Jordan's Standing in Mideast Slips, But King Is Still Key to Peace Effort

AS Jordan's King Hussein seeks to undo the damage caused by his support for Iraq during the Gulf war, he is both helped and hindered by the legacy of the conflict. The war has created one unexpected liability: Jordan's unique position as an island of pro-Western moderation in the turbulent Levant has been devalued as three Arab coalition partners - Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia - assume positions of commanding influence in the region.

But in his bid to regain international acceptance, Hussein may also have an unexpected asset: More popular than ever with Palestinians, the beleaguered monarch may now be indispensable to any future Middle East peace moves.

"The King would have the best possibility of leading the parties to the bargaining table," says one longtime Middle East expert, who adds that strong Palestinian support for his stand during the Gulf crisis has made Hussein "the most legitimate Arab ruler today."

With his nation's rehabilitation now directly linked to forward movement on the peace process, this analyst and others predict, Hussein might well seek to force the issue by announcing a delegation of Jordanians and Palestinians from the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip to negotiate with Israel.

Any such move, still considered a long shot, would require the consent of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Jordanian sources insist. But with its fortunes at a low ebb, the PLO could well back such a move. Any joint delegation could also prove an attractive alternative to the lengthy process of West Bank and Gaza elections called for in a 1989 Israeli peace plan.

King Hussein honored the United Nations-sanctioned economic embargo against Iraq. But his reluctance to condemn Iraq and his opposition to the military buildup and war in the Gulf angered old allies and financial backers, including the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Jordan has nursed its own grudge toward the coalition, insisting that the US and its allies have given neither credit nor adequate compensation to the Kingdom for the huge financial sacrifice incurred in honoring the embargo against Iraq, its largest trading partner.

Since the end of the war, Hussein has sought to relax tense US-Jordanian relations, once cemented by his close personal relationship with President Bush. For his efforts, Hussein has twice been rebuffed.

Earlier this month, Secretary of State James Baker III bypassed Amman on a swing through the Middle East. Last week, Congress passed a measure that will revoke $55 million in US aid to Jordan unless President Bush certifies that King Hussein is being helpful in advancing the peace process.

Bitter over Jordan's stand

In addition, moves to give Jordan any role in future peace moves are likely to be resisted by two influential Arab leaders.

One is Saudi King Fahd, who remains bitter over Jordan's support for Iraq.

The other is Syria's Hafez al Assad, who remains eager to gain control of the Palestinian movement and who is likely to undermine any efforts by Hussein to regain the influence he wielded among Palestinians before the start of the intifadah (uprising) in late 1987.

But in other key quarters Jordan's prospects appear brighter.

The same James Baker who snubbed Jordan also opined recently that "Hussein himself personally may become an important player" in the peace process.

West Bank and Gaza Palestinians have also grown warmer toward Hussein. With the PLO now marginalized as a result of its backing for Iraq, they may be more receptive than at any time since 1985 to the idea of attending future peace talks as part of a joint delegation with Jordan. "We're open to a joint delegation as long as the idea is supported by the Palestinians themselves," says one Jordanian official. "We're ready to deal with them."

One revealing glimpse of changing views toward Jordan in Israel has been provided by the declining fortunes of the "Jordan is Palestine Committee."

The vehicle of various right-of-center political groups, the committee has long pressed the view that since Jordan, with its 60-plus percent Palestinian population, is already a Palestinian state, there is no need to create a second one in the West Bank and Gaza.

When King Hussein, responding to pressure from his Palestinian constituents, backed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein after the start of the Gulf crisis, the notion gained currency.

"I told you so: Look where the king is siding," says one Israeli official, paraphrasing the message of committee spokesmen.

Implications grasped

But as internal unrest threatened the position of the king, who is not a Palestinian, many Israelis began to grasp the implications of having Jordan governed by Palestinians.

Israelis still overwhelmingly oppose the idea of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories. But, believing that Hussein was still moderate and pro-Western despite his rhetorical support for Saddam, Israeli officials quietly sent messages through the US during the Gulf crisis reassuring him that they were not interested in seeing him overthrown.

"People began to see that if Jordan were a Palestinian state it could be one of the worst scenarios we could have," says the Israeli official. "We are doomed to live with Jordan, but we're better off with the king, even as king of the Palestinians."

Jordan's defenders say the country's pro-Iraq stance was the consequence of recent democratic reforms, which the US encouraged - and which magnified the voice of the Palestinians.

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