Arabs try to push ball into US court. But PLO-Jordan pact may not be enough to entice Reagan

After a year of sharply criticizing the Americans and flirting with the Soviets, Jordan's King Hussein has again turned to President Reagan for help in restarting the Middle East peace process. Hussein's announcement last week that he and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat had agreed on a joint approach to the Palestinian problem was aimed at Washington, diplomats here say.

It appears now that the agreement contains little that would entice the United States back into the process. But Washington is watching with satisfaction the eagerness of Hussein and other Arab leaders to turn to the US for help in seeking a solution to their disputes with Israel.

``As a tactic, making people come to us isn't bad,'' says one American official. ``People keep on saying the US is one-sided. But where do they send their mail?''

The danger, diplomats and Jordanians say, is that the US may simply return the mail to sender, leaving the moderates vulnerable to attack from Arab hard-liners who argue that no matter what concessions are made by the Palestinians or Arab states, the US will not put pressure on Israel. The visit of Saudi Arabian King Fahd to Washington last week, the coming visits of the presidents of Egypt and Algeria, and the Hussein-Arafat agreement all are evidence of the renewed conviction among Arab moderates that only the US can bring Israel to a negotiating table.

What remains to be seen is how willing the US is to reenter the peace process. Washington is still smarting from its disastrous foray into Lebanese politics that ended with the withdrawal one year ago this month of the last Marines from Lebanon. It is content for now to watch developments.

One reason for caution is the stops and starts of the Arab moderates as they seek to find enough common ground in the Arab and Israeli positions to make negotiations feasible. A good example of the fragility of the moderates' efforts is the Hussein-Arafat accord.

The agreement was announced almost casually in Jordan Feb. 11. Only days before, diplomats and journalists had been predicting a collapse of the talks between the King and the guerrilla leader. Hussein had called upon the PLO to join him in seeking a negotiated settlement with the Israelis in the framework of an international conference last fall, during the Palestine National Council meeting. Since November, the King and Arafat had met periodically to hammer out an agreement that would satisfy Palestinian demands for a homeland and give enough ground to convince the Americans that the Palestinians should be included in any peace talks.

By late January, diplomats say, the positions of the King and Arafat were still far apart.

``Finally, the King just really lost his temper. He was furious,'' says one Western diplomat. ``The PLO was really frightened and it went to the Egyptians for help.'' Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sent his chief aide, Osama al-Baz, to Amman to work out an accord.

The result, diplomats here say, was an agreement that included face-saving proposals both could accept.

The main points of the accord included PLO acceptance of the concept of exchanging land for peace. The agreement also called for acknowledging the rights of self-determination for Palestinians within the framework of a Palestinian state and a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation. In addition, the agreement called for solving of the problem of the Palestinian refugees according to UN resolutions and said peace talks would be conducted under the umbrella of an international conference.

A key provision was that the Jordanians and Palestinians would be represented at such a conference in a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.

Diplomats view the PLO's acceptance of exchanging land for peace and foregoing a separate PLO delegation to any peace talks as the most significant aspects of the accord. Israel refuses to recognize the PLO, which it considers a terrorist organization. The Arabs, however, insist that only the PLO can represent the Palestinians in negotiations. Calling for a joint delegation was a way to finesse inclusion of PLO representatives at peace talks.

The King and Arafat refused to release the text of the agreement as each sought support from Arab and Western leaders. On Wednesday, the PLO executive committee approved the agreement, but with reservations. Some diplomats in Amman felt the reservations were enough to torpedo the agreement entirely.

The executive committee repeated the PLO's rejection of UN Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for Israel to withdraw from occupied lands in return for Arab recognition. Hussein, the Americans, and the Israelis have all said 242 must form the basis of any negotiations. The committee also replaced ``Jordanian-Palestinian delegation'' with ``Arab delegation.''

The changes, most diplomats agree, make it even less likely that the Hussein-Arafat agreement will be accepted either by the US or Israel, and leaves Arafat open to pressure from Palestinian hard-liners and Syria, who have condemned the accord, while not conceding enough to bring results in the form of US recognition of the PLO.

``We may be back at square one again,'' said one gloomy Arab diplomat in Amman.

The administration's initial response to the Hussein-Arafat agreement was that it was a positive step. Israel's response was surprisingly muted, with Prime Minister Shimon Peres simply renewing his call for Hussein to negotiate directly with Israel.

But Arab diplomats here say they fear that without a more aggressive response from the US, the agreement will be shelved and the recent stirrings within the Arab world toward seeking negotiations will again be stymied.

If the US doesn't bite, a Western diplomat says, ``then things will go into a dormant phase again for three or four months until pressure builds up on Arafat to again try something else. There is this inexorable cycle of dialogue in the Mideast, where we reach seemingly climactic agreements that somehow never give satisfaction.''

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