Eight months after he was brought back from political retirement to serve a second term as Jordan's prime minister, Zaid Samir Rifai has emerged as the second most powerful man in the kingdom. That is the assessment of both Jordanians and Western diplomats who have watched Mr. Rifai, revitalize the office of prime minister and consolidate his position as the adviser closest to King Hussein.
Rifai is the chief architect of Jordan's efforts to repair relations with Syria. He is also intimately involved with shaping what has emerged as Hussein's most determined bid to reach a peace table with Israel.
In a monarchy such as Jordan's, where there is no bureaucracy comparable to the United States' State Department, a strong adviser has the ability to dramatically affect the thrust of foreign policy. Rifai's growing power has been watched closely by the Americans, Israelis, Syrians, and Palestinians as he guides Hussein toward policies that could profoundly affect the region's future.
By all accounts Rifai is an aggressive and urbane statesman who has welcomed the chance to tackle Jordan's myriad foreign and domestic policy problems.
Within weeks of being named to head a new Cabinet in April, Rifai revolutionized a position that had become virtually passive during the tenure of Ahmed Obeidat, a former head of the Jordanian security apparatus.
``The whole fabric of how business was done changed after he [Rifai] came to power,'' says one Western diplomat who meets frequently with senior Jordanian officials. ``When Rifai came in . . . he wanted to be involved in everything.''
A flamboyant, energetic man, Rifai's charismatic personality contrasts sharply with his predecessor's low-key approach.
``His presence fills a void between people when he enters a room,'' says one diplomat. ``He can't allow anyone else, including the King to run or dominate a meeting. It's just the nature of him to be the driving force.''
Jordanians insist that ultimately, only the King truly determines the broad outlines of Jordan's policy, and that he is far from a passive figurehead shaped by Rifai.
One example of Hussein's independence came recently, when US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy flew to Amman to brief the King after Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres addressed the United Nations. Rifai, one diplomatic source said, ``tore the speech apart line by line'' as the King listened. The King then said he saw positive elements in it and gave interviews saying he admired the spirit of the message.
But Rifai's influence is great. He moved quickly to secure his position in the palace, reportedly reducing the influence of Minister of the Court Adnan Abu Odeh and virtually shutting out Foreign Minister Taher Masri. The only adviser to Hussein who has retained his position, say observers, is Marwan Kasim, royal court chief.
Rifai's boldest and most controversial move to date has been his determined effort to improve relations between Jordan and Syria. The two countries have been on bad terms for five years -- since Jordan sided with Iraq in the Gulf war and Syria backed Iran. At urging from Saudi Arabia, which gives aid to both Jordan and Syria, the two began tentatively seeking rapprochement last summer.
But their differences remain deep. In addition to taking opposite sides on the Iran-Iraq war, the two nations differ sharply over the Palestine Liberation Organization. Jordan backs PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and signed an agreement with him in February to jointly seek peace with Israel. Syrian President Hafez Assad pursues a personal vendetta against Mr. Arafat and backs PLO dissenters. The Syrians insist that the Feb. 11 accord between Hussein and Arafat should be scrapped.
Jordanians were caught by surprise Nov. 10 when Hussein issued what was interpreted as a blanket apology to Syria for the operation of ``outlaws committing crimes and sowing seeds of dissension among people.''
The apology came in the form of an open letter that was given prominence in the Jordanian media. It had been an open secret that Jordan had allowed members of the anti-Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to operate against Syria from its territory since 1980. But in his letter, Hussein said ``I was quite deceived along with a large section of the Jordanian people by this criminal group.''
The letter ``was certainly a Rifai-sponsored thing'' says one diplomat.
Throughout his public life, Rifai has publicly advocated close ties between Jordan and Syria. When he was appointed prime minister, PLO officials said they were deeply concerned because they feared Rifai would pursue Syria at the cost of the PLO. Rifai also is known to be deeply suspicious of the PLO and of Arafat in particular.
``I still remember when Rifai in 1970 was advocating that the Palestinians be killed,'' said one member of the Palestine National Council, the PLO's legislative body.
That was when the PLO threatened to seize control of Jordan and the Army responded by attacking Palestinian camps and expelling the PLO. Rifai was a court adviser to the King then. From May 1973 to July 1976, he served as prime minister, but was dismissed when Jordan began to pull away from Syria. In Dec. 1981 Rifai escaped an assassination attempt for which many Joradnians believe the Palestinians were responsible.
The question US officials are asking now is whether Rifai's efforts to draw closer to Syria will encourage the Middle East peace process or end it. Much depends on the Syrian willingness to particpate in an international conference that will include Israel. An ominous sign, from the Jordanian perspective, is the lack of any overt Syrian response as yet to the King's apology.
``If Rifai misstepped and the Syrians don't come through, it could be the end of his tenure,'' says one diplomat. ``But then again, what could save him is that the King really has no alternative to Zaid Rifai.''