Jordan's King Hussein is refocusing his diplomatic efforts. The King's chief concern now, say senior officials here, is ensuring his kingdom's survival in the face of what he fears may be Israel's long-term occupation of the West Bank.
King Hussein has lost hope of making any progress toward negotiating a return of the West Bank from Israel in the foreseeable future, these officials say. The most important factors blocking progress toward a negotiated settlement, they say, are the PLO's refusal to accept the minimum conditions necessary for negotiations to start; United States disinterest in the region; Syrian opposition to any talks that would not involve a return of the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights to Syria; and the handing over of Israel's premiership to hard-liner Yitzhak Shamir.
Faced with such a stalemate, Jordan's only option is to ensure its survival, several officials contended in separate interviews.
Since February, Hussein has taken a series of controversial steps that the officials say are aimed at preventing a new flood of refugees from the West Bank. The centerpiece is an ambitious five-year development plan for the West Bank and Jordan which is apparently designed to ease tensions from the stalemate by offering economic hope to Jordanians and Palestinains.
``In the lack of any hope of possible settlement, we believe it is of the utmost importance to enable West Bankers to live in their towns and villages,''Jordanian Prime Minister Zaid Rifai says. ``The only way to preserve the Arab nature of the West Bank is to preserve the Arab population of the West Bank.''
Jordan is motivated by security concerns, Mr. Rifai says, and fears of stagnation, despair, and the possible influx of thousands of refugees into Jordan, which is experiencing its own economic and political troubles after a decade of rapid growth. ``If [West Bank Palestinians] are evicted, where are they going to go?'' he asks. ``We want to keep them in the West Bank at any cost.''
Jordan's announced development plan and other recent moves initially aroused bitter criticism from the Palestine Liberation Organization and its supporters on the West Bank, and from opponents to the regime in Jordan. But both critics and supporters of Hussein's policies now acknowledge that he has enjoyed some success. Jordan counts the establishment of an Arab-owned-and-operated bank in the West Bank and the appointment of Palestinian mayors to run towns formerly run by Israeli officers as tangible evidence that it can deliver material benefits to residents.
``Everything has been done in a carefully measured way. . . ,'' says a senior Western diplomat admiringly.
How well Hussein's policies fare is of riveting concern to US Middle East policymakers.
The King's tiny, fragile nation is bordered by three of the region's most powerful states -- Iraq, Syria, and Israel. It is, as Jordan University sociologist Sari Nasir, puts it, ``a nation of refugees,'' a heterogeneous collection of Bedouins, Circassians, and Palestinians, most of whom came here from somewhere else.
The greatest influx of refugees occurred in 1948 and again in 1967, when thousands of Palestinians fled the Israeli Army. But Jordan's earlier history as a haven for refugees is underscored by the name of a main commercial street in Amman. ``The `Street of the Refugees,' '' explains one official, ``is named not for the Palestinians, but for the Circassians, who started coming in 1875 to escape Russian Czarist oppression.''
What Hussein, who has ruled since 1953, has created is stability -- and a large middle class that benefited from the 1970s oil boom. What worries Jordanian leaders is the coincidence of economic recession in the Arab world with diplomatic stagnation and growing adherence to anti-Western Islamic tenets.
Jordan is considered an important friend of the West in an increasingly hostile Arab world. The urbane, pragmatic Hussein is regarded as an indispensable player in any settlement to the Palestinian problem -- both because an estimated 60 percent of his population is of Palestinian origin and because Israel says it is willing to negotiate with him, but not the PLO, which it says is a terrorist organization.
That is why Mideast policymakers in the US have anxiously watched Hussein's moves, which include:
Ending joint diplomatic efforts with PLO chief Yasser Arafat and expelling some of his ranking officials. To the surprise and relief of Western analysts, there has been little resistance to these moves, either from the Arab world or from Jordanians.
``There are many reasons why there have been no demonstrations, no open protest against the King's expulsion of Fatah [Arafat's PLO faction],'' said the Western diplomat. ``One is that the Palestinians here have a healthy respect for the police and security forces. But another is that, to a large extent, the Palestinians have become integrated into this society. This is their land, and they would think twice about opposing the King.''
Announcing the five-year development plan, which the PLO has criticized because it is to be implemented without its participation. Jordan's only concession to the critics has been to reiterate its commitment to the PLO as the ``sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.'' But ``involving the PLO in the plan is not going to be possible if it means sharing activities within the competence of the Jordanian govenment,'' Rifai says.
Jordan continues to seek support for the plan in the form of donations from the US, Europe, and Japan. They have announced that more than two dozen nations will attend a conference here Nov. 8 to discuss the plan.
Moving against the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. The group advocates a return to fundamental Islamic values. Its growing cultural and social influence was seen as a potential base for opposition to Hussein's pro-Western policies. Apparently at Syria's request, Hussein last year repudiated the Muslim Brothers for periodically infiltrating into Syria from Jordan. Some Muslim Brothers were arrested, and the infiltrations stopped.
Rifai insists that the Muslim Brothers represent no threat to the regime. ``This country is blessed by the fact that our King is a Hashemite, so no one can score points against him on religious grounds,'' Rifai said, in reference to Hussein's claim to be a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. ``The Muslim Brotherhood is recognized as a religious organization here. . . . But we don't let them get involved in political affairs.''
Western observers and Jordanians say several factors contribute to the King's ability to pursue unpopular policies. Perhaps most significant is the lack of viable alternative and the feeling, shared by most Jordanians and Palestinians, that other Arab regimes are far worse.
``The King is popular for many reasons,'' says Dr. Jamil Shaar, a former Jordanian official and critic of many of Hussein's policies. ``Whatever alternative people can think of is very frightening. Even the most harshly critical of the system, say the communists, believe this. . . . The King has carried things on from 1953 to 1986 in the midst of a mad Arab world.''