WASHINGTON ― As Washington buzzes about yet another restart for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, I have been reading a book that summarizes the past 44 years of botched peacemaking, blown opportunities and, sometimes, sheer folly.
The book is a posthumous memoir by Jack O’Connell, a former CIA operative who was for many years King Hussein’s “case officer” in Jordan. Yes, you read that right: When O’Connell was station chief in Amman from 1963 to 1971, he dropped off monthly envelopes of cash at the palace as part of a long-running CIA covert action code-named “NOBEEF.”
O’Connell was one of the savviest Middle East hands I ever encountered. He was a burly guy from South Dakota who had gone to Notre Dame to play football. Like so many smart young people in the 1950s, he found his way to the CIA. He was soft-spoken and unfailingly polite, like the king, but O’Connell was as clear-eyed about the Middle East as any American I’ve known. (We first met at a conference in Britain in the late 1980s, and talked occasionally after that.)
O’Connell first went to Amman in 1958 to help the king (then just 22) crack a coup plot uncovered by FBI wiretaps on the Jordanian Embassy in Washington. They got confessions from 22 conspirators ― not by using the “enhanced interrogation techniques” of recent years but through prison interviews, deception and outright bluffs.
O’Connell became the young king’s closest adviser and sometimes the only person Hussein fully trusted. When O’Connell left as station chief, he became the king’s personal lawyer in Washington. He tells a lot of secrets here, especially about Hussein’s diplomatic machinations, but he took many more to the grave when he died last year.
I recommend “King’s Counsel” not just as a cautionary tale about peacemaking (to which I will return) but as a reminder of what the CIA is really all about. Last week, we were so enamored of the CIA-led commando operation that killed Osama bin Laden that it was easy to forget that a spy service exists primarily to collect intelligence, not to conduct paramilitary operations.
O’Connell was old-fashioned in that sense. He hated political “covert action” and the fancy Ivy Leaguers who ran it, whom he derides as “phony elitists.” He thought congressional oversight would never work, and that the CIA had never recovered from the public flaying of the 1970s. Discretion was all: He had hundreds of pictures of Hussein, he notes, but not one of them together. O’Connell always stayed in the shadows.
What anguished O’Connell was watching Hussein struggle in vain for four decades to recover the West Bank from Israel. The sorry tale began with the king’s foolish decision to ally with Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser on the eve of the June 1967 war, which gave the Israelis a reason to attack. O’Connell warned the king that Israel would strike, and the king passed the intelligence to Nasser. But they were too infatuated with Arab propaganda to take the warning seriously. The king also had advance warning of the 1973 war, again for naught.
The bungles continue, year to year: Hussein allows the PLO to put down deep roots in Jordan, and is repaid with a civil war in 1970 that nearly topples him; he charms a string of Israeli prime ministers in secret meetings, who want peace with him but balk at returning territory; he tries to placate Arab radicals, most disastrously by allying with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein on the eve of the 1990 invasion of Kuwait; he beseeches U.S. presidents to help him recover territory but they never deliver. The diminutive monarch is like Charlie Brown kicking the football, making a brave run each time only to see Lucy pull it away.
At the king’s funeral in 1999, O’Connell met Efraim Halevy, a former Mossad chief who was also, in his way, Hussein’s case officer. “You had a leader here with his hand out,” he bluntly tells Halevy. “I think you blew it.” Reading this book, it’s hard to disagree with that judgment.
What’s the lesson of O’Connell’s memoir for today, when President Obama is contemplating a speech soon laying out one more American peace plan? Simply this: Don’t play games. State the U.S. parameters for negotiation as clearly and unambiguously as possible. The heart of this deal is the same as it was in 1967: An exchange of occupied territory in return for a just peace that recognizes Israel’s right to exist. Get it done this time, or don’t try.
By David Ignatius
David Ignatius’ email address is email@example.com. ― Ed.
(Washington Post Writers Group)