AMMAN, JORDAN — Few could have predicted that Jordan's King Hussein would assume a role as one of the most crucial Middle East powerbrokers and peacemakers.
The monarch moved toward center stage earlier this month as marathon American negotiating efforts flagged on the verge of a Hebron agreement. It was the king who clinched the deal.
Underlining Jordan's importance, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to stop in Amman on Wednesday to consult with the king before going to Washington.
As Clinton prepares to receive all the major Mideast leaders in rapid succession in coming weeks, the two critical topics at hand will be restarting Israeli-Syrian talks and further Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
It is on the Israeli-Palestinian track that the Jordanian monarch's role will be put to the test, as the two sides begin wrestling with the final, even more contentious issues of Jerusalem, borders, and refugees.
But Jordan's new role - though welcomed by the United States for ensuring a step toward peace - comes with potential pitfalls, not least of which could be confrontation with the Arab world's major power, Egypt.
"The king did a very important piece of work," says a senior Western diplomat of the Hebron deal. "Success of the Israeli-Palestinian track in time can be a motivating force for the Israel-Syria track. All this builds and reinforces itself."
Playing on his unique relationship with both sides, King Hussein stepped into the limelight and convinced Mr. Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that any alternative to a deal was far worse.
"He was able to bridge the gap of trust," says Jordan's Minister of Information Marwan Muasher. Despite skepticism from Jordan's population - more than half of whom are of Palestinian extraction, many either refugees or displaced by the conflict - the king in 1994 signed a peace deal with Israel.
And though tough talk from Netanyahu had stalled the peace process and sparked the ire of most Arabs - especially Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak - Jordan doggedly maintained ties with Israel.
Promises of a "peace dividend" have yet to be fulfilled here, but officials now speak of a new dynamic and say Jordan's policy of dialogue with Israel, regardless of serious disagreements, has been vindicated.
But that policy now includes deference to Egypt's leading role. The payoff will come later, as a final deal will require the assent of all Arab nations - including Egypt.
Egypt was the first to make peace with Israel in 1979, though it has devolved into a "cold" peace. Analysts here say recent strident complaints about Israel undermined President Hosni Mubarak's ability to "bridge the gap" as the king did.
But angering Egypt unnecessarily now, King Hussein seems to have reasoned, would only complicate a final settlement.
"It is vital that both the Palestinians and Israelis get every encouragement possible," says a Western diplomat. "The king doesn't want to be seen to be challenging Egypt."
Jordan's own reasons for wanting peace are plain enough. Except for Israelis and Palestinians, no one has a greater stake: No other Arab leader has had such consistent relations with Israel over the past 40 years, and no other state feels the daily, immediate impact of the conflict.
"There is still very strong criticism and anger about Netanyahu's policies," says Rami Khouri, a Jordanian analyst. "But ... widespread skepticism is balanced by a wide Arab willingness to continue the process and achieve peace."
In mediating the peace process, the US counts on that willingness, especially from Jordan. American envoy Dennis Ross hasn't confirmed that the US asked the monarch to intervene on Hebron, but Jordanian officials say the king received a call from then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher at a key moment. The move coincides with the warming of US-Jordan ties, which in the past two years has erased the memory of Jordan's tacit support for Iraq in the Gulf war.
In November, President Clinton declared Jordan a major non-NATO ally. And in December, Jordan received $100 million in US military equipment - including 18 helicopters and 50 main battle tanks.
It was then that US Ambassador Wesley Egan said: "The US looks to Jordan as one of the most important, constructive, and moderate forces for peace in this region."
"Few people have the motive or courage in Jordan to define peace with Israel, and with Netanyahu it's really difficult," says Hani Hourani, head of the Al-Urdun Al-Jadid Research Center in Amman.
"There has been a revival of the old stereotype of Israelis, ... and how they want everything," he says. "[The Israelis] have a lot to do to gain the trust of the Arabs."