DIPLOMATS whose business it is to interpret the sometimes Delphic utterances of Jordan's King Hussein suggest the King's peace formula presented to President Reagan Wednesday does in fact indicate a willingness to engage in direct talks with Israel on the basis of Security Council Resolution 242. Particular note was taken of the King's assurances that Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat had signed on to the deal.
The King's continuing adherence to a Security Council format involving all permanent members plus invited Arab guests -- unacceptable to both the United States and Israel -- is dismissed as the diplomatic equivalent of a ``reject bid,'' much as the PLO itself and rejectionist Arab colleagues were invited to take part in the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations in Cairo after Anwar Sadat's 1967 historic visit to Jerusalem. If so, King Hussein's Washington visit could have implications approaching those of Sadat's grand gesture.
Given Mr. Arafat's manifest skill at escaping from his own verbal contrivances, it is not too much for the involved parties to insist on his own articulation of the PLO position. But without question, the commitment of a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to negotiate directly with Israel on the basis of the 242 land-for-peace formula would, in a single bold stroke:
Move beyond controversy over the organizational affiliation of members of a Jordanian/Palestinian delegation, since any individual joining a delegation instructed to bargain on the basis of 242 would, by implication, be rejecting the 1965 PLO commitment to a ``secular, democratic Palestine.''
Permit meaningful US contact with PLO leaders willing to endorse the King's approach.
Separate those Israelis genuinely willing to deal with the West Bank and Gaza Strip on the basis of the land-for-peace formula embraced in 242 from those who have been building procedural obstacles to conceal their own rejection of the resolution's substance.
Greatly assist other moderate Arab leaders, such as Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, who remain isolated and vulnerable as they seek to build upon the fragile peace with Israel.
Entitle Jordan to more-favorable US consideration of its request for sophisticated weapons, since those weapons would be needed to deter armed attack from Syria or other rejectionist Arab states and could be delivered with reasonable confidence that they would not be employed against Israel.
Hussein's recent efforts to restore the momentum of peace have won extremely high marks here from both Prime Minister Shimon Peres's office and the Western diplomatic community. The King's sincerity is not doubted. His invitation to the PLO, during last November's Palestine National Council meeting in Amman, to join in negotiations under the 242 formula was seen as the product of both danger and opportunity.
Danger, because the proliferation of Israeli West Bank settlements threatened to erase the very subject of the dispute. Danger, too, because the collapse of the current relatively moderate Israeli government could be followed by one that made no pretense of its desire to appropriate the occupied land while encouraging a Palestinian exodus to Jordan's East Bank.
But Hussein also saw opportunity, because the rift inside the PLO had moved rejectionist elements outside the universe within which chairman Arafat had to seek consensus. Also, the unhappy conclusion to Israel's Lebanon adventure had reduced the mood of arrogant omnipotence inside this country, strengthening the hand of those committed to negotiation.
Hussein also gauged that Mr. Mubarak's Egypt, plus an Iraq desperately in need of moderate Arab support, could backstop Jordan's position. And he reasoned that the Reagan administration, flushed with its reelection mandate, might be willing to take some political risks for American goals in the region.
Opportunities are fleeting. Mubarak first weighed in with an awkwardly timed initiative of his own; his march toward a summit with Mr. Peres and normalization of ties with Israel has been slow. Israel has been barely able to keep its national-unity government together. The deal on the recent prisoner exchange Israel concluded with the Jabril PLO faction fanned right-wing Israeli passions and undermined everyone's faith in the current government's bargaining competence.
But a similar list could easily have been compiled before the 1977 Sadat visit. The dramatic initiative can still work diplomatic miracles. Which is why many hope that after a quarter-century of waiting, King Hussein is now ready to act.
C. Robert Zelnick is the ABC News chief correspondent in Tel Aviv.