Jordan's King Hussein: A Noble Prince of Peace

By Georgie Ann Geyer Universal Press Washington

When I asked King Hussein about his visit to the families of the seven Israeli girls killed recently by a crazed Jordanian soldier, I felt sure he would describe his touching gesture in terms of Arab or Bedouin tradition. Perhaps a cultural pattern of expiation among the Hashemites?

But the popular monarch's answer was even more interesting than that.

''As far as I'm concerned, those children were the same as mine,'' he began, sitting in a suite in the Four Seasons Hotel here with a small group of international journalists.

''I tried to express the overwhelming feeling of our people, and the shame and sorrow we were feeling. When we established peace, we knew what our commitments were.

The girls were our guests on an island called the Island of Peace, where I've often seen young people from Israel and from the Arab world come together.

''It was a very moving experience and I felt, and I feel, that what was important for all of us was to think of a time when we will not be here:

Will these children have a chance to live the kind of life that is worthy of human beings? If we are not human and feel for each other, what is life?''

At a time in our own history when so many of our leaders display such willful coarseness in public and civic life, King Hussein's visit here is balm for the wounds. Here is a man who is not afraid to be noble.

At 61, celebrating his 44th year of his reign in Jordan, he can look back on a life of struggle lived on behalf of simple decency, rationality and creation: a rare leader for any times.

One recalls how, in the ''Black September'' of 1970, when the Palestinian radical movements were on the edge of taking over Jordan, he went out at night alone to his Bedouin officers and troops, cementing their allegiance in the bitter fight that then ensued and that soon sent Palestinians flooding into Lebanon, destroying the cohesion of that country.

Yet, having reasserted his power over his country, he continued through the years -- and, indeed, until this moment -- to work for a Palestinian state, at peace with Israel.

In 1973 an Arab summit was held in Rabat, Morocco, and Palestinian radical leader Abu Iyad tried still again to exercise his irrepressible propensity for wanting to assassinate Hussein and other Arab leaders.

Two weeks later, I sat with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in his office in Cairo. He told me, shaking his head, ''I just had Abu Iyad right here, and I told him, 'If you try to assassinate King Hussein . . . one . . . more . . . time . . . ' '' At that, we both burst into laughter, although the Middle East was seldom funny in those days.

The one time the king became an equivocal figure to much of the world -- the one time when his innate nobility as one of the direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammed seemed to slip morally (and incomprehensibly) -- was in 1990 and '91. When Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein attacked little, defenseless Kuwait that summer of '90, the king essentially took Saddam's side against the West.

We know now that Saddam had become so powerful in circles inside Jordan that the king felt he could lose his kingdom if he supported the West. It was his darkest hour.

On his visit this time, he was in the United States partly for health reasons, but even more to try to bring some sanity to the virtual collapse of the Mideast ''peace process'' for which he has worked and sacrificed so long.

His words were modulated -- he did not blame Israel directly for the breakdown, although in truth it is clearly her fault -- and he carefully called for more American involvement, but . . . He said at one point in the meeting, for instance, that he thought that too many American diplomatic visits to the Middle East have taken place in the past ''and created an atmosphere of familiarity which was not helpful.

'' The ''atmosphere of familiarity'' does indeed shape the thinking of Israel's Likud government, which knows that it can expect the United States to do virtually anything for it.

The Israeli government can recall the recent U.S. refusal to support two U.N. resolutions criticizing Israel for starting the new Har Homa settlement, which is clearly against the Oslo accords.

To that they can add Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's unfortunate call for the overthrow of an Arab leader, Saddam Hussein, plus the fact that American policy in the Middle East is now run by American diplomats who have been deeply involved in pro-Israeli lobbies for many years (American ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, for instance, who will soon take over the entire Middle East policy at the State Department).

After the king met with President Clinton, the White House hemmed and hawed over what it would do about the looming tragedy in the Middle East, which, of course, we are deeply involved in since our enormous support of Israel makes us complicitous in Israel's behavior. There were some ''new ideas,'' Clinton said. How exciting!

It wouldn't hurt, then, if Washington paid a little more attention not only to the noble manner in which King Hussein seeks to bring to the political world personal feelings of contrition, but also to the way he operates.

For, although he isn't there yet, he at least has some idea of where he wants to go.