There is no mistaking it: Jordan's King Hussein is a relieved man these days. He is at peace with himself and he sees a new opportunity for Arab-Israeli peace. He does not, however, seem especially optimistic. Anyone concerned with Mideast peace might do well to ask himself, ``Why isn't this man smiling?'' Why - as King Hussein put it during a lunch and an interview last month - does he fear that the present opportunity for peace may well be squandered?
Hussein, after all, is the longest-ruling political leader in the Middle East. He has been on the throne for 35 years (through six United States presidencies, and almost as many zigs and zags in US Middle East policy.) Earlier and more consistently than any other Arab leader, Hussein has also accepted the need to negotiate an Arab-Israeli peace based on compromise.
The King's single most unexpected, and potentially important, contribution to an eventual peace came this past summer. He renounced Jordan's claim to rule and represent the Palestinians of the West Bank of the Jordan River. It was a difficult decision. Palestinian nationalists consider as illegitimate Jordan's 1950 annexation of the West Bank under Hussein's grandfather, who was assassinated in 1951 by a Palestinian.
In a region locked into reenacting past battles and settling past scores, Hussein's turnaround has a wider significance: it is an attempt to learn from history. He wants to help jolt Arabs and Israelis into a fresh look at the conflict - and thus bring about fresh solutions.
The Palestinian intifadah (uprising) that has gripped the West Bank for 10 months, Hussein suggests, is at a historic turning point. Its message is that the Palestinians want and are willing to die for, political independence. This is independence from everyone, Hussein notes: from Israel, which has ruled the area since the 1967 war, and from Jordan, which ruled for the preceding 17 years. Hussein warns that despite the degree of surface calm Israeli troops may be able to restore, it would be dangerously short-sighted for anyone to think that Mideast stability, much less peace, will be possible without addressing this Palestinian nationalism.
If Hussein seems relieved these days, it is because his action has, at least in theory, cleared the way for those most directly involved in the conflict - the Israelis and Palestinians - to tackle their differences, and to make the difficult decisions necessary for compromise. For the Israelis, says Hussein, this means ``recognizing the Palestinians and their rights on their soil.'' For the Palestine Liberation Organization, it means ``acting in a way that would recognize Israel's right to exist on its soil.''
If Hussein seems pessimistic, or at least wary, it is because neither side seems ready to take advantage of the opportunity his summer surprise offered. It is possible, of course, that a superpower nudge toward compromise might help, a nudge which Hussein says he feels Moscow desires.
Regardless of who ends up in the White House in January, Hussein says he hopes the US will throw its full weight behind such compromise. His concern is that a new President may continue what he terms the Reagan administration's eight years of ``opportunities lost.''