As they journey separately to and from the few Arab capitals that will receive them, King Hussein and Yasser Arafat should check their luggage for ticking sounds. Being an emissary or confidant of Saddam Hussein is a risky business. This time it could lead to the destruction of the kingdom of Jordan and of the PLO as well as Saddam's traveling salesmen.

Back in 1971, when invading Kuwait was only a twinkle in his eye, Saddam cut his political teeth on the rebellious Kurdish tribesmen of northeastern Iraq. A vice dictator in those days, Saddam sent a group of seven religious leaders from Baghdad to talk peace with Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani.

One of the sheikhs agreed to a request from Saddam's security chief, Nazim Kzar, to strap a hidden tape recorder to his body so Baghdad could have a verbatim record of what Barzani said. Kzar showed the sheikh the button to push under his robes when he got close enough to record Barzani's voice. Kzar forgot to tell him that hidden inside the hidden tape recorder was a bomb.

Fate saved Barzani. The sheikh pushed the button just as a tea server moved in front of Barzani. The exploding sheikh and the tea server perished; the Kurdish leader survived to tell me the story two years later in the same room in his remote lair in the Zagros Mountains. It was an introduction to diplomacy, Saddam-style, that has stayed with me. When Saddam says he wants to talk peace or he needs your help, look for the bomb under the robes.

The pathological nature of Saddam's quest for power has been evident from the beginning of his rule. Those who have thought they could use Saddam for their own ends have been devoured by him. Kzar, who had helped Saddam stage the hanging of Jews in the central square of Baghdad in 1969, was executed by Saddam in 1972. Hundreds of other executions and mysterious accidents have erased those who unwisely accumulated enough influence to make Saddam uncomfortable.

This is why Arafat and King Hussein are beginning to feel panicky. If Saddam goes down, so will his main accomplices in the brutal mugging of Kuwait. If Saddam's enemies don't get them, Saddam will. He will attempt to bring the temple down around him.

Saddam and Arafat are not long-lost brothers in pan-Arabism, as apologists would have it. They are protection-racket gangsters dealing in a particularly brutal way with a client who didn't pay up on time.

In the months leading up to the Aug. 2 invasion, Saddam made repeated demands for a $10 billion payoff from Kuwait. In early July, when the Kuwaitis replied they could not come up with such a sum, Saddam's envoy, Sadoon Hamadi, responded with a detailed list of Kuwait's investment earnings abroad that could have come only from confidential bank records in Kuwait.

Palestinians hold key roles in Kuwait's banking system. It's doubtful the Iraqi dictator would have gone into Kuwait without seeking and obtaining assurances from Arafat that the Palestinian presence in Kuwait would help make an invasion pay off. The speed with which Western nations and Japan froze Kuwaiti funds has shown Saddam what Arafat's financial judgments are worth.

Arafat's support for naked aggression against a government that has bankrolled his organization and provided the Palestinian diaspora with well-paying jobs shows that his political judgment is just as faulty. He and those who support him as PLO leader can never expect to receive another cent from the Saudis, Kuwaitis and other paymasters of the Arabian Peninsula. Even Arafat has finally run out of feet to shoot himself in, Arabists in Washington have concluded.

If Palestinians are to be accepted back into good jobs in the peninsula and if the PLO is to survive, it will have to be under a new Palestinian leadership that breaks with Saddam's invasion. The chances that a salvage operation will succeed grow fainter with each passing day that Arafat continues to seek understanding and sympathy for Saddam's war.

King Hussein appears now to be trying to dance back from the brink already passed by Arafat. Saudi Arabia and the other key Arab states have refused to let him come to their capitals to plead for "an Arab solution," the king's euphemism for an Arab buyout of Saddam's exposed position in Kuwait, and say they will never again help Jordan financially.

Belatedly the king has begun to try to cover his flank against Saddam. By rushing to meet President Bush in Kennebunkport and other Western leaders in their capitals, Hussein has been exploring for security guarantees against a move into Jordan by Iraq once Jordan started observing United Nations sanctions.

While he has been away, Hussein's younger brother, Crown Prince Hassan, has been making clear in interviews and other statements his own disagreement with Hussein's pro-Iraqi line as well as appealing for international aid to help Jordan. In this crisis, Hassan has shown leadership abilities that few suspected him of possessing. The PLO may not be alone in needing a change at the top in order to survive the disaster Saddam has created for himself and his emissaries.