Nablus, occupied West Bank — Since Israel's victory over the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon, a new mood of bitter realism has settled over West Bank Palestinians.
Moderates - and even militant nationalists who only recently would have opposed such ideas - now talk regularly of mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO.
The upshot of this realism: If Jordan's King Hussein and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat opt to enter the peace process, they would have plenty of support from the occupied West Bank. That support would provide critical legitimacy for their decision, in the face of any dissenters within the PLO or the Arab world.
(According to Egyptian Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali, the PLO has agreed to take part in Middle East peace talks based on President Reagan's plan and other initiatives, Reuters reports. PLO officials expect King Hussein to find out from Mr. Reagan at talks in Washington this week what kind of joint PLO-Jordanian delegation he would accept.)
The mood of realism is fed by fear that massive Israeli Jewish settlements will soon rule out future Israeli withdrawal altogether. The World Zionist Organization's settlement department has announced that Israel would double the population of about 25,000 West Bank settlers over the next three months as 6, 000 new housing units constructed over the last two years come on the market.
''Realism means recognizing time is against me,'' said Saeb Erakat, director of public relations at Najah University in Nablus. ''I want to survive. That's what's at stake.''
The pragmatic mood on the West Bank parallels PLO negotiations with Jordan on a framework for a future Palestinian-Jordanian confederation - in recognition that this concept is more amenable to the United States than a totally separate Palestinian state.
''There would be widespread support on the West Bank for a formulation of mutual Israeli-PLO recognition if the PLO adopted it,'' said a prominent Nablus businessman, Hikmat al-Masri. ''We can help them indirectly by sending out opinions.''
West Bankers are forbidden by Israel to participate in the Palestine National Council, or parliament, which reportedly will meet next month in Algiers, and even to meet informally with PLO members when visiting the Arab world.
However, West Bank opinions still reach the PLO regularly through intermediaries or by phone calls abroad. Moreover, the number of former West Bankers - now living elsewhere - who sit on the council has been increased. They will represent a potential bloc of support for Mr. Arafat on any peace initiative or vote on confederation against pro-Syrian hard-line factions who oppose these trends.
''When the time comes for a vote in favor of a peace settlement, it is West Bankers who will give it legitimacy,'' one senior PLO source told The Christian Science Monitor.
So far, however - with a few notable exceptions - West Bank leaders have been reluctant to publicly prod King Hussein or Arafat to take dramatic initiatives, despite widespread belief that the next couple of months are crucial. West Bankers continue to hold to a supporting role to outside PLO leadership and now the more active King Hussein.
Several weeks ago Mayor Elias M. Freij of Bethlehem was the moving force behind a petiton calling for mutual PLO-Israeli recognition, support for PLO-Jordanian rapprochement, and PLO acceptance of United Nations resolutions 242 and 338. Accepting these resolutions is the American condition for dealing with the PLO, which the organization has refused because the resolutions deal only with the Palestinians as a ''refugee problem.'' More than 200 signatures were collected.
But the petition soon became bogged down in internal West Bank politics, was amended by one initial signer, and is now frozen, although it could be revived after King Hussein returns from his Washington trip. Opponents, like deposed Mayor Bassam Shaka of Nablus, claimed the petition's organizers wanted ''to make new leaders here inside the occupied territories at the same level as the PLO.''
Mayor Freij retorted, ''How can we get rid of Israeli occupation without talking to Israel, without recognizing Israel?''
In reality the impasse reflected internal West Bank politics. Many leftists, and numerous other West Bankers as well, have unpleasant memories of King Hussein's rule and fear he will outmaneuver Arafat and regain substantial control.
Other West Bankers who have come to accept the idea of recognizing Israel are still reluctant - as is the PLO - to endorse this without the PLO receiving something in return. ''Recognizing Israel should be only to achieve the end of occupation,'' insisted Nablus lawyer Musa Jayusi.
And most West Bankers believe there is no point to PLO or Jordanian concessions unless there is first a freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which they view as a test of US intentions in the peace process.
''The key is stopping settlements,'' said Mr. Masri, once speaker of the Jordanian parliament. ''King Hussein will never enter negotiations without a freeze on settlement because continued settlement would mean failure for any negotiations.''
But despite their reluctance to take the initiative, the vast majority of West Bankers appear ready to back the majority position taken by the PLO, which at the moment is clearly the Arafat approach of moving toward negotiations with Israel.