JERUSALEM — In July, 1967, a month after Jordan's devastating defeat in the Six-Day War, the British ambassador to Amman asked King Hussein how he felt about losing the West Bank and East Jerusalem with its Muslim holy places. "Good riddance," said the king.
The ambassador duly reported the royal reply to his superiors, but few believed that Hussein had meant it. Now he has announced his relinquishment of all claims to the West Bank, and again few believe that he means it.
This disbelief is a function of wishful thinking. Israel and most of the West, particularly the United States, have always considered Hussein the partner of choice for negotiations over the West Bank. Driven neither by radical ideology nor Islamic fanaticism, he is viewed as a rational, pragmatic leader with whom compromise is possible. In fact, the concept of "territorial compromise"--the exchanging of most of the West Bank, except areas vital to Israel's security, for a peace agreement--has become known as the "Jordanian option." But it is precisely because Hussein is rational that he could not afford to compromise. Thirty-seven years ago Hussein's grandfather, King Abdullah, was murdered before Hussein's eyes for attempting to reach a compromise with Israel. Since then thousands of Arabs, big and small, have been assassinated for the same reason. For Hussein to compromise would be tantamount to signing his own death warrant.
The Arab world has never wanted Hussein to have the West Bank. When his grandfather occupied it in 1948 and later annexed it, none of the Arab states recognized the annexation. After Hussein lost it, they made it clear--in the 1974 Rabat conference and numerous times since--that the Palestine Liberation Organization, the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," would inherit the occupied territories. Recognizing Hussein's popularity in the West and his acceptability to Israel, the Arab regimes have permitted him to act as middleman, but only if he would not compromise, only if he would receive all the territories lost in 1967, including East Jerusalem.
Always a realist, Hussein knew that returning to the 1967 lines was unacceptable to 90% of Israel's population and that no Israeli government could agree to it on its own. That is why he joined the Soviets and the Arab radicals in calling for an international conference, hoping that the array of nations advocating total Israeli withdrawal at such a conference wouldbe so overwhelming that Israel would be forced to give in. (It is a tribute to his diplomatic skills that he succeeded in persuading Shimon Peres, the leader of Israel's Labor Party, not only to reverse his position and agree to an international conference but also to sell the idea to a reluctant Reagan Administration.)
So for all his reasonableness, his gestures, hints and overtures, his secret meetings with virtually every Israeli leader from Abba Eban to Yitzhak Shamir, his friendship with eight American Presidents, Hussein never could and never intended to deliver a compromise. The much-touted "Jordanian option" has never existed.
His present "disengagement" from the West Bank has not changed much. It has left no political vacuum in the territories, for a vacuum can be created only by the withdrawal of power. And, the tacit Jordanian cooperation in some aspects of the Israeli administration notwithstanding, the sole power there is Israel. Hussein may now enjoy challenging the notoriously profligate PLO to replace the subsidies that he has withdrawn, but the chances of the PLO doing anything about it are slim. His penchant for political theater may tempt it instead to declare a government-in-exile, or have its operatives declare "independence" in Jerusalem.
Such a gesture would draw great media attention but achieve little else. The PLOis known as the national liberation movement of the Palestinian Arabs, but it serves as an umbrella organization for proxy armies of the radical Arab regimes of Iraq, Syria and Libya. The internecine rivalry can be murderous. Having to appoint ministers of a government-in-exile, and to define the borders of the state that it represents, may tear the organization apart. Declaring "independence" in Jerusalem can only be a short-lived media stunt.
What the Palestinian Arabs need is not more media happenings but a leadership willing to disown the PLO charter, which calls for the annihilation of Israel, and to negotiate co-existence with Israel. Their inability to produce such leadership in the 100 years of Arab-Jewish friction in the Holy Land is one of the Middle East's great tragedies. The basic facts of life are that there are two peoples living within the borders of what used to be the British Mandate of Palestine--the area now known as Jordan, Judea-Samaria (the West Bank) and Gaza. One is Arab, the other Jewish. Each is made up of about 4 million people. When they learn to live in peace, borders will matter little. Until then, any Israeli withdrawal is a prescription for war.