Talking to the enemy

A deeply hidden diplomatic relationship between Israel and Jordan underpins the history of the searc

The conflict with the Arabs has cast a long shadow over Israel's history. In the Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv, on 14 May 1948, the founding fathers extended their hand in peace to all the neighbouring states and their peoples. Today, Israel is still at war with Syria and Lebanon and locked into a bitter conflict with the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank. The explanation that Israelis usually give for the failure to achieve peace in the Middle East can be summed up in two words: Arab intransigence. Israel's image of itself is that of a decent, rational, peace-loving nation that resorts to military power in self-defence only. The image of the Arabs, on the other hand, is that of a fanatical, hostile enemy that understands only the language of force. The reality is more complex.

The general picture that emerges of Israeli statecraft in the first 60 years of statehood is one of routine, often unthinking reliance on military force and a reluctance to engage in meaningful diplomacy to resolve the conflict with its neighbours. Another trait, common to Labour and Likud leaders alike, is a blind spot when it comes to the Palestinian people and a desire to bypass them by concluding bilateral deals with the rulers of the neighbouring Arab states.

Of all Israel's bilateral relationships, the most far-reaching in its consequences and the most endlessly fascinating is the one with the Hashemite rulers of Jordan. Jordan and Israel have been aptly described as "the best of enemies". Twenty years ago I published a book that established my credentials as a "new" or revisionist Israeli historian: Collusion Across the Jordan. I challenged many of the myths that have come to surround the birth of the State of Israel and the First Arab- Israeli War, most notably that Arab intransigence was alone responsible for the political deadlock that persisted for three decades. In contrast to the conventional view of the Arab- Israeli conflict as a simple bipolar affair, I dwelt on the special relationship between King Abdullah I of Jordan (grandfather of King Hussein and great-grandfather of King Abdullah II) and the Zionist movement, and on the interest that the Hashemites and the Zionists shared in containing Palestinian nationalism. The central thesis is that, in November 1947, the Hashemite ruler of Transjordan and the Jewish Agency reached a tacit agreement to divide up mandatory Palestine between themselves and that this agreement laid the foundations not only for mutual restraint during the war but for continuing collaboration in its aftermath - until Abdullah I's assassination by a Palestinian nationalist in 1951.

Abdullah left behind a legacy of moderation and realism that continues to inform Jordanian foreign policy down to the present day. Hussein bin Talal, like his grandfather, was the king of realism. Israel, for its part, sought lines of communication to the "plucky little king", who was at odds with the radical Palestinians and with the Arab nationalists led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. In September 1963, the young king took the initiative in starting his own secret dialogue across the battle lines. He had a realistic assessment of the military balance, he knew that the Arabs had no chance of defeating Israel on the battlefield, and he wanted to meet the enemy face-to-face to find a path to peaceful coexistence. His secret contacts with the enemy continued right up until the conclusion of the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel in October 1994.

The June 1967 war marked the lowest ever point in Jordanian-Israeli relations. Hussein made the mistake of his life by jumping on Nasser's bandwagon and the price he paid was the loss of half of his kingdom, including the jewel in the crown - the Old City of Jerusalem. He spent the rest of his life in a tireless effort to recover the occupied Arab territories. Secret diplomacy was resumed and intensified after the war. The list of prominent Israeli politicians who met secretly with Hussein included Golda Meir, Yigal Allon, Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir.

Thick veil of secrecy

While researching my biography of Hussein, and with the help of official Israeli documents and interviews with some of the principal participants, including the king himself, I tried to reconstruct the parleys that were held behind a thick veil of secrecy. The list of the secret meetings, with dates, names of participants and venues, reveals that most took place in St John's Wood in London at the home of Dr Emanuel Herbert, the king's Jewish physician. But there were also meetings in Paris, Strasbourg, Eilat, Coral Island, the royal yacht in the Gulf of Aqaba, an air-conditioned caravan in Wadi Araba, and one meeting at the Mossad headquarters north of Tel Aviv. My list is probably incomplete but it conveys the scope and intensity of the covert relationship between the ostensible enemies.

