Jordan's king fights for peace, for his life Cancer revisits voice of reason in Mideast

August 02, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AMMAN, Jordan -- Hussein Ibn Talal, king of Jordan, longest-serving ruler in the world.

He has survived war against Israel, the occasional enmity of neighboring Syria and Iraq, about a dozen assassination attempts and a bloody civil war against the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Once ignored and stripped of influence, the king has come to be regarded as the elder statesman of the Middle East, a voice of sanity in a world of hateful rhetoric, a moderate among radicals, a binding force for his own diverse community of tribesmen and Palestinians.

Now he has cancer -- again -- and the question is, "What if?"

"When I heard the king was sick, I was very, very upset," said Zaha Sbaihi, a clerk in an Amman clothing store. "Because as long as the king is here, the country is secure and stable. When it comes to the king, we all have the same feeling."

But Hussein's influence extends well beyond the boundaries of Jordan, a country of deep wadis and terraced mountains carved out by the British after World War I to reward the king's grandfather, King Abdullah, for his loyalty in a region of fierce desert rivals.

Hussein ascended to the throne in 1952, not yet 17 years old, only a year after Abdullah was assassinated before his eyes, outside the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

In a region known for its ruthless dictators, the 62-year-old king has proved to be both a popular monarch and a world-class diplomat. He is a crucial ally of the United States and Israel, to whom he lost half his kingdom in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Hussein has become the most vocal Arab proponent of peace with the Jewish state. Even though the peace he struck with Israel in 1994 hasn't produced the benefits expected, the king continues to speak out forcefully and intervene on behalf of peace.

Washington relies on the king. The United States' interest in Jordan is evident in the military and financial aid given to the Hashemite Kingdom -- some $225 million this year alone, according to U.S. officials.

When news of the king's recent cancer diagnosis reached the White House, President Clinton telephoned Hussein at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and offered the services of his physician.

White House spokesman Mike McCurry explained that the president valued the king's "courageous and brave actions" in support of the peace process -- a process now in deep crisis.

The president regards the king as a leader who could "affect the outcome of deliberations that could lead to future peace agreements," McCurry said.

The king, who recovered from a bout of kidney cancer in 1992, sought to assure Jordanians -- and perhaps the world -- last week that the prospects for a speedy recovery were high. In a televised address to the nation from the Mayo Clinic, Hussein told his subjects that the cancer was in the early stages and that he was responding well to chemotherapy.

The treatments could take months.

George Naber was getting his hair cut at the Salon Aliya when the face of the king appeared on an overhead television. The king, a commanding figure despite his short stature, looked tired. But he spoke confidently.

"We will get over this illness soon," he said, in his soothing baritone.

As far as Naber was concerned, the sooner the better. Although Naber admires the king's brother and designated successor, Crown Prince Hassan, the 53-year-old merchant said, "I want him [Hussein] to come home safe."

"It's not the time for King Hussein to be sick," said Naber, who was just a boy when Hussein became king. "The situation in the country he's the only one who can control it."

Universal appeal

Auto parts salesman, former prime minister, Palestinian shopkeeper or Jordanian political scientist, all interviewed last week, noted the king's influence in the region and his ability to bring together the nation's disparate political forces.

And Jordan has problems that range from the state of the Middle East peace process to the nation's economy, both in serious trouble.

The peace process between Israel and the Palestinians -- a personal interest of the king and thousands of Palestinians living in Jordan -- is near collapse.

The Israelis consider Hussein a sincere friend and needed ally -- commentators and the government encouraged Israelis last week to pray for the king's recovery. But Hussein's efforts to prod Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cede more land to the Palestinians have been futile.

Jordan has severe economic troubles. More than 20 percent of the kingdom's 4.4 million people -- many of them university graduates -- are out of work. The country's growth rate has declined to about 1 percent. Its foreign debt is in the billions and among the highest per capita in the world, according to analysts.

Jordan, a country with little water and few natural resources, has been cut off from its key trading partner, Iraq, since the Persian Gulf war of 1991. And the prosperity expected to follow Jordan's 1994 peace treaty with Israel has not materialized.

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