Palestinian nationalism on the West Bank, encouraged by Yasser Arafat's Beirut-based guerrillas, has swollen steadily in 13 years of Isralei military occupation, overshadowing any desire for a return to Jordanian rule in the disputed territory.
The increasingly well-defined urge for a distinct Palestinian entity among the area's 720,000 Arab inhabitants raises troubling questions about Jordan's future role in efforts to work out a peace settlement that would include the Hashemite kingdom as well as the West Bank.
The questions are particularly important because "the Jordanian option" -- the idea of cutting a deal with King Hussein by dividing the West Bank between Jordan and Israel -- is a major plank in the foreign affairs platform of Israel's Labor Party and, as a result, a consideration in U.S. thinking on the issue as well.
Interviews with Palestinians up and down the West Bank's 2,200 square miles indicate that, despite a strong legacy of Jordanian influence here, the return of Jordanian sovereignty would clash with Palestinian national sentiment much in the same way that Israeli occupation does.
"The carrot is the cousin of the turnip," quipped a 74-year-old Halhoul merchant and politician, citing the inevitable Arab proverb when asked about the difference between Jordanian and Israeli rule over this town north of Hebron.
Nationalist sentiment is especially oriented toward the Palestine Liberation Organization among West Bank students and other youths. Many of them grew up with no other reference point for their resentment at Israeli rule and a new generation of pro-PLO leaders has taken over since Israel drove Hussein's troops from the area in 1967.
Officials at Bir Zeit University, the West Bank's largest educational institution, report that the biggest political debates on the student council revolve around loyalties to competing PLO factions such as Arafat's mainline Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine run by George Habash, a Marxist. A return to Jordanian rule is not even discussed, they say.
Many of the students and their elders who voice similar sentiments would be ill at ease with the leftist jargon of PLO officials or even frightened by the violent, sometimes chaotic reign of guerrilla gunmen in the streets of Beirut and the mountains of southern Lebanon.
Conversely, many raw fedayeen in the 22,000-man PLO commando forces would be uncomfortable in the bourgeois Bir Zeit classrooms or salons of West Bank merchants, and startled at the array of expensive automobiles rushing up and down the highways of what PLO folklore still depicts as a serene homeland of olive trees and orange groves.
But despite the gaps, the PLO has assumed a role among West Bank youth, and increasingly among older Palestinians who prospered under Jordanian rule, as the only symbol of resistance to Israeli occupation.
Because no one else raised the flag of Palestinian nationalism with such determination, the self-styled revolutionaries of Beirut have captured the loyalties of a mostly conservative population, whose greatest concern is keeping its land.
The shift has been accelerated by a generation change as well. Many pro-Jordanian West Bank notables have grown old in the 13 years of Israeli occupation and been replaced by younger men for whom the call to political action came from Beirut instead of Amman.
A dramatic illustration of the evolution occurred in one of the West Bank's most prominent families. Sheik Mohammed Ali Jaabari was among the area's top leaders during Jordanian rule and retained his status as a West Bank notable in the first nine years of Israeli occupation, while he was still mayor of Hebron.
By 1976, however he was pushed from office by Fahd Kawasme on a platform of support for the PLO. Several years later Jaabari's son was jailed for anti-Israeli activity and soon after that the old man died, overtakeen by event's and no longer a strong influence in West Bank's politics.
Hussein's royal government retains a number of links on the West Bank, however, through friendships developed over the years of his administration and continued payment of many civil salaries or aid to local governments and institutions. Palestinians who played key roles in his West Bank administration are regular visitors in Amman and frequently report to the king on conditions under Israeli rule.
A vast majority of the approximately 280,000 West Bank Palestinians who traveled abroad last year did so over the Allenby and Damia bridges linking Israeli-held territory with Jordan.
In addition, more than two-thirds of Jordan's 3 million inhabitants are Palestinian, creating a network of family ties reinforced during the 19 years of free travel across the Jordan river.
These enduring links, combined with Jordan's role as the recognized government from which Israel captured the West Bank in 1967, make Amman an inevitable partner for the area's national aspirations despite the PLO's emergence to political prominence.
The necessity of Jordanian partipation in whatever happens next on the West Bank appears widely accepted among the West Bank Palestinians despite Hussein's declaration at the 1974 Rabat summit conference of Arab leaders that only the PLO can speak for them.
Similarly, Jordanian officials in Amman discreetly acknowledge that Hussein remains eager to play a strong role in the area's future despite his official policy that West Bank residents should decide their own rulers through a plebiscite.
In tacit recognition of these expectations, Arafat and Hassein have in the last two years buried the bitterness that separated them since Hussein drove the guerrillas from Jordan in 1970. PLO and Jordanian officials have begun regular meetings for the first time in nearly a decade and, according to PLO sources in Beirut. Hussein has conveyed PLO positions to the United States.
In addition, Jordan and the PLO are jointly administering a West Bank welfare fund set up by Arab nations aligned against the Camp David accords.