This interview was conducted shortly after Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced plans to build a new Jewish settlement in occupied Arab East Jerusalem on a hill known as Jebel Abu Ghneim. The peace process has been effectively paralyzed since that provocative move.
In the interview, His Majesty King Hussein expresses his fear that extremists are driving the agenda of the region. He warns of a stong chance of violence if unilateral changes in the status quo of Jerusalem are not halted. Also, he reiterates his desire for the holy sites of Jerusalem to be above all sovereignty while, at the political level, suggesting that Israel and the Palestinians both use the city as their capital.
Interviewer: Walter Rodgers
March 12, 1997
Rodgers: Joining us now is His Majesty King Hussein Bin Talal of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Thank you for joining us, Your Majesty. Youve invested in an enormous amount of political capital in the Middle East peace process. What seems to have gone wrong?
King Hussein: I have done what I could and I will continue to do everything I can. It is my concern for the peace process that is prevalent in my mind at this stage. I think and feel very strongly that things are not moving in the right direction or fast enough, and we are sliding towards the possibility of despair and extremism that might come with it, and violence, and this is a situation that is intolerable.
Rodgers: Palestinians say theres a crisis, Israels Prime Minister Mr. Netanyahu says the Palestinians overuse that word crisis and the situation is not nearly that grave, How grave is the situation, and is the situation dangerous?
King Hussein: I believe it is dangerous. I had a chance to meet with President Arafat a few days ago. I found him in complete despair. I learned that a number of his ministers were wondering whether they should continue in their responsibilities, and there is an air of crisis.
Rodgers: How great? How serious?
King Hussein: Serious enough to cause us to worry about it and warn that something must be done to avert the continuation of this slide.
Rodgers: Youve warned that the lives of both Arabs and Israelis could soon be lost with the spilling of blood, and yet Mr. Netanyahu seems to disregard that warning. I believe he said yesterday that your tone is mistaken and the message of your letter was mistaken. Does it trouble you that he does not seem to listen to these warnings?
King Hussein: It does trouble me very seriously and I feel that I have a duty to speak the truth. It is the way I worked with his predecessors, its the way Ive tried to work with him. I have no axe to grind, I really am totally committed to the cause of a just and honorable and enduring peace, and a reconciliation between the descendants of the Children of Abraham once and for all. But Im so worried. Well, for example I listed a number of issues. They have been there for months now and nothing has been done about them and I dont see why. Why dont we create an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust and determination to move ahead? Why do we need the extremists to dictate the agenda on us?
Rodgers: A year ago it was presumed going into the Israeli elections that you may have indeed tilted towards Mr. Netanyahu. Now you seem to have misgivings. Do you still think hes the right man for the job?
King Hussein: That is for the people of Israel to decide and that is why I did not interfere in any form of way, nor did I find it my right to do so during the election campaign. I gave him all the support I could when he assumed responsibilities. I tried my best to help him as much as is possible to move ahead and to make his contribution towards the kind of peace that his people, our people, all our peoples need.
Rodgers: Could you share your misgivings?
King Hussein: My misgivings are there is a growing lack of trust and there is too much of jockeying around to gain momentary advantage. There isnt a consistency in terms of the policies that we seem to see, and certainly the worst part of it all is that the Palestinians seem to be humiliated and you cant humiliate a people--continue to do it--without having any reaction.
Rodgers: Mr. Netanyahu says he has observed and abided by the Oslo peace agreement, that he did keep the Hebron withdrawal or redeployment, that he has released the women prisoners that the Israelis held. What is your rejoinder to that?
King Hussein: That is fine. I think that the Hebron Agreement was a great success, and we sort of felt so encouraged after it was concluded, and that we had turned a page and begun to move forward. So these recent developments in terms of settlement activity and so on, unfortunately, came too soon to be justified in any form of way.
Rodgers: Youre going to the United States to pay a state visit to President Clinton. What would you like to see the American president do? Your letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu suggested that he had misserved his American allies. What would you like to see the United States do now?
King Hussein: I believe that the United States is our partner in making peace in this area. In fact the Hebron agreement, or rather the agreements that were ratified over the Hebron issue, have the guarantees in terms of implementation, of the United States as well. We are a party to them, we have a say in regard to Jerusalem itself. So we cannot just turn away from our responsibilities and we must do whatever we can to get the peace process back on track.
Rodgers: Your letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu was obviously published since you sent it to him. Are you appealing over the Prime Minsters head to the Israeli people, asking them to let him know that what hes doing is not a course conducive to peace?
