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

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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