Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Hussein are scheduled to meet in Amman Thursday in an apparent effort to move quickly to shape a detailed response to Israel's latest initiative for peace in the Middle East, government sources said today.
Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat also is expected to arrive in the Jordanian capital in the next week to consult on the future course of the peace process, according to senior PLO officials.
Aides to Mubarak and Hussein said they have been studying carefully the outlines of the plan put forward by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres at the United Nations Monday, although some semiofficial newspapers in Egypt and Jordan were quick to dismiss it.
Egyptian and Jordanian officials appear to have anticipated some such gesture in the wake of this month's crises.
According to Egyptian officials, Thursday's meeting was arranged in a phone call between the two heads of state on Sunday, the day before Peres' speech and a meeting here between Mubarak and Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead.
Egyptian officials made it clear before the arrival of Whitehead, a special envoy from the Reagan administration, that they hoped for some breakthrough in the peace process to begin healing the deep wounds in relations between Cairo and Washington left by recent events.
The substance of Whitehead's discussions with Mubarak remains secret, but the U.S. envoy said that the peace process was the main topic of conversation. Egyptian officials said today that the outcome of the Whitehead visit would be a central subject in Thursday's meeting.
Both Mubarak and Hussein are viewed as needing some sign of movement toward peace. They wagered domestic as well as international prestige on hopes that the initiative they began in February in partnership with the PLO would score gains where other initiatives have failed.
Egypt, the only Arab country to have made peace with Israel, has found itself painfully isolated in the Arab world it once sought to lead. Only Jordan has renewed formal diplomatic ties with Cairo, a step taken last year as the king embarked on his initiative.
Both governments have worked closely ever since. This will be the 10th meeting between Mubarak and Hussein in a year.
But both saw their position complicated by the Israeli raid on PLO headquarters in Tunisia Oct. 1, the controversy surrounding the Palestinian hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro a week later and an aborted meeting between British officials and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.
In the aftermath of these events, Egypt experienced the worst student-police clashes since the final years of Anwar Sadat.
King Hussein, a Hashemite ruling a country whose majority is Palestinian, found himself in a still more difficult position. October's events "put the man against the wall," one senior Egyptian official said last week. "His maneuverability already was limited. If ever he had anything left, they took it away from him."
To regain some freedom of movement, the king continued his on-again, off-again pursuit of rapprochement with Syria, a bitter opponent of the current process and Egypt's longtime rival for preeminence in the Arab world.
A meeting between the Jordanian and Syrian prime ministers in Saudi Arabia on Monday -- the same day as Peres' speech and Whitehead's Cairo visit -- was described as having taken place in a "cordial and positive atmosphere."
Jordan's Syrian overtures also are expected to be a topic on the agenda between Mubarak and Hussein, according to Egyptian officials.
Yet, in the new context set by Peres, both Egypt and Jordan still may find some cards to play in the peace process.
While the king has said on many occasions that he will not and cannot accept the kind of separate peace that Egypt took in 1978 and that Peres' remarks to the United Nations appear to favor, the Israeli prime minister also left the door open for an international forum leading to direct negotiations.
Such a forum, as conceived by the Jordanians, would be held with the participation of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, including the Soviet Union.
A western diplomat in Amman recently read the king's need for a conference as "an indication of broad support for whatever follows," a demonstration that "it didn't drop from the sky but derives from U.N. resolutions," and "the context for a comprehensive approach to peace rather than separate negotiations."
As the concept has developed during the past several months, the PLO would be expected to participate in such a conference with equal standing. But Peres, while he did not completely rule out Soviet or PLO participation, did not leave much room for either.
Specifically, he suggested the Palestinians should leave "PLO terrorism" behind them and reiterated Israel's view that countries that do not recognize all the participants should not themselves participate in such a forum. Moscow and Israel do not have diplomatic relations.
Such a narrow context might have caused the Peres initiative to be dismissed out of hand earlier this year. But it now comes as Egypt and Jordan appear increasingly ill at ease with the PLO as an ally and inclined to pressure Arafat for more clear-cut commitments to the process, measures that might bring them closer to Peres' terms.
But Arafat's performance in the past month -- his apparent affiliation with the hijackers of the Achille Lauro and the failure of his organization to meet the terms necessary for talks with Britain -- has increased suspicions about his sincerity.
In Doha, the capital of Qatar, Arafat said at a news conference today that he would with meet King Hussein soon.