Problems with the King's advisers

JORDAN is not so absolute a monarchy as to cause critics of official policy to spare the King from an occasional private barb. Still there is respect for King Hussein's 34 years on the throne, appreciation for the fact that future useful work will also be done in his name, and knowledge of the realities of authoritarian states like Jordan where ``the walls have ears.''

So it is instructive for the visitor to be told by many in the Amman establishment that the King's advisers have been failing him of late, particularly his head of government, Prime Minister Ziyab Rifai, architect of Jordan's recent opening to Damascus and strategist behind Hussein's break with Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In principle, few here object to normalization of ties with Syria, a capable and dangerous foe. Nor does Jordanian opinion of Mr. Arafat differ markedly from that of Israel's Labor Party leaders, who view the PLO chief as tricky and unreliable, a man so consumed by the task of holding his organization together that he has long relegated resolution of the Palestinian question to secondary importance.

Yet the King's advisers are accused of four serious errors in judgment.

First, they assumed Syrian willingness to enter the peace process directly or else to license Jordan to explore the possibilities for a deal with Israel. In fact, Syrians' positions on both substantive and procedural matters are so extreme as to preclude their involvement in talks.

The prevailing policy in Damascus is, therefore, to torpedo any moves by others toward a separate peace.

Second, Mr. Rifai and his colleagues thought President Hafez Assad's aversion to Arafat was so pronounced that he might assist Hussein in conducting a quest for a more pliant PLO representative.

Not quite so. While Mr. Assad has little love for Arafat, his taste runs to far more militant Palestinians whom Hussein could not even consider as negotiating partners.

Moreover, Syria's position in Lebanon has now deteriorated to the point where a period of at least tacit cooperation with mainstream PLO groups is now expedient.

Christians have united behind President Amin Gemayel's opposition to Damascus-imposed power sharing among the country's warring confessional groups. The Druze of Walid Jumblatt seem content to remain neutral so long as their Shouf Mountain canton is undisturbed. And the pro-Syrian Amal Shiite militia is losing influence daily to the Iran-inspired Hizbullah faction. Thus, in exchange for some operational freedom the PLO is willing to help Syria, at least to a point.

Third, after their February rift on the question of PLO endorsement of Security Council Resolution 242, Rifai and company assumed that by moving beyond a kingly proclamation of noncooperation with the PLO to an active search for new Palestinian leadership, Jordan could either pressure Arafat into changing his position or goad the Palestinian community into replacing him.

Instead, the direct assault on Arafat has served to rally Palestinian constituencies on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in Jordan and throughout the diaspora, to Arafat's defense. Arafat himself has moved toward rapprochement with Assad and the Palestinian factions living in Syria, a development Jordanians justly view with alarm.

Finally, the King's advisers thought that by hinting at a separate deal with the Israelis, Jordan could pressure at least part of the Arab world to retreat from the 1974 Rabat formula, which declared the PLO the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

That, of course, has not happened, will not happen, and -- given the state of Arab political affairs -- cannot happen.

Jordanians have further been embarrassed by some unstylish diplomacy on the part of their leaders. The move to Syria began, for example, with an abject royal apology to Assad for attacks against Syria allegedly launched from Jordanian soil by members of the Muslim brotherhood. Having commenced negotiations from his knees, the King has yet to appear the equal of the tough peasant from Damascus.

A more comical blunder involved attempts to elevate Al-Fatah's former military intelligence chief, Atallah Atallah -- code named Abu Zaim -- as a challenger to Arafat. Regarded by Western diplomats as suspect, Mr. Zaim lost what little credibility he had by moving to convene the Fatah military council to rescind his recent ejection by PLO leaders. Alas, only a handful of the dozens who showed up enjoyed a status higher than that of ``shill,'' a result confidently predicted by Arafat's Amman lieutenants.

These are not games Jordan can afford to play. With Palestinians now composing about two-thirds of its own population, the regime's long-term stability requires an identification with the Palestinian cause.

Hussein has powerful reasons for moving toward negotiations with Israel and ample grounds for frustration with Arafat. But by permitting a PLO option to lapse in exchange for an illusory Syrian option, the strong sense in Jordan's capital is that the King's advisers have been making mistakes.

C. Robert Zelnick is the ABC News chief correspondent in Tel Aviv.

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