Israel Chiefs Lower Veil of SecrecyBy Dafna Linzer
Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, February 10,
1999; 2:53 a.m. EST
TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) -- For 30 years, while their countries publicly maintained a state of war, Israeli leaders met in secret with Jordan's King Hussein.
Rumors had floated that there were contacts between the neighbors, but only after a peace deal was signed in 1994 did officials begin to acknowledge the clandestine encounters.
Now, after the death of their closest friend in the Arab world, many are openly recounting the private moments they shared with the only Jordanian king most Israelis ever knew.
Former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres described on Israeli television a 1987 dinner with Hussein at the manor of a British aristocrat. Hussein and Peres were trying to reach an understanding about peace talks between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians under the auspices of an international conference.
Concerned about possible leaks, the hosts sent the servants home, Peres said. After dinner, the king's mind was not on Mideast peace, but on how to be a graceful guest. ``Shimon, let's do the dishes together,'' he told his Israeli dinner partner.
The two also reached an understanding on peace talks that evening, but the plan was shot down by Peres' hard-line coalition partner, Yitzhak Shamir.
Hussein was proclaimed king four years after the state of Israel was established in 1948. His first confidential meeting with an Israeli official was in 1963. Over the next 30 years he met with every prime minister from Golda Meir -- who once disguised herself as a Bedouin woman and crossed the Jordan River for a meeting -- to Yitzhak Rabin, whom he considered a close friend.
During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Israel was under missile attacks from Iraq and considering retaliation, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Ehud Barak, then deputy chief of staff of the army, flew to Hussein's estate outside London.
Jordan had sided with Iraq, and Israel wanted assurances from Jordan that if it joined the conflict, the move would not lead to a war between them.
Barak revealed the meeting Tuesday during an interview with The Associated Press.
``We couldn't extract a clear answer from the sovereign,'' Barak recalled. ``But we went out of the meetings with the feeling that we at least reduced the chances of a full-scale deterioration'' of the relationship between Israel and Jordan.
Israel stayed out of the conflict and later that year went to the Madrid Conference in Spain, where the Mideast peace process began.
King Hussein was laid to rest Monday, one day after he died of cancer. Peres, Shamir and Barak were among a 30-member Israeli delegation to the funeral led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Although peace between Israel and Jordan was in place by the time Netanyahu came to power, there were secret meetings for them as well, including a weekend with their wives at the king's home outside London, the prime minister revealed Tuesday.
Netanyahu's relationship with Hussein began well but soured quickly. Hussein publicly criticized his handling of the peace process with the Palestinians. Their relations were further strained after Israeli agents made an assassination attempt in Jordan on a senior figure in the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Despite their differences, King Hussein often shared with Netanyahu the special warmth and personal touch that the Israeli people admired him for.
In an interview with NBC, Netanyahu recalled how Hussein took a special interest in meeting his young sons and formed a bond with them.
During their last telephone conversation three weeks before the king's death, Hussein, who was calling to discuss serious political issues, opened by asking about the children.
``He said, `How's your son? Did he receive the gift that I sent him?''' Netanyahu recalled. ``This ability to empathize with a 7-year-old boy, with any person, is the secret, I think, of his greatness.''
(c) Copyright 1999 The Associated Press