YASSER ARAFAT'S double-dealing, cited by King Hussein in breaking off his yearlong effort to bring the PLO into peace talks, is the lesser part of it. The larger part is the PLO's stupidity. Consider the deal that Mr. Arafat kicked away.
The PLO was being asked to accept "242," the basic United Nations peace resolution, to negotiate with Israel and to renounce terrorism: minimal and, by Arab consensus, reasonable considerations.
In return, the United States had offered these concessions: 1)to accept the Arabs' favored format of an international conference; 2)to accept a PLO invitation to the conference; 3)to accept that at the conference the PLO could ask for self-determination; 4)to let the PLO join the conference later if it didn't want to join earlier, and 5)to open an "immediate" dialogue with the PLO.
We will be finding out what Prime Minister Shimon Peres knew of this and when he knew it -- important matters because, had the PLO assented, this package would have ensured two immense battles, one inside Israel and the other between the United States and Israel. It tests the Israeli readiness for peace -- that is, it offers Palestinians -- far more than anything yet put into the public domain.
But it was not enough for Mr. Arafat. He foolishly demanded that, before a conference, the United States accept a Palestinian right of self- determination within a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation -- the Hussein-Arafat formula of Feb. 11, 1985. King Hussein struggled to argue him out of it. Only then learning that the PLO had already secretly rejected the position he had spent months selling to Washington, the king concluded he could not deal with someone whose word was not his bond.
He reported all this, without criticism of Israel or the United States, in a televised speech whose English subtitles made it easily accessible to Israelis watching from across the river.
In Jerusalem, officials expressed relief that the hated PLO had confounded the king, and invited him to bring West Bank Palestinians into talks with Israel. But the PLO's political potency on the West Bank, and its guns, have so far blocked this path. Shimon Peres, who needed a peace partner in order to have any chance of extending his term in office, does not appear to have one.
The United States, burned yet again trying to bridge the Israeli-Palestinian gap, says it's ready for "a total reevaluation" of policy. One point in this review is obvious. Congress should reverse its misguided ban on the sale of arms to Jordan. King Hussein, a peacemaker, should not be penalized for Yasser Arafat's shortcomings.
The Reagan administration, quietly, went far for peace. Should it have gone that extra step and moved from implicit to explicit acknowledgement of the requested Palestinian right to self-determination? That would have traumatized Israel, and to uncertain effect. In a kinder world, Israel and the PLO would recognize each other. There is a limit to what the United States can do in their behalf.