Jordan's King bids for new chapter in ties to Palestinians. West Bank `withdrawal' challenges PLO but also allows more cooperation

Moves by King Hussein to distance Jordan from the West Bank are viewed by Palestinians in the area as both a challenge and a conciliatory gesture to the Palestinian Liberation Organization. On the one hand, they say, the King's withdrawal is meant to show the PLO and Palestinians how dependent they are on Jordan's financial and diplomatic support, and to challenge the PLO to provide the same backing.

On the other hand, Hussein is lowering Jordan's profile in the West Bank, which could lead to greater cooperation with the PLO. The PLO has opposed Jordanian influence in the Israeli-occupied territories, and this has been an obstacle to better cooperation.

On Saturday, Hussein dissolved the Jordanian parliament's lower house, half of whose members are Palestinian representatives of the West Bank. This followed an announcement Thursday that the government was canceling its 5-year development plan for the territories.

The moves were designed to limit Jordan's economic involvement in the West Bank, and its political role as representative of the Palestinians. The King officially announced the measures in a speech yesterday, which went to great measures to defer that role to the PLO.

Hussein said he was cutting legal and administrative ties. But he stopped short of saying what practical measures he would take, and whether these would include canceling Jordanian passports held by Palestinians on the West Bank or stopping salary payments to Palestinians serving as civil servants in the area.

The moves have been linked with the result of the recent Arab summit in Algiers, which reaffirmed the PLO's status as the sole representative of the Palestinians. In a similar gesture, Hussein dissolved parliament after the 1974 Arab summit, which designated the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians.

Supporters of Jordan and the West Bank said the current Jordanian steps were the product of Hussein's frustration with the Palestinians and the Arab world, as well as with the United States and Israel. The King is stepping back, they said, to demonstrate to all sides that Jordan is key to an improvement in the lot of the Palestinians the Middle East peace process.

According to one Palestinian with close links to the Jordanian government, Hussein was issuing a challenge to the PLO in response to its insistence on exclusive representation of the Palestinians and opposition to Jordanian influence in the occupied territories.

``The King saw that the uprising in the territories was as much against him as against Israel, and he is now saying to the PLO, you take responsibility,'' he said.

Yassir Obeid, Jordan's chief health administrator in the West Bank, said Hussein was telling the Palestinian leadership: ``You don't want my assistance, OK, but your people will be the first to suffer.''

Backers of Jordan also attribute Hussein's disengagement to his disillusionment with American and Israeli positions regarding the Middle East peace process. The US, they said, had failed to provide full political support to Jordan and adequate financial aid to its West Bank development plan, and was toying with the idea of separate contact with the PLO.

Israel has failed to support an international Middle East peace conference advocated by Jordan. The Arab states have not given adequate funds to Jordan's development plan while backing the PLO as sole Palestinian representative at the Algiers summit conference.

PLO supporters in the West Bank see the Jordanian pullback as a gain for their organization - an indication that Hussein realizes he can't represent the Palestinians.

``Hussein is responding to the message of the uprising and of the Arab summit: that the PLO is the sole representative of the Palestinian people,'' said Hanna Siniora, editor of the Palestinian Al Fajr newspaper.

Faisal Husseini another leading PLO supporter, said the King ``is sending a message that there is no Jordanian option; there is no way but the Palestinian option Lthrough the PLO.'' (Israel jailed Mr. Husseini Sunday for six months without trial. He was accused of fomenting unrest on behalf of the PLO.)

Hussein's moves ``will strengthen the role of the PLO in the occupied territories,'' said Mustafa Natshat, a former mayor of Hebron deposed by Israeli authorities.

Mr. Siniora and other PLO backers expressed hope that the reduction of ties between Jordan and the West Bank would end the competition over influence with the PLO. They also hope it will pave the way to renewed political coordination between Hussein and PLO chief Yasser Arafat, who reportedly is set to visit Jordan this week.

Hussein canceled that coordination in April 1986 after the PLO failed to meet Jordanian conditions for participation in peace talks. These conditions included unqualified acceptance of United Nations Resolution 242, which implies recognition of Israel's right to exist.

``This may open a new chapter in relations between the Palestinians and Jordanians,'' says Siniora.

Despite the latest Jordanian moves, few Palestinians say King Hussein will severe ties with the West Bank, whose residents have strong business and family links with counterparts on the East Bank of the Jordan River.

Palestinians in the West Bank carry Jordanian passports and travel frequently across the Jordan River. A cutoff of relations would leave them isolated under Israeli rule - a development which would be nothing short of ``catastrophic,'' in the words of Musa Abu Ghosh, a member of the Jordanian parliament from the West Bank town of Ramallah.

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