King Hussein of Jordan wants to enter Middle East peace talks, and he hopes to announce his readiness to negotiate by March 1, a move he believes is necessary to safeguard his kingdom, say Jordanian and diplomatic sources.
Such a step by the Arab leader, however, awaits word from the Palestine Liberation Organization and a freeze on new Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The PLO, which has been designated by the Arab League as the official spokesman for the Palestinians, has not yet decided whether to join into a Palestinian-Jordanian team that would negotiate with Israel over the future status of the largely Palestinian West Bank and Gaza.
Without a green light from the PLO, King Hussein will ask Palestinian leaders living in the West Bank to join a negotiating team, according to sources here.
But, these sources say, the outcome is still not certain. The King does not want to begin negotiations without a Palestinian partner. And he is unlikely to go forward unless his choice of a partner receives acquiescence from Arab moderate states, notably Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, even should the King succeed in finding an acceptable Palestinian partner, say Jordanian and diplomatic sources, the crucial step that he will insist upon is that the United States obtain a total freeze on Israeli Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza, including both new building and any further movement of settlers into the area.
Sources here say President Reagan promised the King during his December trip to Washington that he would exert pressure on Israel to halt new settlements, once the King had declared his readiness to negotiate. ''There is no way negotiations can get started while settlements continue to be built,'' said one diplomatic source here.
King Hussein's deep sense of urgency, say well-informed Jordanians, reflects worry about the future of his kingdom should current peace initiatives fail. In the wake of Arab impotence during Israel's invasion of Lebanon, there is widespread belief that stagnation on the peace front will usher in an era of political and religious radicalism and upheaval throughout the Middle East.
While some Jordanians close to the King once argued - and still do - that the east bank of the Jordan River was better off without the Palestinian West Bank, the King now fears he will face critical security problems should the West Bank be lost forever. West Bankers may feel - or be - impelled to leave for the east bank in large numbers, and there may also be heavy pressure for the King to accept thousands of hapless Palestinians.
The ultimate fear, discussed widely here, is that Israel will attempt to topple King Hussein to implement its thesis that Jordan is ''the'' Palestinian state. ''Even if negotiations fail,'' says one Jordanian official, ''by trying, the King will project a positive image to the West which will protect him from any attack by Israel.''
The King is acutely aware that time is running out for return of West Bank land as Israel rushes to integrate the area into its heartland with roads and settlements. He feels a personal responsibility for the loss of this land in the 1967 war and does not want to be held accountable for its final separation.
Given these pressures, a scenario is being discussed here for the period before the King's March 1 deadline for a PLO decision. Having just returned from a trip to the Gulf, he will soon travel to Europe to explain the Mideast situation.
And he will wait for the outcome of the meeting of the Palestine National Council, the PLO's parliament-in-exile, which will meet for 10 days starting Feb. 14, in Algiers.
If the PLO gives its approval for participation of Palestinians who are not PLO members, a restriction insisted upon by the US, the King will then announce his readiness to join peace talks and would probably travel to Washington to do so.
If the PLO refuses, he will attempt to find West Bank Palestinians to join him, arguing that the West Bank which was once part of Jordan must be saved from permanent alienation.
He will confront several major obstacles along the way:
* Convincing the PLO to give a green light.
Informed sources say many PLO moderates, backers of PLO chairman Yasser Arafat's Al-Fatah organization, are still considering negotiating. But they want some role for the PLO, such as the power to publicly name non-PLO delegates. This would give the organization at least a toehold in the process. But the US, fearing an Israeli veto, has so far insisted that the PLO be totally excluded.
The Jordanians differ with the US on this point. They believe it would strengthen the King's hand to have the PLO publicly bound to the negotiating process.
Well-informed Palestinian sources say the Palestine National Council is unlikely to endorse Palestinian participation in negotiations. It may give Yasser Arafat power of attorney - within certain guidelines - to continue negotiations with the King on this issue.
Or it could give a yellow light: tell the King to go ahead on his own, an option the King is said to be wary of.
* If the PLO says no, can West Bankers be found who will say yes?
This will be extremely difficult. While desperate to end occupation, several pro-Jordanian West Bank figures have told The Christian Science Monitor they would not act without a PLO go-ahead. Moreover, the Saudis would have to acquiesce to such a move.
It is considered unlikely by informed observers here that the Saudis, wary of potential PLO-inspired political upheaval, would back Jordan in a move opposed by the PLO.
Beyond all these hurdles, the Jordanians want a timetable for withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon before the King joins negotiations.
Such a timetable is seen as a symbol of US reliability as an intermediary, and would be more critical to final negotiations than to the initial announcement, say diplomatic sources.
The King's March 1 deadline was set in hopes of beating the start of the 1984 American presidential campaign, although the date could be extended, sources say. But if no announcement comes soon, says one informed Jordanian, ''people will be fed up and this initiative's life span will have elapsed.''