`Plucky Little King' who earned the crown of peace in the Middle East

TO THE end, he was a king. Hussein ibn Talal had spoken of his own mortality many times, and his last journey yesterday - 6,000 miles from an American deathbed to the land he ruled for 46 years - became him. Soldiers prefer to die at home.

A military man, a field commander, Sandhurst graduate. King Hussein had the disconcerting habit when I first met him of calling me "Sir" - he used it with everyone, a gesture of respect that humbled the visitor (and was intended to).

That's why we called him the Plucky Little King, the PLK. Honour was the word that came to mind. He was an honourable man. He believed that if he trusted enough in another person, his good faith would be returned; he was cruelly rewarded.

Many of those who betrayed his hopes will come to his funeral. The Gulf rulers, for example, who never understood why he could not condemn Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990; the Israelis, who showed their respect for their peace treaty with King Hussein by sending a murder squad to Amman last year; Yasser Arafat, who allowed his Palestinian guerrillas to attempt a coup d'etat in 1970 and lied to him about his secret deal with Israel in 1994; and the American president, who repeatedly promised the King a just peace in the Middle East - and then proved too cowardly to confront the Israelis.

And we shall have to suffer all the glitzy adoration that the guilty show for dead kings. We've already heard President Bill Clinton's soliloquy - "a wonderful human being ... a champion of peace" - and we know what Arafat will say because he's said it before: that King Hussein has been a Saladin, the warrior knight who drove the Crusaders from Palestine.

In truth, it was the Israelis who drove the Hashemites from Palestine, but Clinton's words - despite the gutless nature of the man who uttered them - somehow got it right. What king would ever turn up at his own state security jail to drive his most vociferous political prisoner home?

Leith Shubailath had infuriated the monarch - he was a man easily riled - and was slapped into clink for asking why the queen wept at Yitzhak Rabin's funeral.

When the King arrived at the prison, Shubailath delayed him 10 minutes while he said goodbye to his fellow inmates. Hussein waited patiently for him. Would Saddam (who prefers to string his prisoners up) have done that? Would King Fahd? Would President Mubarak? Would Benjamin Netanyahu? Perhaps it is this which distinguished the King: among the monsters of the Middle East, he appeared such a reasonable man.

He was also, in an odd way, a careless man. His folly at joining Egypt's war against Israel in 1967 was compounded in 1990 by his support for Saddam (who also betrayed the king - please God HE'S not at the funeral).

Hussein demonstrated an equal but more personal recklessness - hubris, perhaps? - when he rode in the cold, rain-lashed streets of Amman last week in an open-top car. After his first brush with cancer, I asked the King if he had been cured of his illness. "The doctors gave me an excellent bill of health," he replied - how painful those words sound now - and then I noticed the packet of cigarettes lying on the table in front of him. "Ah, yes," he said. "These are the only things I haven't yet given up." And he flicked his finger at the packet in disdain.

If his desire for peace showed vision, he lacked foresight. With their usual obsequiousness, Western as well as Arab leaders have been praising the King for returning to Jordan last week to fire his brother Hassan and create his eldest son crown prince.

"Setting his affairs in order" was what they called it. But even if we ignore the lack of any democratic process for the succession, it was a bit late in the day to start switching your crown princes around. The man who had cemented relationships with scores of kings and generals and presidents - albeit not always impressive relationships - was suddenly replaced by a man who knew none of them. No wonder Jordanians fear the future.

For Prince Abdullah is going to have a spot of bother with the kings and presidents at that funeral. Mr Clinton, for example, will be keen to get the new monarch to set the Iraqi opposition up with hearth and home in Amman, perhaps even to risk a little military foray into Iraq to set up a "safe haven" for Saddam's enemies.

The Israelis would be smiling along with that idea. At which point Saddam would become a threat.

But refuse the United States president - which is what Jordanians would want him to do - and Abdullah may start his reign with an unsympathetic if not downright hostile Washington at his back. Threaten Saddam and the Americans will love him. Ignore Washington and his people will love him; it's the same old trap his father walked into in 1990.

But what Abdullah cannot be is his father. If relations are breaking down between Egypt and Sudan, call King Hussein. If there's civil war in Lebanon, ask King Hussein's advice. When Arafat and Netanyahu cannot abide each other at the Wye Plantation, drag King Hussein from his sick bed to sort them out - much good did it do the monarch, who was betrayed yet again.

But it symbolised what the PLK was so good at: defusing the Middle East explosion. He was, in a very real sense, the region's political Bomb Disposal Officer, the one man who could be relied on to calm nerves, order bystanders to open their windows and then gently, firmly, withdraw the detonator of war.

That's why Arabs and Israelis fear for the future. What are they going to do now that there is no one to defuse the bombs?

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