DURING three days of meetings last week, King Hussein demanded from Yasser Arafat unconditional written acceptance of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 as the basis for negotiating with Israel for the future of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Nor would the King tolerate the sort of subterfuge and delay that followed last November's meeting on the same subject, after which Mr. Arafat went into virtual hiding for two months.
This time, when Arafat begged the King's indulgence to visit civil-war-ravaged South Yemen, Hussein told the PLO chief that any departure from Amman would be interpreted as a negative response on the two resolutions. In such a case, the King would make public the fact that this avenue of his peace initiative has reached a dead end and begin exploring other options, including a search for Palestinians who do accept the two resolutions or new overtures to Syrian President Hafez Assad, a bitter Arafat foe.
The King did not come empty handed to the Arafat meetings, having first obtained two concessions of real consequence from the United States, both of which had at least tacit backing from Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
The first involved United States acceptance of an international conference on the Middle East, with the UN Secretary-General as host and including the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
Second, with the PLO's formal endorsement of 242 and 338, the US agreed to begin dealing directly with that organization while supporting its formal participation in the conference, most likely as part of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.
Through the rugged sessions with the King, Arafat and his colleagues declined to join the rest of the Arab world in backing the resolutions, which call on Israel to withdraw from lands conquered during the 1967 war in exchange for peace, recognition, and secure borders. Instead, Arafat stuck to the PLO's historic demand that, as part of the deal, the US recognize the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.
Washington's rejection of this condition was conveyed to Arafat last week. No further sessions were scheduled. But as of Monday, Arafat remained in town, caucusing frequently with members of the PLO executive committee and occasionally exchanging information with senior Cabinet officers of the Amman government.
The refusal of the US to embrace Palestinian self-determination at this stage of the proceedings is difficult to fault.
While pleasing to the ear, the words have become a term of art in international diplomacy, suggesting a people's right to independent nationhood. Both the United States and Israel oppose a sovereign Palestinian state even at the end of the negotiating process, let alone as a stated goal of that process.
Even the more limited concept of self-determination within the framework of the Feb. 11, 1985, accord by Hussein and Arafat, in which the parties agreed to a ``confederation'' between Jordan and a Palestinian state, has its problems.
So vague is the language of that accord that to this day the Jordanians envision a permanent bond between greater and lesser authorities, with Amman, for example, retaining full discretion in such areas as defense and foreign policy, while the PLO suggests little more than a voluntary association of equal and independent nations, dissoluble at the veritable whim of either one.
Self-determination, in short, embraces the very essence of those matters to be negotiated.
For the US -- already committed to the substantial body of Palestinian political rights outlined in the September 1982 Reagan plan -- to plunge further into this verbal thicket by endorsing self-determination at this moment would either abort the peace process altogether or require so many hedges and modifiers as to render the endorsement meaningless.
With obvious intensity of feeling, Jordanian officials describe Hussein's current peace initiative as the most significant undertaking of his 34-year reign. They recognize both the internal and external pressures on Arafat to hold out for a sweeter deal but see political conditions now as being about as good as they are going to get for the achievement of long-sought political goals.
In particular, the Jordanians believe an international conference will eventually attract Soviet and Syrian participation, enhancing the prospects for a comprehensive peace and a fair deal for the Palestinian people. And even a more limited gathering would bring together big powers whose least generous position on the return of captured territory -- the Reagan plan -- is not all that bad.
Yet as this is written the traditional PLO penchants for self-delusion, trickery, and simple incompetence appear dominant. New formulations that compete with earlier ``endorsements'' of 242 and 338 only on grounds of ambiguity and obfuscation are offered as teasers. Denying the obvious -- that they are a splintered organization with a coherent political base only inside the territories -- PLO leaders note the progress since 1967, when the Palestinian problem was considered a refugee problem, and suggest that with perseverence they can make the US come around concerning self-determination.
But a far more obvious process has also been at work since 1967 -- Jewish settlement on the West Bank. In territory that two decades ago was totally Arab, there is today a Jewish population of over 50,000 residing in more than 100 settlements and suburbs. And while today there is an Israeli prime minister committed to compromise on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, tomorrow there may be one committed to annexation. By the time the PLO is finally satisfied that it has found the perfect negotiating formula, there may be little to negotiate about.
C. Robert Zelnick is the ABC News chief correspondent in Tel Aviv.