JERUSALEM — Jordan's King Hussein invited Israel's then-Premier Yitzhak Shamir to meet secretly in London, 12 days before Iraq launched the first Scud missiles of the Gulf War.
Hoping to make his kingdom a "buffer zone" between Israel and Iraq which neither would violate, Hussein urgently invited Shamir to his London residence.
In a meeting on Jan. 5, 1991, he got Shamir's commitment not to violate Jordan's airspace. In return, Jordan would bar the passage of Iraqi planes through its airspace and thwart Iraqi attempts to use Jordanian bases to attack Israel. The agreement did not, of course, cover ballistic missiles, over which Jordan could have no control.
To address the military components of the agreement, Shamir took along then-deputy chief of the general staff, Ehud Barak. Hussein brought his chief of staff, Gen. Zeid Bin-Shakar, now Jordan's premier.
Barak was the only new member in Shamir's entourage. The others included Cabinet Secretary Elyakim Rubinstein, director-general of the Prime Minister's Office Yossi Ben-Aharon, and Ephraim Levy of the Mossad. All knew Hussein's house in North London from previous visits.
They arrived on an Israeli plane before the Shabbat, stayed at Hussein's home and had kosher meals specially ordered by the royal household. (At one meal, Hussein joined them and listened to Sabbath songs.) Only after the Sabbath did they start their talks, which ended after midnight. Shamir returned in time to chair the regular Sunday morning cabinet meeting.
Shamir also examined public pronouncements that Jordan would not let Iraqi ground forces into its territory. Reacting to a warning on Aug. 7, 1990 by defense minister Moshe Arens that Jerusalem would act if the Iraqi army entered Jordan, the king pledged that Jordan would not allow "tourist visits" by foreign armies.
But Israel could not ignore the king's 1990 record. On Feb. 24, he hosted a meeting in Amman of the Arab Cooperation Council, where Saddam spoke of an Arab-Israeli war and of providing the Palestinians with the means to convert the intifada (uprising) into an armed struggle.
And the king, professing fear of the massive Soviet Jewish immigration, attacked Israel's opposition to stationing Arab forces on Jordan's soil. He didn't specify what forces he had in mind, but it seemed clear he meant Iraq's army.
Shamir also knew before the London rendez-vous of Iraqi-Jordanian joint maneuvers near the Israeli border and of Jordanian permission for Iraqi overflights camouflaged as Jordanian aircraft to photograph Israeli targets from across the border.
In months preceding the invasion of Kuwait, the Jordanian king felt obligated to help Saddam in return for economic favors. But the invasion left him feeling cheated, because Saddam had used him to mislead U.S. President George Bush. Even as his army was preparing to invade, Saddam asked the king to assure Bush that Iraq wouldn't do that.
At first, King Hussein tried to mediate between the West and Iraq. On Jan. 3, he met with British Prime Minister John Major and offered a plan to resolve the dispute. But realizing that Saddam's efforts to link the Kuwait issue with the resolution of the Palestinian problem would fail, he concluded war was inevitable and took the initiative to meet Shamir.
On that Saturday night, King Hussein first reviewed his difficulties. The Americans were abandoning him, the Saudis were estranged, he was isolated and forced to support Iraq. Had Hussein voiced doubts about Saddam's actions, Jordan's Palestinians might riot, he feared.
He also worried how war would affect Jordan. All he wanted was to keep Jordan from being an arena for an Israeli-Iraqi clash. In return for an Israeli promise not to impinge on Jordan's territorial integrity, he would provide a reciprocal promise from Saddam. It would be a three-way accommodation to preserve Jordan's sovereignty.
In reply, Shamir demanded information about the Jordan-Iraq military cooperation. Barak asked about the joint Jordanian-Iraqi army maneuvers and the Iraqi intelligence flights along Jordan's border with Israel.
Bin-Shakar swore the maneuvers were over. Hussein said the cooperation resulted from budgetary shortages; Iraq had financed Jordanian Air Force training flights.
The king also related a curious tale: At the height of Iraq's financial dispute with Kuwait, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak visited Baghdad. Saddam confided that his threats against Kuwait were not a precursor to war but a means to extract more money. Mubarak made this statement public, and as a result, Kuwait ignored the Iraqi threats and toughened its stand in the bargaining. Feeling he had no choice, Saddam invaded.
Shamir did not accept Hussein's logic but said he understood his motives and believed his promise to bar Iraqi planes from his airspace. The king also agreed to bar the Iraqi army from entering Jordan. So Shamir promised not to use Jordanian airspace, but reserved freedom of action should the Iraqis invade Jordan.
The encounter with Hussein was kept secret. And Shamir did not rely on Saddam's promise to King Hussein. The Iraqi ruler had consistently broken his pledges in the previous year. On April 5, 1990, Mubarak had sent Israel a message:
"Saddam Hussein has authorized President Mubarak to declare he has no intention of attacking Israel. He only felt he had to make such statements after receiving threats from various countries…President Mubarak requests that Israel's prime minister declare he has no intention of escalating tension in the region, so that he can pass this to the Iraqi president."
Shamir did so, but heard no follow-up.
Shamir treated King Hussein's suggestion seriously, knowing it was in Jordan's vital interest to prevent Iraqi aggression across its territory. But he was not altogether sanguine about the king's ability to keep his commitment. He sent a message to Bush:
"The entry of Iraqi forces into Jordan would cross a red line. We have no intention to strike at King Hussein, but he must be deterred from any action which would serve Iraqi aggression."
Four days after Shamir met Hussein, Arens said, "We are not interested in Jordan becoming involved, but that does not depend only on us. I don't wish to draw maps…but Iraq can be attacked in various ways by air and not necessarily across Jordan."
After the Scud attacks on Israel, the military pressed Shamir to strike at missile launchers. But when the Scud barrage continued and demands for air strikes at Iraq grew, Shamir ruled against such action — for Israeli interests.
Was it worth revealing all of Israel's military resources for the sake of 39 Scuds whose damage was minimal?
Israel also wished to preserve Jordan as a buffer zone, which would block the deployment of Iraqi artillery along the Jordan River and prevent the passage of Iraqi planes carrying non-conventional payloads.
Shamir also recalled his promise to Hussein to respect Jordanian sovereignty and of the long-term implications for Israeli-Jordanian relations.
Shamir and the king met again in London after the war, on July 7, 1991, and Hussein thanked the prime minister for responding to his appeal, sparing his nation from invasion.