King Hussein: It was not my intention to publish the letter. It somehow leaked and the leaks came within Israel itself and there were responses to it, there were distortions and thats where I felt it was my duty to publish it in full. And I dont think the points I raised have been answered in any form or way that is adequate, sir.
Rodgers: The Jordanian people seem to be having some misgiving as well as yourself. Sir, I wonder if perhaps youre going to have a difficult time maintaining the enthusiasm for peace in Jordan because of Mr. Netanyahus policies. Is that a problem?
King Hussein: It is a problem sir, if we do not keep moving. I think that we have lost enough time. I have tried my best to keep a forward motion on all issues regarding our bilateral relations, regarding people-to-people peace that must come to exist, regarding the comprehensive peace that must be worked for and achieved and attained. And I cant see why we cannot proceed in the same spirit. I am ready, sir, to put my hand in any hand that is ready to achieve those ends. It is not my habit to lose my temper or appear rude, I didnt want to, but I wanted to be pragmatic and clear as to where I saw things going and what the situation was.
Rodgers: But you seemed terribly frustrated in your relationship with this man.
King Hussein: There is a certain degree of frustration, sir. I mean, there is a point I brought up regarding the assurances I received when I was in England, not a very long time ago. That the prime minister had decided on no new settlements, no new settlement activities, but instead on the construction of two roads that would serve both Arabs and Israelis. When asked by officials, I explained what I had heard, only to find a little later he (Netanyahu) had taken exactly the opposite course. This kind of relationship cannot work that way sir. We cannot waffle and change and alter from day to day. There is no consistency and there is no continuity really that makes any sense.
Rodgers: Mr. Netanyahu has been repeatedly warned about the building of the Jewish enclave Jabal Abu Gneim, or Har Homa as the Jews call it, and yet he seems ready to defy the United States, the European Union, the Arab world, the entire world on this. What is it about him that makes him take such defiant positions?
King Hussein: I think sir that I can be very stubborn on a matter of principle. But to try to form in the minds of people the world over that an individual can defy the whole world over something thats not right time and again is, I dont think, either to his advantage or to the advantage, in this case, of what we are trying to achieve.
Rodgers: Would you comment on what you think his sense of vision is?
King Hussein: I think hes probably trying to do his best, he has difficulties but at the same time constitutionally hes probably the most powerful prime minister in the history of Israel. I think he has got to make his mind up on where he is going and I really hope that he will if he is to continue to assume his responsibilities at this very very critical junction.
Rodgers: Members of your own parliament have suggested that perhaps Jordan should recall its ambassador to Israel. Is that a step that is under consideration? Is their serious consideration being given to freezing any of the relationships Israel now has with Jordan?
King Hussein: No sir, none whatsoever. We dont believe in turning the clock back or severing diplomatic relations out of experience, or in doing anything that is negative. We would like to develop these relations to the point where they are positive and where they help us move ahead from where we are to where we want to be, all of us.
Rodgers: Mr. Netanyahu said he was baffled by your letter. What conclusion do you draw from that?
King Hussein: I am sorry, I think he refers to maybe the tone and the language. I have never had to use it before in that way. But I am an honest person sir. I am not a politician and I dont mince my words and I did not mean any offense, nor would I ever mean any offense to a person of responsibility. But I have to be clear about where things are. And in point of fact, the night before we had this crisis over the flight to Gaza and this airport that we have been working at having open, to give the Palestinians free access to move outside their area to the rest of the world without having to go through Egypt or Israel, which I believe is a basic right that they have, and it has been one circle after another of hope, discussions and I dont see why this should be the case.
When Arafat came I thought of taking him back. I had asked before and was not given permission during the Hebron affair and it wasnt important enough really to make a fuss of that. So finally after three conversations he came back to me to say that he couldnt and if I wanted to fly helicopters to this airport that was fine. I called him back later and said forget about the whole thing and he said he was sorry, and I said I was sorry too. But that is not the point. The point is the atmosphere is tense, its one of growing despair amongst peoples, and Im trying my very best to see what can be done to turn the situation around in some way. Certainly people are not aware of the dangers, but at least they have to know what we could face if things continue the way they are.
Rodgers: But Your Majesty, Prime Minister Netanyahu says its the Palestinians who provoke these crises.
King Hussein: How can they provoke the crisis sir? How can they provoke the crisis when they are trying to secure their rights and when there has to be balance in terms of a solution, and when relations with the Palestinians and Israelis have to be based on mutual respect and cooperation and a realization that they must live together. There are so many things at the human level that can be done and should have been done a long time ago. Its not like a molar extraction every time sir. It shouldnt be that way, to take an eternity to move forward. It should be something that is given willingly and accepted gratefully and something that brings people together in a manner that hasnt been possible for so long.
