At the height of the Yom Kippur War, when Israel was rushing all available combat troops to the Syrian and Egyptian fronts, an Israeli official was asked who was defending the eastern border. "King Hussein," he replied, "as usual."
The ailing monarch has not always been the truest of Israel's friends. Jordanian troops destroyed the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem's Old City in the 1950s. They allowed Palestinian terrorists to infiltrate from the West Bank when it was under their rule. The king sent his army into battle in the 1967 Six-Day War (and even dispatched a token force to the Golan in 1973). But, for nearly three decades, he has provided a stability that enabled the Jewish state to prosper and to start coming to terms with its less compliant Arab neighbors.
Hussein's latest medical crisis -- and his abrupt replacement last month of Prince Hassan with his eldest son, 37-year-old Prince Abdullah, as heir to the Hashemite throne -- worry Israelis more than they like to admit. The smooth transition predicted for Hassan, the king's brother and crown prince for 34 years, can no longer be taken for granted. It is threatened by hostile forces, from within the country and abroad.
"Abdullah is an unknown quantity," Professor Shimon Shamir, a former Israeli ambassador to Amman, told me. "We don't know him, nor do the Jordanians. There is reason to be concerned. The Jordanian system has been wounded. The royal house's prestige has been weakened by the way Hassan was dismissed."
The worst thing for Jordan would be a succession struggle, pitting the able and understandably disappointed uncle against his untested nephew. Syria, Iraq, the Palestinians and the Islamist opposition might all be tempted to seize the opportunity and overthrow the pro-Western dynasty that has ruled there since Britain created the emirate of Transjordan for Hussein's grandfather in 1921.
The Syrians have never been reconciled to Jordan's separate existence within what they claim as "Greater Syria." They sent tanks across the border in 1970, when Hussein was crushing Yasser Arafat's "Black September" revolt. Only American and Israeli intervention deterred them from driving on to Amman.
Over the years, Syrian intelligence has infiltrated arms and agents into Jordan to foster dissident movements. Damascus-based Palestinian opposition groups have plotted more than once to attack Israeli tourists visiting Petra. The Jordanians blame their northern neighbor for two attempts on Hussein's life since 1996 alone, a car bomb and a missile fired at the king's plane.
Jordanians also fear that Iraq might seek revenge for the Hashemites' acquiescence in last year's Desert Fox bombardment of Baghdad by the United States and Britain -- and Jordan's tolerance of American-sponsored Iraqi opposition elements now operating from its soil. Although the king sided with Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War, Jordan detected the hand of Iraqi intelligence behind bread riots among the king's normally loyal Bedouin subjects in 1996.
If the Hashemites run true to form, they will rally around Prince Abdullah, but no one can be certain at this stage. Inspired reports, accusing the ambitious Hassan of scheming behind his brother's back, are sowing bad blood. The charges range from the serious to the trivial, from an order to prepare the army for the king's death to rumors that Hassan's Pakistani-born wife, Princess Sarvath, was changing the wallpaper in the royal palace.
Ambassador Shamir expected the new regime to find a way to use Hassan's experience. "We can hope that he will be allowed an input," said Shamir, a Tel Aviv University Middle East historian. "I think he will want to contribute. He is not the kind to organize a faction or palace intrigues. The royal family will want to control the damage."
Danny Rubinstein, a writer on Palestinian affairs, argued that Abdullah would win a breathing space among the 60-plus percent of Jordanians who are of Palestinian origin because his wife, Princess Rania, is the daughter of a West Bank refugee family. Both King Hussein and Prince Hassan are tainted in Palestinian eyes by memories of 1970, when Jordanian troops killed and wounded up to 30,000 rebel Palestinians.
"Abdullah was born in 1962," Rubinstein wrote from Amman in Ha'aretz. "He was only 8 years old during the events of Black September. The new crown prince has no Palestinian blood on his hands. As far as Jordan's Palestinians are concerned, that is his biggest advantage."
Shimon Shamir added a word of caution. "What will determine Palestinian loyalty," he said, "is Abdullah's policy. If he continues Hussein's policy of supporting the Palestinian Authority in its quest for a state, they will back him. The fact that he has a Palestinian wife will add a symbolic dimension."
Ha'aretz's defense commentator, Ze'ev Schiff, suggested that if Israel wanted to help, the best way would be to negotiate a viable Palestinian state -- and to keep Israeli promises of joint economic ventures, such as the new airport designed to serve the twin Red Sea resorts of Aqaba and Eilat.