With land war imminent, King Hussein is doubling his bet to keep from being dragged in while at the same time proving to his angry Palestinian population that he is no stooge of George Bush.
That is a big order for the king who has been Washington's most intimate Arab friend during most of the 39 years he has sat upon the throne.
In an unintended consequence of Bush's war policy to throw Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, King Hussein's problem of survival has suddenly become acute. Many of President Bush's men decry him. Some sorrow for him. But none disputes the reality that it will take a miracle for him to avoid being sucked into war by Iraq or Israel -- or sucked off his throne by Palestinians who, to the last man and woman, have lost their trust in Uncle Sam.
If Saddam, as many expect during the coming land war, demands a corner of Jordanian territory adjoining Iraq, no matter how small, to use for his own purposes, the king will face war. If he says yes, at that instant Jordan will become a belligerent on Iraq's side, subject to American or coalition military power. If the king says no, he will become the newest target of Iraqi aggression.
If, in response to future Iraqi missile attacks, Israel sends its U.S.-supplied air force against Iraq through Jordan's airspace, the king would have to order interdiction or concede that Israel owned him. An attempt at interdiction would almost certainly cost the king his entire air force, polished off in a few hours by Israel in the sky or on the ground.
Both Bush administration officials and Israeli diplomats say privately that Israel wants and needs a healthy, enthroned King Hussein to control the seething majority of his population that is Palestinian. Most of these are refugees from the Israeli-occupied West Bank or from their homeland in what is now Israel proper.
But King Hussein has told friends, including Bush aides, that he is not so sure Israel feels that way. Why, he wonders out loud, did Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir suddenly bring into his cabinet Israel's foremost advocate of expelling all 750,000 West Bank Palestinians to Jordan? The mere asking of that question helped galvanize the king last week into making the most inflammatory speech he has ever made.
The bet he doubled with this speech was that Bush would understand the threat to his kingdom and quietly preserve the stability of his throne by giving him the elbow room he needs for what Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) described to us in a single word: "survival." The king did not target Israel directly. His target was the United States. He regards Washington as the muscle that sustains Israel's foreign policy.
Immersed in waging war, President Bush can hardly be expected to know all the nuances and subtleties that make up King Hussein's nightmares about what Israel and Iraq may have in store for him.
But Bush is well aware that the still-small movement to drive West Bank Palestinians into Jordan and to annex the West Bank for Israel is gathering momentum in right-wing Israeli politics. Administration sources told us that the president authorized a top diplomatic trouble-shooter, former Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Armitage, to tell King Hussein on his recent trip to Amman that the United States does not and will not consider Jordan a "Palestinian state." That is how right-wing Israeli expansionists describe it.
But if Jordan is sucked into the Gulf war, King Hussein foresees immediate convulsions that would upend all views now in vogue, including Bush's, about Jordan not being a Palestinian state. For example, the overthrow of the king by Palestinian extremists in Jordan, who might want their country to help Iraq in the war against America, could trigger a response from across the Jordan River. Israel would see militant Palestinians in Jordan as a threat.
In the six months of the Gulf crisis, Jordan has lost almost 50 percent of its economic base. It is now regarded as a pariah by oil-rich gulf states, headed by Saudi Arabia, which used to supply it with oil. When air attacks killed eight Jordanian truck drivers last week on the Baghdad road, the only route left for Jordan's meager oil supplies, the Bush administration reaction was to charge blatant violations of anti-Saddam sanctions.
King Hussein knew what the reaction in Jordan would be: hot fury at the Americans. To position himself still further removed from his old friends in Washington, he ended the earlier pretense of neutrality in the Gulf War and attacked the U.S.-led coalition as waging war "against all Arabs and all Moslems," proving that whatever the demands of survival, he seems prepared to pay.