Rodgers: If Mr. Netanyahu is successful and sends the bulldozers into Jabal Abu Gneim or Har Homa, if he is successful and cedes only a very small fraction of the West Bank to the Palestinians, what does that say for the future of this region?
King Hussein: I think sir, the whole idea is ill-timed, and first of all, as far as Jerusalem is concerned, its a final status negotiation issue. Therefore we are very very clear in our minds that there should be no change whatsoever in the status quo until such time as the people discuss it, the people concerned discuss and arrive at a solution to the problem that is hopefully satisfactory to all. And I think it is possible, its not impossible if there is goodwill. So these constant changes are causing a great deal of suspicion and anger and anguish, and I think that if it happens there is a very strong chance of violence. I hope it doesnt occur but I dont know. Im too worried enough to worry about it.
Rodgers: He will say it was the Palestinians who provoked him.
King Hussein: Palestinians provoked violence by opposing bulldozers coming in to create a new reality on soil that has to be discussed later-in terms of final status negotiations! I believe this is the kind of logic that I can not understand.
Rodgers: Is he playing into the hands of the Islamic fundamentalists in this region?
King Hussein: I think that as far as extremists are concerned, on both sides they are probably very happy to see things the way they are, and as far as the overwhelming majority of people that belong to the camp that believes in peace, Israelis and Arabs, and to which I belong, are looking very saddened by the way things are.
Rodgers: Mr. Netanyahu says and boasts that he is the only Israeli leader who can bring peace. Do you accept that?
King Hussein: I hope he can prove it. I would be the happiest person in the world if he can.
Rodgers: Your friend Yitzhak Rabin had many qualities that you used to admire very much. What are these qualities that you saw in your friend Yitzhak Rabin which you wish Mr. Netanyahu would emulate?
King Hussein: First of all, to have the pulse of this region. To have the experience that Rabin had in a sense, having fought for Israel. Having known what war meant. Having reached a conclusion that it is only peace that can mean a future that is right for all the peoples concerned. Beyond that, the ability that he had to place himself in my position. Ive always tried to place myself in my opposite numbers position to understand what difficulties both face and try to find a way to overcome them. To be consistent in policy and to be straightforward. We had many disagreements as far as our talks were concerned and so on, but we had an aim, we had a goal, we were not going to be diverted from it. Whenever a problem occurred we spoke honestly to each other, we spoke practically to each other, not as diplomats try to score at each others expense, but trying to save the bigger issue and to fulfill our duty. This is what I find is sadly missing at this time. I hope things will improve in the future.
Rodgers: On Jerusalem, half of that city used to be Jordan. The Israelis now claim that it is their undivided capital, they say it has been their capital for three thousand years. What does this bode if the Israelis do not recognize a shared interest in Jerusalem for Arabs, Christians, as well as Jews?
King Hussein: I believe that it does not bode well if this is the case. Unfortunately, history has shown us time and again that this explosive issue has brought about explosions that are extremely tragic, and I believe no one is talking of a divided city. But it has two areas that concern us; one religious, in terms of the old city of Jerusalem. I believe it should be above a question of status of sovereignty being exerted by any side on it. It should have special status that places it above the question of sovereignty, that places it as the place of the coming together of the followers of the three great Abrahamic monotheistic religions. If there is goodwill, I dont think this will be a problem. In fact, it may be the easiest side logically of the problem to solve. Beyond that, East Jerusalem used to be Arab territory occupied in June of 1967. I cant for the life of me see why Jerusalem--in terms of the west side which is Israels capital, the east that is occupied territory--could not become the meaning of peace between Palestinians and the Israelis in terms of being the capital of both, or having two capitals in that area, being the essence of peace between them.
Rodgers: And a last question on Jerusalem, what should Mr. Netanyahu know and consider as he decides the fate of that city?
King Hussein: That he has to move, that he has to think, that he has to have a plan, which I hope he will evolve, that he has to try to contribute toward something that is beyond myself and himself. You know what is most important sir, is that people long after were all gone, pass their judgement on us, and let it be a favorable one. I think there has been enough damage, enough bloodshed, enough disaster, enough sorrow, enough loss of opportunities for all of us and we should rectify that once and for all.
Rodgers: Your Majesty, thank you very much for the generous use of your time. Weve been talking with His Majesty King Hussein bin Talal of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Im Walter Rodgers, CNN in Amman.