AMMAN, JORDAN — King Hussein won't take "no" for an answer--the no of the United States and Israel to an international conference on a Middle East peace settlement.
In a frank and important speech to the Jordanian Parliament on Nov. 1, the king revealed some progress on his pet idea for such a conference. Unlike President Hafez Assad of Syria, the king is by nature an impatient, trustful person who abhors inaction and who is also obsessed with the passage of time: For him every move is always "the last chance" for Middle East peace. So during the past eight months he has moved into the political vacuum created by U.S. Secretary of State George P. Schultz's policy of benign neglect of the Middle East. Schultz's attitude is that since an international conference is anathema to the United States and Israel, the only thing to do is to wait indefinitely for the Arabs to accept the idea of direct bilateral talks with Israel. The king, for one, will never go into such direct talks.
Hussein claimed that, perhaps under his prodding, the U.S. attitude had "progressed" and that Washington now accepted an international conference in principle, provided agreement was reached on the matter of its work, jurisdiction and participants. And there's the rub--Hussein listed no less than seven variations on who should take part. Participants would be "the parties to the conflict"--Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestine Liberation Organization, but not Egypt or "the concerned states," which would include Egypt plus the big two or the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, either as full members or as observers.
The Soviet Union has suggested that the membership of the conference should be decided by a preparatory committee--provided agreement could be reached on the membership of such a committee. The king said he approved of the Soviet Union's view that if the preparatory committee became necessary, it should consist of the five permanent Security Council members only. Israel and the United States want as few representatives as possible around the table, while the Arabs want as many as possible, with the Soviet Union somewhere in-between.
Very substantial differences also remain on how, if convened, the international conference should do its work. The United States and Israel want it merely to provide a decorative framework, limited to plenary opening and closing sessions with the real negotiations taking place in separate, bilateral talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Jordan and the Arabs and the Soviet Union want all the conference members to participate in all the discussions at every level.
With all these important details yet to be decided, was the king being over-optimistic, as is his wont, when he said in his speech that there was near-unanimity on the holding of the conference? The Jordanian answer is: We have no alternative to being optimistic. In fact, what the king has been doing is to talk so much about the conference to so many different people--the West Europeans, the Scandinavians, the Japanese and the nonaligned--and has gotten them to put forward so many of their ideas, that he has gradually nudged the United States and Israel into a position where the conference becomes a fait accompli, because to go on saying "no" would be displeasing to many others besides the Arabs.
The Arabs see Schultz as the main opponent to any move forward but, they say, if Reagan is now a lame-duck President, his secretary of state is also a lame duck, with limited powers of obstruction from now on. In his planning, the king has clearly given great importance to the Soviet role. This is not something new, nor is it just a bargaining ploy against the United States. At least since the 1973 Six-Day War he has consistently maintained that this region must not be the exclusive preserve of one of the big two powers.
The king's categorical statement in his speech that the PLO must attend the peace conference, that the PLO remained the sole representative of the Palestinians and that Jordan could never be a substitute for the PLO, seemed surprising to some. Hussein and his advisers, since the breakdown of talks with Arafat in February, have been hostile to the current PLO leadership and to pro-Arafat PLO supporters on the West Bank. But the regime here has always distinguished between the PLO and its leaders--however unrealistic this distinction seems. In September, a public-opinion poll on the West Bank, sponsored jointly by a West Bank and a U.S. newspaper (Newsday) and by Australian radio, found a 71% preference for the current leadership of the PLO against 3% for the king and 2% for Libya's Moammar Kadafi. Arafat was the preferred Palestinian leader by 78%.