You can't have an early Mideast peace breakthrough with Yasser Arafat. But you can't have one without him, either. This seemed a main message of recent talks here between Jordan's King Hussein and the Palestine Liberation Organization chief.
Though Mr. Arafat has seemed politically vulnerable of late, Jordan so far is holding to its step-by-step bid to narrow the gap between peace terms being offered by Israel and what Jordan and the PLO can jointly accept.
This gap, Jordanian and PLO sources suggested Tuesday, remains -- despite rosier reports from Israel.
The Hussein-Arafat talks ended Monday more with a whimper than a bang.
Missing was the kind of newly explicit PLO commitment to negotiated peace or recognition of Israel's right to exist which the Jordanians had indicated they wanted.
Nor were there signs of the kind of showdown atmosphere apparent in recent tough remarks from Hussein and other Jordanians on PLO behavior.
Remarks Tuesday from both sides gave no sign that anything like a formal break between Jordan and the PLO -- or a Jordanian go-it-alone peace move with Israel -- was broached.
Hussein got what aides termed a reaffirmation by Mr. Arafat of a February 1985 accord between Jordan and the PLO on pursuing a joint Mideast strategy.
Arafat is also said to have spoken contritely of a last-minute PLO retreat on relatively dovish terms for a planned meeting earlier this month between Britain's foreign secretary and a Jordanian-Palestinian team.
``They [Arafat and his aides] said they wished they had it to do over again,'' said a senior Jordanian official.
He said Arafat had made it clear that he regretted the breakdown and that the PLO would join in efforts to improve communication and the PLO's own ``discipline'' in order to head off future lapses.
According to the Jordanian, Arafat went further:
He reportedly said he now felt he could have lived with the London ground rules -- whereby two senior PLO figures would have endorsed ``in their personal capacity'' a formula suggesting peaceful coexistence between an eventual Palestinian-Jordanian confederation on the occupied West Bank and a secure state of Israel inside pre-1967 war boundaries.
Would Jordan prod Arafat to endorse the London formula publicly, now that the British had canceled the London conference?
No, said a Jordanian source, ``not from the PLO as an organization.''
Arafat has always termed this kind of formal commitment a ``card'' to be played only if the PLO got major diplomatic capital in return.
Minutes after the Jordanian source's remarks, Arafat delivered a typically murky gun-and-olive-branch message to reporters. He also lambasted recent US Mideast policy.
``The PLO is our partner,'' said a Jordanian official privately of the Hussein-Arafat talks. ``You leave your partner for a while to do its job'' internally, rather than exert pressure on the partner for early public concessions.
Such concessions, said a Jordanian official, would be pressed for only in what he termed the unlikely event that London was willing to replay the bungled scenario for a British-Jordanian-PLO meeting.
More important, an explicit PLO statement on peace and recognition was still seen by Jordan as a potential ticket to some form of PLO dialogue with the US.
But the strongest signal from Jordanians on the heels of the talks was a sense there could be no shortcut to the Mideast peace talks that Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres have separately sought in recent weeks.
Differences between the Jordanian and Israeli visions of negotiations remained.
One, it seemed Tuesday, was in the two sides' overall concepts.
The Israelis were willing formally to meet Hussein's insistence that negotiation begin with some kind of international parley.
But the Israeli vision of a first-stage agreement -- modeled closely on the 1978 Camp David plan for Palestinian ``autonomy'' -- was of the sort so far unacceptable to the PLO, to neighboring Syria, and to the further-flung Soviets.
Jordanian officials stressed they see an international parley as a vehicle for demonstrating endorsement from precisely this kind of Arab and overseas lineup -- to avoid placing Hussein on any go-it-alone peace tack with the Israelis.
The next steps here, a senior Jordanian said, would include a pause ``to think'' and ``try to repair'' damage to Jordanian-PLO negotiating momentum.
Britain -- or even better, the US -- might be approached on terms for meeting with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian group formed with at least an OK from the PLO.
Jordan would continue to seek US help in bringing Israeli negotiating terms closer to a workable Jordanian-PLO platform. So far, said the source, ``the Americans still seem far'' from Jordan's view of eventual talks.