Hussein's effort to discredit Arafat suffers setback. Slaying of West Bank mayor is reminder of risks involved

The assassination of Zafer Masri, a Palestinian mayor on the West Bank, has punched a hole in King Hussein's effort to discredit the Palestine Liberation Organization's leadership. If the Jordanian monarch were seeking to convince West Bank Palestinians that they should step around the PLO and join him in negotiations with Israel, diplomats here say, the slaying of Mr. Masri served as a brutal reminder of the risks involved.

``It will take more than one assassination to intimidate the King,'' a Western diplomat said, ``but Masri's death will certainly give him food for thought.''

Privately, Jordanian officials insisted that Masri's slaying will not deter the King. They spoke harshly of the PLO's leadership and said Jordan would continue its effort to present the facts of what Jordan believes to be the PLO's failure to the Arab world and the West Bank.

King Hussein kicked off his campaign against PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and his associates with a sharply critical speech last month. Hussein accused PLO leaders of having misled him in year-long negotiations and blamed them for the stalemate in the Middle East peace process.

The King's speech and his subsequent remarks have angered Palestinians and baffled diplomats here.

``I had assumed that the speech would basically cover a retreat to the sidelines,'' said one Western diplomat. ``But he doesn't seem to be beating a path toward the sidelines at all. People here are fairly shocked. The King's approach has turned into a frontal assault on the PLO.''

On March 1, an interview with the King published in two Kuwaiti newspapers quoted him as saying that he would continue peace discussions if a new Palestinian representative emerged. Hussein reportedly also said that he could no longer cooperate with the current PLO leaders, accusing them of ``wanting to rule the land, not just restore it.''

The next day Mr. Masri, a moderate whose appointment as mayor of Nablus last December was tacitly supported by Jordan and the mainstream PLO, was assassinated.

Neither Jordanians nor Palestinians have said that the mainstream PLO was responsbile for the assassination. Palestinian splinter groups opposed to Arafat -- the Abu Nidal faction and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, led by George Habash -- have claimed responsibility for the killing.

In Amman, both the PLO and the Jordanian government condemned Masri's killing. It was the first time the two sides have publicly agreed on something since talks between them broke down in January.

Indeed, on Monday, as tens of thousands of Palestinians attended Masri's funeral in Nablus, yet another delegation of dignitaries arrived at the palace in Amman to pledge their support to the king. The dignitaries are shown each night on Jordanian television as they stream to the palace to praise the King's speech. No prominent West Bank figures are among the groups, however, and Jordanians and Palestinians have begun to ridicule the nightly broadcasts.

``King Hussein's campaign cannot work,'' said one member of the Palestine National Council, the PLO's legislative body. ``You can always bring a few sheikhs in, but these are not our people. Nobody here is happy with what's happening -- not Palestinians or Jordanians. The King is overdoing it.''

Hussein's efforts seem aimed at convincing West Bank Palestinians that the PLO is more concerned with its own survival than that of the Palestinian people.

The King appealed directly to the West Bank in his televised address, stressing that hope of ending Israel's 19-year occupation was slipping away. Either they could persuade Mr. Arafat to join with Jordan in accepting an invitation to an international peace conference, or they could decide Arafat was no longer their representative and go without him, the King implied.

His speech, one Western diplomat here said, ``fell flat both in the Arab world and on the West Bank.''

But the King seems determined to push harder and now seems to be engaged in an all-out battle with the PLO for Arab and Palestinian support.

It is a battle that diplomats and Palestinians say they believe he can only lose. As yet no Arab state has supported the King's speech, and even Egypt, which was allied with Jordan in pursuing peace negotiations, has emphasized the need for a Jordanian-PLO reconciliation.

``The King has stepped outside the bounds of Arab consensus'' by calling into question the PLO's right to lead the Palestinians, one diplomat said. ``The Arab League resolved at [its] summit in 1974 that the PLO was the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.''

Hussein's speech was extraordinary because it pointed out that the 1974 decision had turned the focus of the Arabs away from regaining the land occupied by Israel in 1967 and toward establishing the PLO's credibility. The organization is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, and is considered an unacceptable negotiator by both the United States and Israel.

In his speech, the King criticized both the Arab states -- for their commitment to rhetoric rather than to action -- and the PLO, for its failure to take clear decisions at crucial junctures. Hussein's speech and subsequent remarks make it clear that he has decided the most important issue to Jordan is the return of the occupied land.

What is not clear is how far the King is willing to go if he fails to receive support, either from the Arab states or the West Bank. Although analysts here admit they are surprised by the strength of Hussein's speech and his ongoing campaign against the PLO leadership, they are still betting that he will not go alone to talks with Israel.

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