PLO chief Yasser Arafat is trying to ''buy time'' in the hope that the United States will guarantee the Palestinian right to self-determination, according to sources here.
The failure of King Hussein and Mr. Arafat to agree on a formula allowing Jordan to enter into Middle East peace negotiations came because of a deep-seated distrust of each other, memories of the 1970 Jordanian civil war, and contradictory Jordanian and Palestinian objectives, according to well-informed Palestinian sources.
Arafat needs such a guarantee not only to thwart radical Palestinian opposition to a rapprochement with Jordan but also as an assurance that King Hussein will stick to his part of any agreement with the Palestinians, the sources said.
''We don't trust King Hussein and he does not trust us,'' a senior PLO official said.
Palestinian sources argue that the inclusion of the Palestinian demand for ''self-determination'' in the document drafted by King Hussein and Mr. Arafat was ''not sufficient'' for the central council of Al Fatah - the largest Palestinian guerrilla organization co-founded by Arafat - to endorse the proposed agreement.
Arafat suggested that the phrase ''self-determination'' be included in the document at his last meeting with King Hussein April 4, expecting that this and other modifications would be rejected by the Jordanian monarch because they would prove unacceptable to the Reagan administration.
''Arafat was playing his favorite tactic, thinking that the King would not accept his modification,'' a PLO official told the Monitor.
Jordan's minister of information, Adnan Abu Odeh, met Arafat late April 4. He carried with him, according to PLO officials, the document signed by King Hussein incorporating the PLO chairman's suggestions. Well-informed Jordanian sources refused to confirm or deny that the King had indeed signed the document including Arafat's revisions.
But informed Jordanian and Palestinian sources do confirm that Arafat told the Jordanian information minister that Hussein could not immediately sign the document as had been previously agreed upon. Arafat requested time to consult with Palestinian leaders outside Jordan and was granted a period of 48 hours.
Although the modifications reportedly were made and accepted by the Jordanians, the document was unanimously rejected in Kuwait last week by the Fatah central council. The council meeting was also attended by leaders of other Palestinian guerrilla organizations.
Palestinian sources said the council, including Arafat, objected primarily to any reference in the Jordanian-Palestinian agreement to President Reagan's Middle East peace proposals.
Palestinian officials argue that despite the acceptance of the phrase ''self-determination,'' King Hussein wishes to implement Mr. Reagan's call for Palestinian self-rule in the Israeli-occupied territories in association with Jordan rather than the call by the Arab summit in Fez, Morocco, last year for an independent Palestinian state.
Earlier this year, the Palestine National Council - the PLO's highest policymaking body - refused the Reagan plan as a suitable basis for settlement of the Palestinian problem.
Although the Hussein-Arafat document explicitly mentions self-determination, Arafat's associates rejected it, as one senior PLO official put it, on the grounds that ''it's just like Camp David. Camp David referred to the legitimate rights of the Palestinians but nothing came of it. Words are unimportant. What counts is the balance of power in the region.''
Other officials argued that without US guarantees for the Palestinian right of self-determination, King Hussein will not honor any agreement with the PLO for ''a true confederation'' between Jordan and the future Palestinian entity.
''Once the confederation has been established,'' a senior Palestinian source said, ''King Hussein will blow us apart within hours just like he did in 1970.''
Palestinian officials suggest that had King Hussein presented his argument of using the Reagan plan as a bridge to the Fez Arab peace plan, with the necessary US guarantees, ''We would have jumped at it.''
Arafat and other senior PLO officials appear to have ultimately heeded advice given to them by both Syria and the Soviet Union.
Syria openly opposes any agreement between Jordan and the Palestinians.
Soviet officials ''comradely urged'' Arafat in Kuwait last week not to endorse the Reagan plan, Palestinian sources said. Soviet officials are said to have lobbied among members of Fatah and other Palestinian resistance groups to ensure that ''Arafat would not fall into the trap of the Reagan plan.''
Arafat, Palestinian sources said, is walking an almost impossible tightrope. ''He does not trust the United States and Jordan, he wants to avoid war with Syria but at the same time wishes to maintain relations with Jordan,'' a source close to Arafat said.
PLO officials admit that both the PLO and Syria are growing increasingly dependent on the Soviet Union, which has been urging them both to join forces.
Palestinians who know Arafat well suggest, however, that the PLO leader is under pressure to resolve the Palestinian problem.
One of the Arafat's associates said, ''If Yasser Arafat gets nothing, he will go down in history as a man who led a so-called revolution for 15 years without achieving anything but the killing of more Palestinians and the loss of more land. His need to justify all the killings, all the martyrs, all the prisoners, will ultimately push him toward moderation.''