In the course of a chat with King Hussein here in Jordan the other day, I remarked that he had been in power for 27 years and that I had been coming to see him for 20. I wondered whether 20 years hence I would still be asking the same questions about peace with Israel and self-determination for the Palestinians.
The king looked at me mournfully. "That," he said, "is exactly what upsets me so much."
What upsets Hussein should upset a lot of people. For if that ultimate survivor feels there is no place to go with the Middle East these days, it probably means that all roads lead nowhere.
Not very long ago, to be sure, Hussein could well be described as the "James Dean of Arab feudalism." He was a Bedouin monarch in an era of revolution. He was an American client in a region of rampant nationalism. He itched to drive fast at a time of return to Islam.
After the Six Day War of 1967, he was at odds to the point of war with the Palestine Liberation Organization on the question of representing the Palestine Arabs in the territories west of the Jordan River, which Hussein had lost to the Israelis. The more "progressive" Arab countries -- Egypt, Syria and Iraq -- tended to support the PLO and jump on Hussein. Given that opposition, even his natural allies among the oil monarchs of the Persian Gulf turned against him. In effect, he became a pariah, a marginal figure, a loner in the Arab world.
All the changed after Camp David and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Despite blandishments and threats, Hussein arranged to be included out. Yasser Arafat of the PLO patched it up with him. The monarchies suddenly found him to be a good guy. Iraqis, eager to take the Persian Gulf in tow, also rallied round. Now Husseni receives something like a billion dollars a year in subsidies from the Iraqis, Saudis, Kuwaitis and Arab Emirates. He is at the center of the Arab mainstream.
But where does he go from there? Not, certainly, to the Egyptian-Israeli peace process. A year ago he was saying that he hoped the process would succeed but doubted it. Now he has abandoned all hope.
"Egypt," he says, "has isolated itself. Israel has escaped from the process by denying autonomy to the Palestinians."
As to the United States, Hussein feels "disillusionment and disappointment." He says he was "totally horrified" by the switch of the March 1 resolution at the U.N. Security Council. He cancelled the projected visit to Washington when it looked as though his trip might be rolled together with the visits of Begin and Sadat. He recalled, with some bitterness, that he was not invited to the White House last September, when he visited the United Nations, because he refused to see the special Mideast negotiator -- then Robert Strauss -- as a condition for lunching with the president.
"The ability of the United States to persuade Israel to do what is in her own interest," he says, "is almost non-existent." So why should he give up his cozy position in the Arab world to join a venture he believes to be doomed?
What Hussein would like to do is to create an "Arab alternative." He envisages the blocking out of a basic position calling for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 boundaries; self-determination for the Palestinians living on the West Bank, including the right to form their own state; and an Arab Jerusalem under Arab sovereignty. He sees that as a holding position to which all Arabs could repair, while the United States -- with a push from Europe -- got its own act straightened out.
The trouble with the "Arab alternative" is that the Arabs aren't for it -- or at least not very many and not very much. Hussein recently aired the idea at a summit meeting in Tunis. The Iraqis supported it, and there was some interest on the part of Saudi Arabia and the oil sheikdoms.
But Syria vehemently opposed it -- as the beginning of capitulation to Camp David. The PLO went along with the Syrians. Now both of them are getting together with the Algerians, the Libyans and South Yemen in a reassertion of the "Steadfastness Front."
The basic fact is that the Arab world is once more at sixes and sevens. Egypt, Iraq and Syria are all in competition for leadership. The PLO has to juggle among the major Arab states. Anybody can block anything. The more so as the Russians are prepared to represent the extremists in a spoiler's role.
What this says to me is that there are no good avenues to settlement in the Middle East. For the time being, the real question is whether upheaval can be avoided in the interim necessary for development of a more favorable set of circumstances. As Hussein himself puts it, "What is happening in this region is an exercise in making time pass."