The active rule of a king does not greatly differ from that of a dictator in the sense that his demise has such a profound impact, not only on the fortunes of his own people, but also on the relationships between his nation and other countries. Whether his rule was that of an enlightened political leader or simply that of a dictator can be determined by his legacy. Viewed in this way, the late King Hussein of Jordan comes into focus as an extremely able leader who took the measure of the difficulties he faced and knew how to deal with them.

A small, soft-spoken man of modest demeanor, he was thrust by a series of historical twists and turns into a life of fame, danger, successive assassination attempts and revenge in 1952, when he was only 17. By surviving as the tenacious monarch of Jordan during more than four decades of turbulent Middle East history, he became a pivotal figure in the search for peace in a region that has defied repeated international attempts at peacemaking.

On the one hand, the late king was a lifelong champion of the Arab cause, sending his troops into two wars with Israel against impossible odds. At the same time, however, he was a flexible believer in Realpolitik, becoming in his last years the Israelis’ most trusted ally in the Arab world and an indispensable mediator in the quest for a feasible peace between Jews and Arabs.

In fact, the long Middle East peace process, especially the current one kicked off by the 1993 Oslo Agreement (formally the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangement) concerning Palestinians’ future self-rule in the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip, might not have materialized without the role played by the late king. Both Arabs, specifically the Palestinians, and Israelis found a trustworthy mediator in the person of King Hussein.

The king’s superb skills in dealing with Mideast complexities did not, of course, come out of nowhere. His survival skills had been tested almost every day of his reign by some of the world’s most difficult neighbors — Iraq, Syria, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinians. Depending upon the prevailing Mideast situation on each occasion, moves to deepen Jordan’s ties with other Arab countries made it even more difficult to improve relations with Israel, and attempts to break the deadlock with the Israelis not only alienated some Arab nations but also dangerously antagonized many Palestinians living in Jordan. Let us note in this connection the significance of the fact that well over half of Jordan’s population considers itself Palestinian.

His ability to survive in such a multiplex regional world earned the king various labels: shrewd, crafty and opportunistic as well as amiable. Looking back, however, it is evident that at each juncture the king was simply striving to walk the inevitable tightrope in order to secure peace and stability for his small desert nation. He never risked his country’s fate with the kind of armed adventurism that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has so disastrously attempted in the past decade.

What was great and wise about the late King Hussein is that he emerged from his long reign during one of the most violent periods in world history with the conviction that only peace can ensure his country, other Arab countries and Israel the lasting stability and prosperity they seek. A bitter lesson he must have learned in his last years was that the long-retained sanctions imposed on Iraq in the wake of its invasion of Kuwait were impoverishing Jordanians as well, whose biggest market had been in Iraq.

These legacies have now been inherited by King Abdullah, who officially succeeded his father on Sunday. In his first monarchical address to the nation, King Abdullah vowed to follow the dead king’s policies, including his dramatic 1994 decision to make peace with Israel. His pledge that he will continue these all-important peace policies has been eagerly welcomed by almost all the world’s nations — not only with words, but also with promises of aid to help tide Jordan over amid its economic difficulties.

King Hussein’s sudden death has triggered concern over the fate of the Middle East peace process; with the agreed deadline for determining the Palestinians’ status coming in May, the talks have hit a snag over the Israeli government’s reluctance to abide by the process laid down by the accord. Leaders arriving in Amman on Monday from all over the world to pray for the soul of the late King Hussein should also pledge to carry, each in his own way, the torch of peace borne so bravely by the late king.

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