When US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. arrives in Jordan early in April he will meet a king who is a survivor -- that is, the longest ruling Arab head of state in the Middle East.
He will view a country tht is an oasis of stability in a shaky Arab world and appears to be booming, despite lack of natural resources. Construction cranes and new building skeletons are sprouting everywhere on the capital's seven hills.
And the American diplomat will find Jordan's King Hussein unwilling to jeopardize these achievements by entering negotiations with Israel as a substitute for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) over the fate of the Israel-occupied West Bank.
But, say high officials here, this refusal does not rule out a special role for Jordan in facilitating communications between the PLO and other negotiating parties.
The concept of a "Jordanian option" by which Israel and Jordan would bypass the PLO and negotiate directly over the future of the West Bank has received wide publicity in Israel. It has been mentioned by US President Reagan. But it has never been clearly spelled out.
Israel's opposition Labor Party has touted it as a means of avoiding a potential Palestinian state on the West Bank. Under this version, limited amounts of West Bank territory would be returned directly to King Hussein who ruled the West Bank prior to Israel's occupation of it in 1967, while the remainder of the area would be left in Israeli hands.
King Hussein and high Jordanian officials have repeatedly denied that such an option exists.
"It is a myth," one high official told the Monitor. "Jordan has never advocated such an option. It is a make-believed device created by the Israelis in order to avoid the inevitable, which is talking to the PLO."
King Hussein is barred from speaking for the Palestinians by resolutions of the Arab summit conference in Rabat, Morocco, in 1974, which recognized the PLO as sole representative of the Palestinians.
At the time, the Jordanian monarch opposed the lifting of responsibility for regaining the West Bank from his hands. But Jordanian sources point out there are benefits he receives from being relieved of this responsibility, benefits that he is loath to jeopardize for an uncertain negotiating formula that would probably turn the Arab world and the PLO against him. Among them:
* While President Sadat of Egypt is isolated from the Arab world and deadlocked in negotiations with Israel over self-rule for the West Bank, King Hussein, who refused to participate in the Camp David framework, is being courted by the West and is reaping Arab admiration.
* The PLO, which once reviled King Hussein, has been particpating in dialogues with him since 1978 and needs his help in maintaining their contact with the West Bank.
* As a pro-PLO Arab nationalist, King Hussein is receiving substantial financial aid from the Arab world. His economy is even benefiting from inter-Arab conflicts such as the Iran-Iraq war. His backing for Iraq has made Jordan a transshipment point for war supplies and consumer goods for Iraq.
Despite these benefits, Jordanian officials insist that the King is anxious for a solution to the Arab-Israeli stalemate. They say he fears that continued instability in the Middle East would jeopardize his ambitious economic development plans to wean Jordan from massive dependence on foreign and Arab aid.
Moreover, the King fears that a failure to find a negotiated solution will push the region to the left, cause unrest among the majority of Jordanian citizens who are of Palestinian origin, and thereby jeopardize his role as a moderate leader in the Mideast.
But the new post-Camp David negotiating formula sought by the King takes an opposite approach from the so-called Jordanian option. Rather than exclude the PLO, he insists that all parties to the conflict -- including the PLO and the Soviet Union -- be included, preferably under the United Nations.
Should such a formula be adopted, say high official here, Jordan would then be willing to support and help the PLO in the negotiating process.
Officials here speak hypothetically of negotiating formulas in which the PLO might be part of a joint Arab delegation, as was proposed in 1977. Or a joing PLO-Jordanian delegation.But above all, they stress that Jordan will not act independently of the PLO or make decisions without PLO approval.
"If any concessions are going to be made, they should be PLO concessions," said one Jordanian official emphatically.