Israel mourned King Hussein this week as one of its own. The government ordered flags flown at half-mast on all public buildings. Flower children lit memorial candles in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. In a conscious echo of President Clinton’s valediction to Yitzhak Rabin, the two mass-circulation daily papers headlined their lead stories “Shalom, Friend” and “Shalom, King.”
Ruhama Cohen, whose daughter was one of seven Beit Shemesh schoolgirls shot dead two years ago by a Jordanian soldier during a trip to the “border of peace,” gave birth to another daughter on Saturday just as Hussein was losing his last battle. She named her “Jordan” in the king’s honor.
“He was a good man,” Ruhama told reporters from her bed in Jerusalem’s Hadassah hospital. “I remember how he came to our house after the tragedy, knelt and wept. He helped us, our families, and also the peace. Even when he was ill, he kept in touch with us.”
It was that visit of condolence and contrition that convinced grass-roots Israelis that the peace with Jordan was for real. A crowned monarch went from house to house, knelt beside mothers and fathers, sitting shiva on shabby mattresses, and begged forgiveness for the “shame” brought on his nation by one of its soldiers.
Israelis have not erased the down side of their common inheritance. It was precisely because Jordan’s army had fought against Israel in the 1948 and 1967 wars, and sundry skirmishes in between, that Israelis cherished the “warm” peace Hussein offered them in 1994 — and sustained despite the skepticism of many of his own citizens.
Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who visited Hussein in the Mayo Clinic six months ago, celebrated him this week as “a hero of heroes.” The Jewish sages, he explained, defined a hero of heroes as “he who makes his enemy into his beloved.”
Eitan Haber, Rabin’s adviser, speechwriter and confidant, recalled his own first private conversation with Hussein. Addressing the dead king through his column in Yediot Aharonot, Haber wrote: “I started by telling you that I would never forget that you had been our enemy. Friends of mine, many of them, I told you, were killed on your orders.
“‘The Israelis also killed us, many of us,’ you answered. How many from Jordan and how many from Israel were killed in the various wars? You said a number, I said mine, and then, while still amicably disagreeing, you said: ‘People are not numbers. Every dead person is 100 percent dead for his family. Every one dead is one too many.'”
In mourning Hussein as one of its own, Israel may have crossed a Middle Eastern Rubicon. “There are cynical people among us,” Hemi Shalev commented in Ma’ariv on the morning of the king’s funeral, “who are impatient with the collective sadness that has descended upon us, but Israel’s mourning of Hussein and identification with the Jordanian people’s sadness is a ray of hope, after a long period of darkness and despair.
“The public in Israel never loved an Arab leader as it loved Hussein, and never felt so close to its neighbors as it will feel today. Like the historic visit of the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Hussein’s noble gesture when he visited Beit Shemesh, this is something which breaks down barriers. It is an emotional and psychological experience which, in the future, might seem like a turning point, maybe even a momentous one.”
British actress Sian Phillips, currently touring Israel, opens her one-woman show by telling the audience she nearly caused an international incident in 1962 when her husband, Peter O’Toole, was filming “Lawrence of Arabia” near Aqaba. Jordanian extras hoisted her onto a racing camel, slapped its rump and sent it speeding toward Eilat. One of them managed to halt it just short of the mines and the barbed wire.
This week, a vast Israeli delegation, led by President Ezer Weizman and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, mingled with Arab and world leaders at Hussein’s funeral. The party openly included Ephraim Halevy, the head of the Mossad secret service. And no one marveled. The transformation had become routine.
Yet anxiety sits on the shoulder of Israel’s grief. Is it all too good to be true now that Hussein has gone and his 37-year-old son, Abdullah, an unknown quantity, has succeeded to the throne?
The transition is expected to be smooth — at least for the short term. Despite ex-Crown Prince Hassan’s disappointment at losing the prize for which he had been groomed for 34 years, the royal family is closing ranks. The new king, a career soldier, can rely on the army. The United States and the Gulf oil states are shoring up the shaky dinar.
But the succession raises disturbing questions. Abdullah had no time to prepare himself. He has acknowledged that he was as surprised as the rest of us when the dying king named him his heir. He learned of it only 24 hours before the official announcement. Abdullah’s international links are limited. In Israel, for instance, he has contacts in the military, but none among politicians.
In the condolence line after Hussein’s interment, Netanyahu shook hands with Abdullah, but embraced Hassan as an old friend. For Israel, Hassan would have been a more comfortable choice. He learned Hebrew at Oxford, he reads Maimonides, and he works for Moslem-Jewish reconciliation.
Abdullah, by contrast, not only knows no Hebrew. The new British-educated king is having to brush up his spoken Arabic. He will have to learn quickly. And not only his native language.