WHILE the United States intensifies its bid to draw King Hussein into a key role in negotiating Mideast peace, Jordanian officials here insist that the Palestine Liberation Organization is the only Arab party entitled to strike a deal with Israel. Jordan, the well-placed sources say, will back a compromise negotiated between the Palestinians and Israel but will not take a leading role in any talks on the future of territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
"The PLO is the only party which can afford and has the right to compromise on Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories," a source close to the government says.
The revivial of peace efforts by US Secretary of State James Baker III, who has visited the area three times since March, hinges on a major role for Jordan in leading a Jordanian-Palestinian negotiating team. The Jordanian daily, Al Rai, on Tuesday said that President Bush emphasized in a recent letter to Hussein Washington's preference for a joint Jordanian-Palestinian team.
But according to PLO officials in Amman, Hussein has made it clear to the PLO that he will back any outcome of the suggested peace talks accepted by the PLO and will veto any solution rejected by the organization.
In fact, Yasser Arafat's mainstream PLO has been further strengthened by a historic reconciliation last week with Syria, when Damascus agreed to the right of the PLO to decide the form of Palestinian representation at any peace talks. In addition, Syria and the PLO were united in their demands that the United Nations play an authoritative, if not a binding role at the peace talks, and that there be international guarantees to implement any agreement that might be reached.
Although Jordan has publicly taken a more flexible position on Baker's proposal for an indirect UN role, Jordanian sources imply that it might back the Syrian-PLO stance.
"The PLO primarily, and Syria secondarily, have a bigger say in deciding the negotiating position - after all, it is their lands that are under Israeli occupation," a senior Jordanian says.
In 1967 Israel also occupied the Syrian Golan Heights - a strategic area that it later annexed in defiance of international, including US, censure.
In 1988, after 38 years of Jordanian legal responsiblity for the West Bank, Hussein reliniquished his claim in favor of the PLO, eight months after the eruption of the Palestinian intifadah (uprising) against Israeli occupation.
Since then, Jordanian officials have repeatedly indicated that Hussein would only reconsider his decision if requested to do so by the PLO and the Palestinians.
In recent public statements, Hussein has appeared willing to settle for - if not favor - a backbench role in any future peace talks, but has not closed the door on the idea of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.
Last week, he told the French magazine Le Point that he was ready to revive a 1985 accord with the PLO which involved formation of a joint team and the setting up of a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation following any Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But Palestinian sources say Hussein has told the PLO that even if a joint team were set up, the Palestinian side - and not Jordan - will have to negotiate with Israel over the Palestinian problem.
On the surface, the king's view seems compatible with Mr. Baker's two-pronged approach to a peace process involving Arab-Israeli talks along with simultaneous Israeli-Palestinian talks.
But the US plan envisages a role for non-PLO affiliated Palestinian residents from the occupied territories. Jordan, on the other hand, believes that regardless of direct PLO involvement, the organization will ultimately determine the Palestinian position during the talks.
"Jordan is committed to its position regarding the signficance of the PLO's role in the peace process and its continuation as the party entitled to represent the Palestinians or ask Jordan to form a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to the talks," a senior Jordanian official says.
AFTER it dropped its responsibility toward the West Bank, Jordan's claims to territories occupied by Israel have been confined to a very small border strip taken over by Israel after the war.
But Jordan has repeatedly refused to enter into separate talks with Israel, insisting on a comprehensive settlement that involves addressing the national rights of the Palestinian people.
Jordanian sources said that Baker has told Amman that the US will not accept the idea of establishing an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. One option that might be accepted by Jordan and the PLO will be a future confederation - an option that both sides say is premature to discuss.
Analysts believe there are several regional and domestic factors that explain Jordan's low-key position on the peace process. To begin with, they say, Hussein is not optimistic that Israel will accept any territorial compromise.
Therefore, Jordan does not feel it is wise to take a final and well-defined position on procedural details concerning the peace process that may antagonize the various parties concerned, they say. Hussein has to strike a balance between public opinion at home, which is sensitive to any compromise with Israel, and relations with the PLO, the US, and his Arab neighbors.
But an important factor, well-informed Jordanian analysts say, is Hussein's personal concern that he and his family not go down in history as having betrayed the Palestinian people. The king has bitter memories of 1952 when his grandfather was assassinated in Jerusalem after advocating a UN plan for dividing Palestine between Arabs and Jews.
"All the Arabs, and even Palestinians who have accepted a compromise were eventually, killed. If there has to be compromise, the PLO might be the only party which can get away with it," a Jordanian analyst says.