JORDAN'S King Hussein has begun an effort to coordinate Arab resistance to international pressure on Jordan and Syria to sign separate peace treaties with Israel.
The king has already reached an understanding with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad not to sign unilateral treaties with Israel before the latter's withdrawal from the Arab territories occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, according to official sources.
In a short visit to Cairo last week, the king tried to enlist Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's support for the Jordanian and Syrian positions. But according to official and diplomatic sources, Cairo refused, preferring to maintain its role as a peace broker in the region.
Yesterday the parties in the main arena of Middle East peace talks - the Israelis and the Palestinians - continued to trade accusations about the difficulties hindering their pact.
Israel asserted that a delay in beginning a pull-out of its troops from the occupied Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho, initially set for Dec. 13, would not endanger the peace process, and the Palestinians warned that the Israeli position was indeed putting the landmark agreement on limited Palestinian autonomy in jeopardy.
The new Jordanian strategy follows reports that Jordan and Israel were about to reach a peace treaty involving an Israeli withdrawal from 117 square miles of Jordanian territory that Israel has occupied since 1968.
Jordanian officials say that the kingdom has been under pressure to sign a peace treaty with Israel since the conclusion of the historic accord between the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel in Washington last September.
Following the signing, the Jordanian government disengaged from the joint Jordanian-Palestinian negotiating team and formally signed an Israeli-Jordanian agenda the very next day.
But the PLO-Israeli accord, reached secretly in Oslo last August, has triggered serious debate among Jordanian decisionmakers and advisers to King Hussein. There appear to be two main views held by senior member of the Jordanian government. The first argues that Jordan should ensure its inclusion in any implementation of the Palestinian autonomy plan in the Gaza Strip and Jericho.
Proponents of this view worry that Jordan will be excluded from the benefits of the peace process or even be totally dealt out of a new regional economic and security set-up.
The second view suggests that Jordan should not involve itself in any direct role to set up Palestinian autonomy, especially since the final outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is unclear.
Some analysts believe that signing a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan could mend fences with the Gulf states, which severed political and financial aid to the country after the king's refusal to join the war efforts against Iraq in 1991.
Yet for many Jordanian officials, prospects of a peace treaty and normalization with Israel prior to a solution to the Palestinian problem could spell disaster for the country.
``Even if Jordan and Israel agreed on solving bilateral disputes, as long as there is no solution for the Palestinian problem the stability of Jordan will be in jeopardy,'' a well-placed Jordanian official says.
Jordan hosts the biggest concentration of Palestinian refugees in the Arab world, about 1.4 million, and many worry that a solution that falls short of addressing Palestinian rights will lead to the permanent settlement of Palestinians in Jordan and even a new influx of dissatisfied Palestinians.
According to official sources, Israel has offered to address the issues of refugees and water rights - areas of major concern - with Jordan as a prelude to a bilateral treaty. But Jordan appears to have decided that without a final solution to the Palestinian problem, a peace treaty with Israel will remain shaky and could upset the country's internal stability.
If this stance is ratified and endorsed by the king, as recent official statements suggest it might be, it will represent a setback for those who argue for a total disengagement from the Palestinians' problems and a focus on Jordanian interests.
The advocates of disassociating the Jordanian position from the developments on the Israeli-Palestinian track gained momentum following the signing of the PLO-Israeli agreement.
For his part, King Hussein seems to be trying to keep all his options open.
In a speech inaugurating a newly elected Parliament last week, he implied that foreign policy remains his prerogative and that the peace process was irreversible.
King Hussein made it clear that the final status of Jerusalem will be the crucial issue that will determine the future of peace between the Arabs and the Israelis.
``I am fully convinced ... that we all believe that a just and a comprehensive peace will not be completed until Jerusalem becomes the city of peace - its symbol and its essence,'' he told the new Parliament.