A king

Eighteen years have passed since the signing of the peace agreement between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It was 1994, the year my firstborn son came into the world. For us, 1994 was a year of new beginnings and new promise.

Betsy and I watched the signing ceremony with baby Guy on our knees. Sitting with us on the couch were my mother, Zahava, and my grandfather, Michael Benartzi. In the 1930s, my maternal grandfather was one of the pioneers of Gesher and Ashdot Yaacov, kibbutzim on the border with Jordan. During my childhood visits to kibbutz Ashdot Yaacov, I was always scared of the bad people who threatened us from the mountains on the other side of the Jordan River. For me, “Jordan” was the very epitome of an enemy nation.

Inspired by watching the signing ceremony in the presence of four generations of the Benartzi-Melamed family, my wife wrote an emotional thank-you letter to then-Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. In her letter, Betsy thanked him for bringing the longed-for peace to Israel, and Rabin replied. In his letter, dated August 11, 1994, the late prime minister wrote:

it is the faces of the youth who have died never knowing peace and those who may live never knowing war which are constantly before my eyes. You wrote to me of your dreams for  5-month old Guy’s future. Working together, we will turn those dreams into reality.

A year later, Rabin was murdered, and since then considerable water has flowed under the bridge of peace-making – much of it murky. Today, the peace agreement with Jordan is “the most peaceable” one that we have left.

The bad news is that, with the deteriorating situation in Egypt,Jordan is now essentially the only country where Israelis can cross the border as tourists. Furthermore, the economic “fruits of peace” that Israel and Jordan were expecting to tend together have, for the most part, shriveled on the vine. Of all the exciting projects that were contemplated during the last 18 years – joint universities, amusement parks along the Jordan River, joint industrial parks, and the like – the only one that is still extant is the QIZ program: Qualifying Industrial Zones in Jordan, employing thousands of Jordanians and producing goods that can directly access US markets without paying tariffs – provided that the goods include a certain percentage of Israeli input.

The good news is that it is still possible to cross the Jordanian border, economic and security cooperation still continues, the eastern border ofIsraelstill requires very few IDF forces to patrol it… and an Israeli father can still take his son there for a 5-day father-son trip.

Many years ago I promised Guy that when he got his black belt in karate I would take him to Paris to train with our French sensei. Several years later, the time came for me to fulfill that promise.

This past year has been one of cataclysmic, earth-shattering changes in the Middle East, changes that have undermined the foundations of long-standing regimes. “Guy,” I said, “Paris will still be there to welcome us if we wait another few years, but who knows how much longer we’ll be able to visit Jordan. Let’s go there instead.”

So that is what we did. I asked my Jordanian friend “Abu Rabi’a” (a pseudonym) to recommend a personal guide, we planned an itinerary that would take us south of Amman via Petra and on to Wadi Ram, we made certain we did not take any items of clothing with Hebrew writing on them, and we set off to tour Jordan during the week of the Purim holiday.

In 2011, gigantic signs announcing upgrade projects popped up along the sides of Israeli highways the length and breadth ofIsrael. Each sign included the deadline for completion of the specific ambitious transportation project, as well as the signatures of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Transport Yisrael Katz. One does not need to be an expert in political communication to understand that our politicians have found a creative method of getting long-term free publicity in prime locations. After all, a target date of 2014 guarantees the sign a lifetime that, in Israeli political terms, is practically an eternity. We have been lucky to have a responsible and brave public servant who managed to get these irritating advertisements removed from our roads.

We were reminded of these obtrusive highway signs during our visit to the Kingdom of Jordan, and we came to the conclusion that they represented the deep, dark secret of many Israeli politicians – perhaps, in their heart of hearts, leaders of the only democracy in the Middle East dream of being kings…  We came to this conclusion because on every corner in Jordan, on every wall, on the bus, in shops, in hotels – in fact, everywhere – are displayed photographs of King Abdullah, his wife Ranya, and earlier heads of the Hashemite royal family. The details of the various pictures of the King depended upon the location and the desired message: he might be wearing a suit or traditional Bedouin clothing, or Jordanian army uniform and standing next to a helicopter gunship, or be with his family, and so on.

The primary messages that the pictures gave were: the King takes care of the people, the King is ours, the King and the Jordanian people are one. Even after several days touring aroundJordan, it was hard not to be impressed – and even be influenced – by these messages. We were reminded of King Abdullah’s father, the late King Hussein. I visited Jordan for the first time about 12 years ago, a few weeks after King Hussein died of cancer. It was not Jordan alone that sank into mourning –Israel did too.Israel considered King Hussein to be the most “King-like” in the region: elegant, noble, trustworthy, his beautiful wife Noor at his side. He won Israel’s heart on a number of occasions, the most memorable of which took place under tragic circumstances. After the attack at the joint Israeli-Jordanian tourist site of Naharayim in 1997, when a Jordanian soldier shot to death seven high school girls from Beit Shemesh, King Hussein flew his helicopter to Israel, and, on his knees, gave his apologies, on behalf of himself and of the Jordanian people, to each bereaved family.

I have not the slightest shadow of doubt that although democracy is a problematic and inefficient form of government, it is also the best and fairest. But perhaps sometimes, just a little bit, in our heart of hearts, we might – like the Israelites in the days of Samuel the Prophet – crave for ourselves a king.

About the Author
Sagi Melamed is Vice President of External Relations and Development at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, President of the Harvard Club of Israel and author of "Son of My Land" and "Fundraising" - the 1st Hebrew book about Resource Development. Sagi can be reached at melamed.sagi@gmail.com.