King Hussein has maneuvered his tiny nation into a position where, for the first time in his long reign, Jordan is on good terms with all its neighbors and the King is respected in the region and the West as a peacemaker. ``For the first time, the King has thrust himself out in front of the Arab consensus on the Arab-Israeli conflict in trying to get negotiations started with Israel, and is under no pressure from any Arab party to back away from his position,'' marvels a senior Western diplomat who has observed the King for decades.
Since September 1984, when he launched his latest campaign for peace negotiations, the King has taken several difficult steps. After first reaching an accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in February 1985, he broke with it a year later and expelled its senior officials from Jordan. He has announced an independent Jordanian plan to develop the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He met secretly with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in April to discuss the nature of an international peace conference. His government has acknowledged reaching an ``American-brokered'' agreement between Israel and Jordan on the type of conference both would attend.
Only a few years ago, any of these moves would have left the King dangerously vulnerable to attack by radical Arab regimes that support hard-line Palestinians and are opposed to talks with Israel. But neither Syria nor the PLO, nor any other Arab party has openly criticized Hussein.
There are almost weekly meetings between Syrian and Jordanian officials. The King remains closely allied to Iraq and supportive of it in the war with Iran. His border with Israel remains quiet, and his kingdom seems an island of stability in a chaotic region.
What makes the King's apparently secure diplomatic position all the more remarkable, Western diplomats and Jordanian officials acknowledge, is that virtually all of his major foreign policy initiatives launched in the past three years have failed.
``It is true that the King has failed to deliver,'' a diplomat says. ``But what counts is that he is seen as the one who is trying. The King has emerged now as the man who has put forth a specific, realistic Arab plan to make peace with Israel. The Israelis now are the rejectionists.''
Hussein's foreign policy priorities since late 1984 have been:
To coordinate a peace strategy with the PLO that would result in a Jordanian-Palestinian team negotiating peace with Israel under the auspices of a UN-sponsored international peace conference.
To bring an end to the bloody Iraq-Iran war, which he perceives as a direct threat to Jordan and much of the Arab world.
To win approval by the US Congress of arms sales to Jordan to modernize his aging Army.
To persuade Syria to rejoin the Arab fold and abandon its support for Iran in the Gulf war.
Although Hussein and his dynamic prime minister, Zaid Rifai, have aggressively pursued all of the above goals, they have been frustrated repeatedly in their efforts to achieve some semblance of Arab unity or a start of negotiations with Israel.
Hussein's efforts to extract PLO chairman Yasser Arafat's agreement on a joint negotiating stance ended in Febrary 1986. For a year, the King tried to persuade Mr. Arafat to forswear violence and accept UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 as the basis for peace talks.
Arafat suspected that Jordan's peace moves might lead to an agreement with Israel that would shut out the PLO and preclude formation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank. Eventually, the PLO chairman opted for reconciliation with the hard-line factions of the PLO. At the Palestine National Council meeting in Algiers last spring, Arafat permitted the February 1985 accord with Hussein to be abrogated formally.
Hussein's efforts to find an alternative negotiating partner to the PLO have failed. On the West Bank, the PLO still claims the loyalty of virtually all activist Palestinians, despite Hussein's inauguration of a five-year development plan and a crackdown on pro-PLO Palestinians.
Neither has Hussein been successful in his effort to pull Syria along with him toward negotiations with Israel. At best, he has earned Syrian President Hafez Assad's silence and his grudging willingness to allow Hussein to explore negotiating options.
And although by Israeli, British, and US accounts Hussein and Peres have established a friendly relationship marked by deep mutual respect, the King was unable to give Peres enough concessions to help him sell the idea of negotiating with Jordan to the nationalist Likud bloc that composes half of the Israeli Cabinet.
Today, the King faces an Israeli government and society that is deeply divided over the question of pursuing peace with Jordan and the Palestinians. There seems little prospect that Israeli elections on the issue will be held before April 1988. Many Israeli analysts now believe the government might survive until its term expires in October 1988.
Senior Jordanian officials blame their failure to achieve a major breakthrough in peace talks on what they say is the Reagan administration's reluctance to commit itself at the highest level to pursuing Middle East peace.
``For three years, we in the Middle East have watched the high rate of fluctuation in this region of US foreign policy,'' complains a senior Jordanian official. ``People will never feel comfortable in continued dealings with you, regardless of how close they are to you. They look at how tough you talk and then at how easily you back away from tackling a tough problem.''
Jordanian officials say they are bitter about what they view as the Reagan administration's confused and inept handling of Middle East diplomacy, but confirm that Hussein is unlikely to change his policies any time soon, even though he feels let down by the US.
The King's willingness to hold on to his position of advocating negotiation with Israel is of vital concern to Peres, who hopes to turn the next Israeli elections into a referendum on peace. To do that, Peres must have a negotiating partner. He needs the King to remain publicly committed to talks with Israel.
``The King won't pull back,'' says a Western diplomat. ``The next real pressure point on him will be an Arab summit, if a summit occurs, because there the King won't be able to control the sort of position the Arabs might take. But unless and until that happens, he won't pull back, because he finds himself in a comfortable position right now.''