Jordan accepted UN Resolution 242 of November 1967 and the principle of land for peace. This resolution became the cornerstone of Jordan's postwar diplomacy. At a deeper level, however, Hussein understood the importance of giving Israel the sense of security needed to make concessions for the sake of peace. Hussein's terms never changed. From the beginning he offered his Israeli interlocutors full, contractual peace in exchange for the occupied territories, with only minor border modifications. His aim was not a separate peace with Israel, but a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. Nor was he alone in striving for peace on the Arab side. Nasser knew and approved of Hussein's secret talks provided they did not lead to a separate peace. Despite Nasser's tacit support, it took great courage on Hussein's part to pursue this solo diplomacy, as it violated the greatest Arab taboo.

The quest for a land-for-peace deal was frustrated more by Israeli than by Arab intransigence. By its actions, the victor showed that it preferred land to peace with its neighbours. Soon after the end of the war Israel began to build settlements in the occupied territories. Building civilian settlements on occupied territory was not just illegal under international law, but a major obstacle to peace. There were some early signs of flexibility on the part of the Israeli cabinet in relation to the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights but none towards the West Bank. All the major parties in the 1967-70 national unity government were united in their determination to keep at least a substantial part of the West Bank, permanently.

There were proponents of the "Jordanian option" and proponents of the "Palestinian option", but in practical terms the debate was between those who did not want to return the West Bank to Jordan and those who did not want to return it to the Palestinians who lived there. Despite Hussein's best efforts the diplomatic deadlock persisted for another decade, until Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977. Sadat did what Hussein had studiously avoided, namely, a bilateral deal with Israel that left the Palestinian problem unresolved. The two countries changed places: Egypt was drummed out of the Arab League while Jordan joined the Arab mainstream.

There was only one leader in Israel's history with the courage to grasp the nettle and negotiate directly with the Palestinians about their rights and status in Palestine, and that was Yitzhak Rabin. Secret negotiations in the Norwegian capital culminated in the signing of the Oslo Accords on 13 September 1993. For all their shortcomings, the Oslo Accords represented a historic breakthrough in the hundred-year-old conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. The PLO recognised Israel; Israel recognised the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people; and the two sides agreed to resolve all their outstanding differences by peaceful means. The historic compromise was clinched on the White House lawn. For his courage, Rabin paid with his life - two years later, he was assassinated by a Jewish fanatic. The assassination achieved its objective: it derailed the Oslo peace process.

Contrary to the widely held view in Israel, the Oslo Accords were not doomed to failure from the start. The Oslo peace process broke down because Rabin's hardline Likud successors reneged on their country's side of the original deal. They not only continued but intensified the building of settlements in the occupied territories. Settlement expansion continues even as these lines are being written. It is tantamount to stealing the land and the water resources that belong to another people. Occupation is the opposite of peace. It is oppression; it is the abuse of human rights; it is in-your-face violence. There can be no genuine or viable peace between Israel and the Palestinians without an end to the occupation. Peace-making and land-grabbing simply do not go together. Consequently, 40 years after its spectacular victory in the Six-Day War, Israel still faces the same fundamental choice: it can have land or it can have peace; it cannot have both.

Avi Shlaim is a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford and the author of "Lion of Jordan: the Life of King Hussein in War and Peace" (Allen Lane, the Penguin Press, £30)

60 years of struggle

  • 14 May 1948 State of Israel established
  • May 1964 PLO founded, declaring Israel "illegal, null and void"
  • June 1967 Israel launches Six-Day War against Egypt, Jordan and Syria
  • 6 October 1973 Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement): Egypt and Syria declare war on Israel
  • 1977-1979 Egypt and Israel negotiate peace deal
  • 17 September 1978 Camp David Accords are signed
  • June 1982 Israel invades Lebanon
  • 13 September 1993 Oslo Accords signed
  • 4 November 1995 Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's PM, is assassinated
  • August 2005 Israel disengages from Gaza
  • 12 July 2006 Lebanon invaded after Israeli soldier abducted
  • 27 November 2007 Annapolis peace summit articulates two-state solution for Israel-Palestine

Research by Katie Wake

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Secret Israel

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror