King Hussein of Jordan is short of stature--and of power in the Arab world. He speaks just barely above a whisper and calls mere scribblers "sir." But one should not be deceived.

If you proceed from his premise that a resolution of the Palestinian issue is central to the Reagan administration's wider East-West concerns in the Middle East, it matters what is on Hussein's mind. The future status of a former hunk of his kingdom, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, is the largest part of what the Camp David "autonomy" talks are all about. (The other part is the Gaza Strip.)

For as long as Hussein's dynasty rules in Jordan, any enduring disposition of the West Bank--and thus any resolution of the Palestinian question--will also require, if not Jordan's active collaboration, at least its implicit consent. That, together with a survivor's keen peripheral vision of the unfriendly-to-hostile world around him, gives meaning to his mood and weight to his words.

Right now, mood-wise, he is down: "I am very, very deeply distressed." Some say his condition is chronic, the result of less energy and of disillusionment. For more than a quarter of a century, he has lived with attempted coups, threatened invasions, assassination plots. He has engaged in repeated, high-risk, clandestine initiatives, including secret encounters with just about every top Israeli leader (except Prime Minister Menachem Begin). He is weary, it is said, and in search of some basis of rapprochement.

But the way he tells it, his mood has much more to with what he perceives as commitments violated by Israel, his own misplaced trust in the judgment of the United States, a distinct absence of positive reinforcement from his disunited Arab brothers and a failure of the Americans and the world to enforce his reading of the principles of U.N. Resolution 242: "total Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories in exchange for total peace."

When Begin came to power, Hussein says, he saw it as a "trend toward more extreme, hard-line solutions." But his "American friends" told him not to worry: it was more a matter of internal economic issues. Regularly he was reassured by Washington that a "strong Israel would be a responsible, reasonable Israel.

"That was the rationale for increased American military aid," he says. "Okay, now you've helped to a point where they're a monster, to us and everybody else in the area." The voice rises as he ticks off Israel's recent imposition of Israeli law on the Golan Heights, the raid on Iraq's nuclear reactor, the bombing of Beirut and the land invasion of southern Lebanon, the annexation of East Jerusalem, not to mention the creeping consolidation of Israel's rule over the rest of the West Bank. Not Begin alone, but a "sizable majority in Israel has these tendencies."

He concludes it is up to the United States and the rest of the world to reassess and resist. As for the Camp David "peace process," the most he expects is the recovery by Egypt of its Sinai territory, with the fulfillment of the peace treaty in April and the return of Egypt to "its rightful place among the Arab family."

"Beyond that," he says (and here one detects the suggestion of a lapse into the American vernacular of Queen Noor), "it's a big, fat zero."

So what's next? Of his own position as titleholder of record and logical claimant of the West Bank territory, Hussein's circumlocutions bring to mind the frustrated football coach whose team was getting pushed around. "Give the ball to Murphy," the coach kept hollering from the sidelines until the quarterback finally straightened up from the huddle and yelled back: "Murphy doesn't want the ball."

Neither does Hussein, in the sense that, having been relieved by an Arab summit in Rabat in 1974 of his responsibilities as "sole legitimate representative of the Palestine people" in favor of the PLO, he is of no mind to assert any territorial rights.

Still less does he sound inclined to assume the role assigned to Jordan, without prior consultation, in the Camp David Accords as an active participant in the "autonomy" talks. From previous encounters, I suspect he never was so inclined. What led Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat to think otherwise--which one misguided the other--is still a mystery. In any case, his anger drove him irretrievably into the anti-Camp David camp.

Yet Hussein figures by inescapable geography in any realistic discussion of a Palestinian settlement: Carter and Sadat were at least right about that. He sees his mission as an active catalyst behind the scenes, in the developing Arab consensus on a Camp David alternative--an "Arab plan," he insists, building on the eight-point proposal of Saudi Arabia's Prince Fahd.

As interlocutor between the divided Arabs (and between the Arabs and the United States), he has well-established credentials as a "moderate." For all of these reasons, if the Reagan administration is serious about getting on with the Arab-Israeli "peace process," it will have to take into careful account the mood and message of Jordan's soft-spoken but durable king.