overall majority of people who have taken it, as all of us are doing. And we hope that we pass through this case. We are certainly determined to stand in the future, stand on our own feet.
Robert Novak: We will be back, Your Majesty, after these messages, with the big question for King Hussein of Jordan.
Robert Novak: Your Majesty, the big question: When do you think, using your judgment, it would be possible to expect the creation of an independent demilitarized Palestinian state?
King Hussein: Well, within the next two years we should be on our way towards that, I suppose.
John Wallach: I'm sorry, did you say within two years?
King Hussein: Within two years.
John Wallach: Why don't you tell us what you think you are the next steps? What has to happen to make that a realityto get the train out of the station?
King Hussein: On our side I don't know what else we can do, all the Palestinians. I hope that the dialogue with the United States and the PLO will continue and deal with substance. I certainly hope that the rest of the world will continue to help us, that the moral weight of the world will help us move toward a solution of the problem.
Robert Novak: Your Majesty, thank you very much for being with us. John Wallach and I will be back with some comments after these messages.
John Wallach: Bob, I thought what was interesting was that he was willing to give Yitzhak Shamir a little bit of credit for having moved on the election idea. I think it was interesting that he said if the local Palestinians are elected and are elected to PLO positions, or PNC positions, he would be willing to endorse the election idea.
Robert Novak: But, John, you know, King Hussein made it clear that the reports of his qualified endorsement of Shamir were greatly exaggerated. I was very interested, however, at the end, at the big questionhe said that within two years they would start moving toward a Palestinian demilitarized state. That may be overoptimistic, but Hussein has never been known as one of the world's great optimists.
John Wallach: Well, you know, I think he's using optimism as a diplomatic tool here, trying to galvanize public opinion as a weapon against the Israelis.
The other thing I thought was very interesting were his comments about the riots in Jordan itself. You know, these riots are taking place in the southern part of the kingdomthat's the bedrock of support for Hashemite rule; it's where the bedouin palace guard comes from. And he's got to be more worried than he let on.
Robert Novak: But he is a different king than he was three years when we interviewed him here, John. He was very gloomy then, very worried, not happy with Ronald Reagan. He really likes George Bush, and I think that's what's changed his mood.
John Wallach: Absolutely right.
Robert Novak: I'm Robert Novak.
John Wallach: And I'm John Wallach.
Robert Novak: Join Rowland Evans and me next week with the new Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney.