Israel and Jordan, aided by the United States, are cooperating more than ever to break the Palestine Liberation Organization's grip on the West Bank, Palestinian activists say. Formally, Israel and Jordan remain in a state of war, with no direct contact between the two governments. But Israeli officials have publicly applauded King Hussein's split with the PLO and the King's efforts to rebuild his influence on the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Many Palestinians see the convergence of US, Israeli, and Jordanian views on promoting Jordanian influence in the territories as nothing short of a conspiracy to prolong Israel's occupation and undermine the PLO.
To bolster their claims, activists point to Jordan's unveiling of its first comprehensive West Bank development plan, which envisions spending $150 million annually for five years; the US's decision to contribute $4.5 million to this plan; and to Israel's crackdown on pro-PLO institutions and individuals on the West Bank. Publicly, PLO supporters dismiss Hussein's chances of dislodging the PLO.
``The people will not be bribed, or bought, or pressured,'' said Hanna Siniora, editor of the pro-PLO Arabic daily, Al-Fajr.
But privately, some acknowledge that they are worried.
``People both can be bought and can be intimidated,'' said Sari Nuseibeh, a professor at Bir Zeit University, one of the West Bank's four Arab universities. ``It's a question of how much.''
Indeed, administrators of private voluntary organizations that operate on the West Bank observed with dismay the response of some farmers to the US announcement that it would, for the first time, give funds directly to Jordan for use on the West Bank. Dozens lined up at the offices of the organizations they know to receive US money, mistakenly believing that the funds would be distributed through these groups. Each year, the US gives $14 million to the groups for West Bank projects. But the $4.5 million will be distributed from Amman, Jordan.
Jordanians scoff at accusations that they are part of a conspiracy. They argue that Jordan is merely interested in helping the 1.3 million Palestinians living on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Since ending his efforts at coordinating diplomatic moves with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat last February, King Hussein has pushed the image of Jordan as the only Arab state concerned with the daily problems of the Palestinians living under occupation, and with seeking a way to end Israel's control over the territories. The King is trying hard to convince Palestinians that he represents their interests better than does Mr. Arafat.
The struggle between the King and his supporters and the PLO and its supporters is bitter and is likely to affect the chances for a negotiated Middle East peace settlement.
The King considers the support of a significant number of Palestinians the key to his ability to maneuver toward negotiations with Israel over the future of the occupied territories. The PLO, reeling from military and diplomatic setbacks, considers preservation of its symbolic status as the sole representative of all Palestinians essential to ensuring a role for it in any future peace negotiations.
In the past two weeks, a ``pamphlet war'' has erupted on the West Bank between pro-Jordanian and pro-PLO factions, with each accusing the other of betraying the Palestinians. The escalation of rhetoric, some Palestinians warn, could lead to violence.
The only question remaining in the mind of most activists is whether the ``conspiracy'' aims at replacing the PLO with a pro-Jordanian leadership (which could enter peace negotiations) or whether it simply aims at keeping people in the territories quiet in the absence of any diplomatic action. West Bank activists say they are convinced the King's goal is to weaken their efforts at promoting Palestinian nationalism.
The method, according to the activists, is simple: a combination of direct payoffs to the rural population -- which is more conservative and, therefore, more inclined to support Jordan's view that the main goal is to end occupation -- and harassment of pro-PLO individuals and institutions. They note that the Jordanian development plan reserves one-third of its projected budget for payments to individuals and institutions.
The means to achieve the goal, activists say, is a combination of outside money, specifically from the US, and Israeli cooperation in Jordan's efforts to punish its enemies and reward its friends.
Hussein announced the collapse of joint efforts with the PLO on Feb. 19. He then closed 25 Jordanian offices of Al-Fatah, the PLO's largest faction; expelled the senior Fatah official and several junior officials; clamped down on those Palestinians crossing from the West Bank to the East Bank who were seen to be anti-Jordanian; and tightened security in Jordan's Palestinian refugee camps.
The King then announced Jordan's West Bank development plan, to be administered solely by Jordan, without the participation of the PLO.
In the past, Jordan and the PLO have together distributed millions of dollars on the West Bank through the Joint Fund. The fund was established by the Arab League to strengthen the Palestinian community in the occupied territories and counter Israeli settlement expansion on the West Bank. The Joint Fund now has virtually ceased to operate.
Both Palestinian and Western activists on the West Bank are trying to decide how they can counter the King's moves.
``The strategy of the [private voluntary organizations] up until 1983 was that we had to hang in there until the occupation is over,'' said one administrator who spoke on condition he not be named. ``We've been handing people money to encourage them to stay. Now the question is, what do we do to help people survive under long-term occupation?''
Few West Bank Palestinians believe the King will find the money to carry out his plan in full. Hussein told journalists last month that he would seek Arab, European, and US funding for the plan. No funding, other than a token US contribution, has yet come through.
But an Israeli West Bank economist, Meron Benvenisti, insisted that the funding of the plan is not as significant as the intention behind it.
``The importance of the King's development plan is not whether it is going to be implemented,'' Mr. Benvenisti said. ``The importance lies in the plan itself. It shows how the King is thinking of the future. What is important is the assumption that the occupation will continue into the indefinite future.''
US, Israeli, and Jordanian sources all dispute Benvenisti's view. They insist that the King wants to build an alternative, legitimate Palestinian voice on the West Bank that will at least persuade the PLO to moderate its stance and make negotiations possible.
``The US administration has no use for the PLO,'' one diplomat said. ``Washington listened to the King's speech when he blamed the PLO leadership for the collapse of the peace process and would like to support the King. The idea is to give the Palestinians in the territories a stake in a peaceful solution.''
Benvenisti holds that, in the absence of a real peace process, the inevitable effect of the King's efforts will be the enhancement of the status quo -- Israel's continued control over the territories.
The King's development plan will aid conservative sectors, such as farmers and small businessmen. The goal, Benvenisti and other critics say, is to make Israeli control over the West Bank easier by ensuring a degree of economic prosperity. The cost, according to the critics, is the abandonment of any development projects designed to create a sense of independent nationhood among Palestinians.