The Palestinian leadership appears increasingly willing to cooperate with King Hussein of Jordan in broader Middle East peace talks intended to supplant the stalled West Bank autonomy negotiations among Israel, Egypt and the United States.
Coordination between Hussein and the Palestine Liberation Organization would mark a major step, according to analysts here, opening the way for an eventual compromise to surmount Israel's refusal to deal with the PLO and the PLO's refusal to recognize Israel. Those impasses have prevented broader talks on the Palestinian issue in the past.
The current discussion centers on what to do after the U.S.-sponsored autonomy talks, since Palestinian and Jordanian officials consider them doomed to failure, barring a dramatic shift in U.S. policy before the May 26 deadline for their completion. This, they say, is next to impossible with President Carter in an election campaign.
Saudi Arabia and Iraq, sharing this assessment, have been urging PLO leader Yasser Arafat to work more closely with Hussein, according to reports from Palestinian and Jordanian sources. The Jordanian king, from the beginning of the autonomy negotiations, has predicted that they would collapse and has tried to forge an Arab consensus on what to do next.
This has proved impossible chiefly because of renewed hostility between Iraq and Syria, ruled by rival wings of the Arab Baath Socialist Party. But the Saudi rulers and President Sadam Hussein of Iraq have drawn closer in recent months, particularly on the question of Persian Gulf security.
In this context, a Palestinian official said, a high-level PLO team authorized King Hussein last week to tell American officials during his upcoming visit to Washington that the PLO would consider a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation in whatever peace talks might follow the current autonomy negotiations.
Hussein is scheduled to see Carter at the end of April or early May, soon after the president confers with president Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel in an effort to breathe new life into the autonomy talks.
The PLO team that visited Amman was headed by Farouq Qaddoumi, or Abu Lutf, head of the PLO Political Department who is regarded as the unofficial PLO "foreign minister." He insisted to Hussein that any agreement for a joint delegation would have to be accompanied by an individual invitation to the PLO, the Palestinian official said.
This would pose problems similar to those that surrounded efforts to organize a Geneva conference before Sadat's trip to Jerusalem in November 1977. But prior agreement to a joint delegation with Jordan marks a softening of the PLO position since then and demonstrates PLO willingness to coordinate with Hussein on whatever the current talks lead to.
Arafat still could run into opposition from less flexible wings of the PLO, knowledgeable Palestinians predicted. This could be manifested during a meeting of the Palestinian National Council, a sort of parliament that is scheduled to gather this spring.
"It's like President Carter," a PLO official said. "He can sign the SALT treaty, but can he get it through Congress?
The council meeting is expected to turn into a broad test of Arafat's increasing reliance on diplomacy to advance the PLO cause. Some of his closest aides, along with leaders of hard-line guerrila groups, contest wisdom of his new emphasis on moderate tactics.
The Carter administration disavowal of its Security Council vote against Israel marked a particular setback for Arafat's moderate PLO wing because, in Palestinian eyes, it demonstrated that Washington is unable to stand up to pressure from Israel and its supporters in the United States.
"There were a lot of disappointed people after that," chortled a delighted hard-line official of the Marxist-oriented Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine led by Nayef Hawatmeh.
As a result, he added, a long debate in the PLO executive committee last week ended in virtulent condemnation of the United States and its Middle East policy, particularly the refusal to endorse a U.N. call for dismantlement of Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank.
Disappointment over the Security Council performance has to some extent been balanced by gains in Europe. PLO moderates were particularly encouraged by the call for Palestinian self-determination and participation in peace talks voiced by President Valery Giscard d'Estaing of France during his visit to Jordan and the Persian Gulf. Other perceived gains were the Austrian decision to grant quasi-diplomatic status to the PLO representative in Vienna and swift British and West German endorsement of the French positions.
At the same time, however, the PLO leadership is aware that the key to ending the Middle East standoff lies in the United States, the only country with genuine influence on Israel. Most PLO officials agree with the Asian diplomat who compared French and other European diplomatic moves to "those entertainers in an Oriental dance show who come on stage to keep the audience happy while the real dancers change costumes for the next number."
In addition to opposition within the PLO, Arafat also faces increasing suspicion from President Hafez Assad's Syrian government, Palestinian sources said. Assad fears that if the PLO draws close to Jordan, especially with Iraqi and Saudi backing, Syria will be left standing alone in its hard-line policy against Israel.
Arab analysts say Assad is seeking to prevent such isolation by calling to Damascus next weekend leaders of the Standfastness Front, comprising Syria, Libya, South Yemen, Algeria and the PLO.
These countries formed the front in December 1977 to oppose Sadat's peace moves. They appeared to have gathered wider support in 1978 at the Baghdad summit of Arab nations opposing the Camp David peace accords. Since then, however, Syria and Iraq have resumed their long feud and Libya has clashed with the PLO, dissipating the anti-Egyptian momentum.
As always, Arafat is steering the PLO on a zig-zag course, bouncing from nation to nation like a pinball and trying to light up support at each contact. nHe is expected to play a major role in the Standfastness Front summit, and according to high Palestinian officials has resisted Hussein's overtures for even closer and more visible cooperation with the Saudi, Iraqi and Jordanian current.
The PLO leader has to pay close attention to Syrian attitudes. Assad exercises strong influence over the guerrilla movement through his peace-keeping troops in Lebanon, particularly their control over Beqaa Valley access roads to border hills on the Lebanese-Israel frontier.
Some Palestinian officials saw last week's announcement by Syria that its Golan border is open to guerrillas for raids on Israel as a maneuver directed against Arafat's latest sign of cooperation with Jordan.