KING HUSSEIN has moved himself to the sidelines, but he is by no means out of the game. If anything, the King's decision to cut ties to the West Bank and leave the field to the Palestine Liberation Organization emphasizes Jordan's pivotal role in the Mideast. Hussein's tactic puts pressure directly on Yasser Arafat and his colleagues. Proclaiming the PLO the ``sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,'' the King in effect said, Now make good on that claim. Jordan has been criticized by some Palestinian for failing to bring about any change for the better in the occupied West Bank.
Mr. Arafat is scheduled to travel to Amman soon to talk to Hussein. Certainly things don't look good for the PLO. It is isolated within the Arab community, its resources are slim, and Israel and the United States refuse to recognize it as a diplomatic player. Thus its power to do anything substantive on the West Bank is greatly reduced. Arab nations pledged recently to increase financial support for the PLO, but that rhetoric has not yet been converted into currency.
Still, Hussein's action is an opening of sorts for the Palestinians, however the leadership roles of Jordan and the PLO eventually work out. The opportunity, or at least the semblance of one, exists for the PLO to rethink strategy and start acting like a government with a country. Apparent responsibility could lead the organization to speak and act with greater unity and move toward a more credible negotiating stance. This would presumably include acceptance of the UN Mideast resolutions that require recognition of Israel. This might not occur, however, until the moment of accord, at which time Israel would have to yield its own dogma concerning the Palestinians.
The question now is whether Arafat can rise to the occasion and break new diplomatic ground. The PLO's history of internal divisiveness would indicate he can't. But the Middle East is a region that's given to surprises. Hussein has provided one; others could follow.
Jordan's measured withdrawal also puts the United States and Israel in uneasy positions. Both countries face imminent elections. Mideast peace efforts are likely to be on hold until the new administrations are in place. But thanks to Hussein, both countries may have to deal more directly with the question of just how to recognize a Palestinian negotiating presence. Until now, a joint Jordanian-Palestinian representation has been the preferred formula - one rejected by the Palestinians. Jordan's repositioning puts the spotlight back on the Mideast and should generate closer scrutiny of candidates' stances on the region during coming campaigns.
The Reagan administration has been doing the right thing in trying to keep a hand in the Middle East peace process. Its ``Jordan option'' has just been given a reality check by King Hussein. It will soon be up to a new US leadership to take over Mideast policy. US voters have a need to know how their presidential aspirants would balance commitments to Israel with recognition of Palestinian rights of self-government - and whether they are ready to commit the energy required.
What will the PLO do with its Hussein-bestowed mandate? What will evolve as administrations change in Israel and in the US? Hussein will be watching closely. If the right opening occurs, say a Palestinian realization that partnership with Jordan is essential, he'll be right back in the game.