Bruce Riedel
The National Interest (Book Review)
April 13, 2011 - 12:00am

King Abdullah II of Jordan, like the rest of us, was apparently surprised by this winter’s eruption of political dissent in the Arab world. His just published autobiography, Our Last Best Chance: the Pursuit of Peace in a Time of Peril, warns that upheaval and war is coming to the Middle East if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not resolved by a just and fair peace, but does not prepare the reader for the revolutions that swept Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and the rest of the Arab world this winter and spring. That is not a criticism—no one else saw it coming either. Rather it is a reflection on just how volatile and unpredictable the region is today and a reason why the king’s message is so important and timely. Without peace, the revolutions and violence sweeping Arabia today are all too likely to be exploited by the most extreme elements in the Islamic world—like al-Qaeda—and could turn 2011’s hope into despair.

The book is both an autobiography and a call to action. As autobiography it is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of not just King Abdullah and Queen Rania but of his father, Hussein, as well. Hussein sought to shield his oldest son from the glare and attention that royalty brings while also preparing him for his royal duties. So Abdullah spent much of his childhood being educated in the UK and USA. He expected to spend his life in the army since his uncle, Hassan, was Crown Prince for three decades and was expected to succeed his brother. Instead Hussein almost on his death bed made Abdullah king. King Abdullah has sought to build in Jordan a school that would give today’s young Jordanians the same quality of education that he got in America in his youth.

For more than a decade after acceding to the throne Abdullah has guided his small country through the tempest of terror and wars. He recounts his many interactions with three American presidents along the way. Bill Clinton gets credit for trying at Camp David and other summits to make peace. George Bush fares less well. Always polite and reserved, Abdullah nonetheless paints a picture of the 43rd President as a man who just did not get what the King tried tirelessly to tell him— a peace agreement between Arabs and Israelis is not just good for them but a national security imperative for America and the world. Without peace, al Qaeda and other extremists feed on the anger and frustration a billion and a half Muslims feel about Israel and how it treats the Palestinian people. Instead Bush was obsessed with Iraq and Saddam Hussein, an obsession that in the end only fueled the extremist forces in the region, strengthened al-Qaeda and gave Iran more opportunities to meddle dangerously in the Arab states.

Abdullah also reveals that he has been the target of more than one al-Qaeda plot to assassinate him and destabilize the Hashemite Kingdom. In one such plot the king and his family were targeted by the terrorists to be blown up while on a yacht cruising near Rhodes in Greece in June 2000. Another plot was set to kill him as he visited Iraq after Saddam’s fall. Al Qaeda has targeted Amman for terror and has killed dozens in the Jordanian capital. Abdullah provides unique insights into how the Hashemite Kingdom’s very capable intelligence service, the General Intelligence Directorate, has fought al-Qaeda and helped to track down its Jordanian mastermind Abu Musaib Zarqawi in Iraq in 2006.

The main purpose of this book, however, is the call to action. Abdullah, like his father, has been an advocate and champion of peace as king, trying to persuade his fellow Arab rulers to make the concessions necessary for peace. Hussein took his son to some of his own secret meetings over the years with Israeli leaders before the Israel-Jordan peace treaty was signed in 1994. Since then Abdullah has seen the peace process up close. He was a major player in the Arab peace initiative that tried to convince Bush to press Israel to make a deal by promising if Israel made peace with Palestine, it would get the “57 state solution” because every Muslim state would back it and recognize Israel. It is still on the table but Abdullah warns it may not last much longer.

The King makes abundantly clear his view that Israel’s Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu is not a man of peace. He recounts his meetings with Bibi and shares his frustration at Netanyahu’s repeated failures to live up to his commitments on peace and his obsession with focusing on Iran as the top problem in the region, not the absence of a fair peace with the Palestinians. Like Bush, Abdullah tells us, Bibi just doesn’t get it.

Today the region is absorbed in the drama of the spring of Arab awakening. In Jordan, like every other country, the immediate focus is on demonstrations and calls for reform. Most Jordanians it seems want their king to stay but they also want a more open and transparent political system. Next door in Syria the prospects for violence and civil war are much higher and the fallout from Syria’s internal convulsions may be the next big challenge Abdullah has to face.

But the King is surely right that the Arab-Israeli conflict is bound to return to page one, more likely with another war in Gaza or Lebanon than with a breakthrough peace agreement. Hezbollah and Hamas are both arming for another round and the Israelis are preparing too. The Palestinians and the Arab states are determined to press for the United Nations General Assembly to admit Palestine as a UN member state this fall. That will isolate Israel in the world as never before.

Abdullah makes no secret of his hope that President Barack Obama will take action to led the region to peace and will put forward an American peace plan sooner rather than later. He recounts his meetings with Obama and is clearly relying on this “new voice from America.” It is clear that the negotiations process that began in Madrid and Oslo has run its course now. However close we came at Camp David in 2000, the time has come for America to take decisive leadership. Our Last Best Chance is a warning that time is short.


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