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Obama's Middle East peace lesson

Jordan's King Hussein worked for peace for decades. His insight is key.

By Nigel Ashton / January 28, 2009


To varying degrees and with inconsistent results, President Obama's predecessors have all tried and failed to midwife peace in the Middle East.

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But if he is serious about investing in a meaningful, invigorated peace process he might also look beyond the lessons of his predecessors. To find an answer that will not only halt the current violence but achieve a sustainable lasting solution, he should learn from the experience of one of the most critical players in Mideast peace throughout the latter half of the 20th century – King Hussein of Jordan.

Although the king died 10 years ago next month, he could still offer critical advice to Mr. Obama.

His private papers, sealed in the Royal Hashemite Archives until I was granted exclusive access in 2007, reveal a man inspired, frustrated, encouraged, and depressed by the strategies, engagement, and political vicissitudes of the relevant players.

Hussein's private correspondence with every American president since Eisenhower offers new insight into what worked, what didn't, and how a revived effort to broker a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians might improve America's chances of success in the region.

Jimmy Carter, "thrilled" by assurances that tackling Middle East peace topped Obama's agenda, similarly buoyed Hussein's hopes that the Carter presidency might hail a new era for the region. Carter's early pursuit of a multilateral peace followed the approach favored by the king.

But with the dramatic visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in November 1977, Carter's multilateral process was effectively derailed. In the end, the 1978 Camp David summit produced a bilateral Egyptian-Israeli peace deal but neglected the fate of the Palestinians. In the king's view, until their fate was resolved, there could be no peace.

President Carter, Hussein believed, allowed himself to be tempted by the low hanging fruit – a bilateral deal – and abandoned his earlier aspirations for a regional peace deal. In a letter to Carter, the king explained his frustration on behalf of his fellow Arabs, writing, "[M]ost Arab parties, including Jordan, see the [Camp David] resolutions drawn up by the United States... as successfully achieving the well-known Israeli objective of isolating Egypt from the Arab camp and thus weakening it further."

Thirty years on, the Palestinian question remains unsolved. Hussein would probably urge Obama to establish and maintain a dogged focus on a comprehensive, multilateral solution, lest Obama's successor face the same policy challenge.

Like Obama today, President Reagan entered office with a large fund of goodwill among America's Arab allies. Yet early on, Reagan's failure to master even the basics raised serious doubts with the king.