King Hussein of Jordan came to Washington last week bearing greetings of peace. Hussein tends to become expansive on the subject whenever he visits Washington with a shopping list of advanced weapons. Nevertheless, he does appear to be inching his way toward some sort of negotiations with Israel. His problem, as always, is not will but courage.

For cover he wants an international conference. Hussein calls this an umbrella. The umbrella, besides being an unfortunate choice of diplomatic symbol, is a bad idea. It is not only a way to avoid direct talks with Israel. It is also a way to give Libya, Syria and the Soviet Union a veto on peace.

However, it was not Hussein's umbrella but his news that earned Washington's attention. He announced that Yasser Arafat was ready to negotiate on the basis of U.N. resolutions 242 and 338, which implicitly recognize Israel's right to exist. Arafat went so far, said Hussein on Capitol Hill, as to agree that a future Palestinian state would yield its foreign and defense responsibilities to Jordan. Apparently, Arafat has promised that his Palestine will be as quiet as Andorra.

These revelations produced an immediate outbreak of Middle East fever, a Washington phenomenon that invariably begins with a report that someone somewhere has heard the Magic Words. All it takes is some third, sometimes fourth, party to declare that Arafat has uttered, or will utter, or is thinking of uttering words that recognize Israel's right to exist.

Three years ago during the siege of Beirut, Rep. Pete McCloskey emerged from Arafat's bunker to tell the world just that. But McCloskey had misunderstood the arcane language of the Middle East, and Arafat showed McCloskey up by publicly correcting him. Arafat had said he was prepared to recognize all appropriate U.N. resolutions. McCloskey did not realize that this formulation includes dozens of the U.N. resolutions (the Zionism-is-racism resolution is one) that imply the eradication of Israel.

This February, more rumors of peace. King Hussein announced that he had worked out an agreement with Arafat on joint negotiations and recognition. Within days, a chorus of denials from PLO headquarters in Tunis made a shambles of this one too.

A few months later, the Magic Word hunt turned comic. On May 14, in an Amman guest house, Arafat apparently said them. Present were a couple of American correspondents and Arafat aides "on the verge of nodding off," reports The Washington Post. They were nodding off because it was a 2 a.m. interview. It seems Arafat cannot manage the recognition process during waking hours.

A senior American official said of this latest report, "Maybe if we had a tape recording of Arafat saying 'I accept 242' locked in a vault in New York, then maybe -- maybe -- we would see some room to move. But there is just no trust there."

This looks like a parody of the sometime lunatic legalism of American foreign policy. It is not. The senior American official meant it: he wants to take the Magic Words, alive.

What could it possibly mean if he did? The abolition of Israel is not an Arafat whim. It is the foundation of the PLO. Israel's illegitimacy is the cardinal principle of the Palestinian national covenant. Sadat did not mail a few words by overnight delivery to a vault in New York. He went to Jerusalem. He changed the direction of the Egyptian press. He made the case for peace not just to the American media but to his own people.

Without such actions -- actions there is not the faintest possibility Arafat will take -- what you have is not a change in policy but a tactical maneuver to accommodate Arafat's enormous losses in the Lebanon war.

And that is what Arafat's latest midnight minuets are all about. The Lebanon war stripped him of everything: his military option, his territorial base, his political independence. Then he was besieged by Syria, by his own PLO brothers (led by Abu Musa) and now by Lebanese Moslems (who are savagely crushing his latest attempt to reassert himself in Beirut). Arafat was rapidly becoming an irrelevancy.

His remaining hope was the United States, the only party that could deal him back in. He desperately needed the great diplomatic prizes that always eluded him when he mattered: talks with the United States and American recognition.

Sure enough, he appears to have pushed the right button. Buoyed by the "motion" produced by the Hussein visit, the administration is preparing talks with a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation. Talks with the United States, that is, not with Israel. And for good reason: their first aim is not peace, but U.S. recognition of the PLO. The Palestinian delegation will not (yet) include PLO members. But Arafat will be picking the Palestinians and giving them orders. And, Jordanian Foreign Minister Taher Masri indicates, the first order of business of the talks will be to bring the United States into direct negotiations with the PLO.

The Reagan administration is making a habit of rescuing Arafat. It evacuated him from Beirut, then from Tripoli and now is about to save him from well-deserved oblivion in Tunisia. Why? Propping up his brand of Palestinian irredentism simply ensures that no new Palestinian leadership willing to engage in more than rhetorical feints toward coexistence with Israel will arise.

Give peace a chance. Let Arafat fade away.