Meeting with King Abdullah II in Jordan last Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama was gracious enough to mention the monarch's great-grandfather, King Abdullah I, who "gave his life in the name of peace." To Western ears, that sounded like a tribute. To Arab and Muslim ears, it may have sounded like a warning.
To understand why, it's necessary to dip into the history that Westerners seldom learn and Middle Easterners seldom forget. What we now call Jordan was for centuries a backwater of the Ottoman Empire, the last of the great Islamic caliphates. Ottoman forces made the mistake of fighting on the losing side in World War I. Defeat precipitated the collapse of the empire and the dissolution of the caliphate. Ottoman lands were divided between the British and the French. The territory east of the Jordan River, referred to as Transjordan, became part of the British Mandate of Palestine.
Further east, in Arabia, fierce warriors of the Saudi clan overthrew the Hashemite clan, whose members are said to be descended from the Prophet Muhammad and who had long ruled the Hejaz, which includes the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Displaced Hashemites were installed by the British in Transjordan. Abdullah — who had fought against the Ottomans and alongside T. E. Lawrence — was named emir of Transjordan in 1921.
A quarter century later, when the Palestine Mandate was dissolved, a fully independent Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan was founded with Abdullah on the throne. He opposed the establishment of Israel, and his Arab Legion was among the five armies that attempted to crush the fledgling Jewish state in 1948. That effort failed, of course, but the king's men did cross the Jordan River and seize Judea and Samaria, subsequently renamed the West Bank, including sections of Jerusalem. Interesting to note: At that time, no Arab leader proposed establishing an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, nor in Gaza, then under Egyptian control.
In April 1949, Abdullah changed his country's name to what it is today: the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Officially, it remained at war with Israel. Unofficially, Abdullah recognized that a long and bloody conflict with his western neighbor would benefit no one. In 1951, as he was leaving al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, he was assassinated by Mustafa Ashu, a member Jaysh al-Jihad al-Muqaddas, the Army of the Holy War. Winston Churchill said, "I deeply regret the murder of this wise and faithful Arab ruler, who never deserted the cause of Britain and held out the hand of reconciliation to Israel."
You see my point? Imagine you are Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. You know that making peace with Israel will bring you the praise of British prime ministers and American presidents. Perhaps you understand that peace would be in the best interest of your people. But you also are keenly aware that serious peacemaking will place you and members of your family in severe peril.
Egypt's President Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel in 1979. Two years later, he was assassinated in accord with a fatwa written by Omar Abdel-Rahman, aka the Blind Sheikh, who would go on to be convicted by federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Since becoming president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been calling for the Blind Sheikh's release.
And the assassination of Lebanese President Bachir Gemayel in September 1982 was not unrelated to the fact that, just two weeks earlier, he had agreed to start the process of establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.
I'm not persuaded that Abbas is a peacemaker at heart. But even if I'm wrong about that, I'm right about this: Abbas knows that Hamas, Hezbollah and Iranian terrorists are watching him. Israelis know that, too, which is why they cannot make concessions to Abbas that would leave them weaker vis-à-vis other sworn enemies.
The day before his visit to Jordan, Obama addressed an audience of about 1,000 Israeli students in Jerusalem. "Political leaders," he told them, "will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do." On his next visit to the Middle East, perhaps the president will visit Birzeit University in the West Bank and make a similar statement. I don't doubt that some in the audience will want to applaud. I do wonder how many will have the courage to put their hands together.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.