Jordan's King Hussein, in a lengthy speech at the opening of parliament here today, spoke optimistically of the prospects for improving his country's strained relations with Syria while mentioning only briefly his ally, the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The king's speech appeared to reflect both the rift that has developed between Hussein and PLO leader Yasser Arafat after the Achille Lauro hijacking and several other episodes in recent weeks, and Hussein's efforts to improve the overall climate for his Middle East peace initiative by improving relations with more radical Arab states.
Hussein's speech marked his first public comment on mediation efforts, under the auspices of Saudi Arabia and Arab League officials, aimed at easing tensions between Amman and Damascus.
Two Saudi-sponsored meetings between Jordanian Prime Minister Zaid Rifai and his Syrian counterpart, Abdul Rauf Qasim, in Saudi Arabia during the past two months marked a "good beginning" toward improving relations, Hussein said.
The meetings had been characterized by a "concern for overall Arab interests," he said, adding that "these meetings will continue, and will deal with each and every matter about which there is disagreement."
By contrast, Hussein made only one reference in his speech to Jordan's political coordination with the PLO on resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.
"The Palestine problem has a centrality in our attention within the framework of common Arab efforts . . . and has been and will continue to be our main preoccupation," he said.
"It is for this overriding reason that all our efforts and moves, including our joint efforts with the Palestine Liberation Organization, are aimed at unfreezing the status quo of no war, no peace," said Hussein.
An international Middle East peace conference as a framework for achieving a settlement remains Jordan's most important objective, according to one Jordanian official, who asked to remain unidentified.
"Direct contacts with Israel can only take place within such a framework," said the official.
The United States and Israel have objected to efforts to hold a conference that would include the Soviet Union.
Jordan is "anxious to take advantage of the time factor" by achieving progress regarding peace efforts before Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres hands over the reins to his coalition partner Yitzhak Shamir, whom Jordan considers too obdurate to strike a peace deal, the Jordanian official said.
Jordan, encouraged by Peres' reference in his recent U.N. speech to an international framework for peace, is beginning a large-scale political and diplomatic offensive to muster first Arab, then international support for the concept, he said.
Jordan hopes that the United States will be persuaded to overcome its distaste for an international format for peace talks under the "influence of collective Arab action," the official said.
The Jordanians then hope that the "radical Arab countries would convince the Soviet Union to accept the invitation," he added.
Jordan's first step toward wider Arab coordination is taking the shape of improving relations with Syria.
Well-informed sources said Syrian President Hafez Assad and Hussein have agreed in principle to meet within the coming two weeks.
Jordan is also optimistic that wider Arab differences can be resolved in the near future because of two high-level, secretly held meetings between Syrian and Iraqi officials that Saudi Arabia recently sponsored to help end the bitter political strife between the two countries, according to the same sources.
The future of Jordanian-PLO cooperation would be decided by the outcome of the meeting between Hussein and Assad, who is opposed to giving Arafat's mainstream PLO any role in the peace process, they said.
Despite Jordan's recent cooling toward the PLO, the official indicated that Hussein and Arafat still need each other.
Hussein accepted Arafat's explanations regarding the breakdown in London of a meeting between a Jordanian-PLO team and the British foreign secretary, the official said, and Hussein also responded positively to Arafat's demands for assurances that "Jordan considers him the key factor in any future negotiations."
However, Jordan considers that the Feb. 11 Jordanian-PLO accord that made peace partners of Hussein and Arafat has lost its appeal, the Jordanian official said.
Jordan, he said, was continuing its cooperation with the PLO on the understanding that the PLO would recognize U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which call for Israel's right to exist within secure boundaries.
Jordan also wants the PLO to renounce violent acts that would be interpreted as terrorism, he added.
Aware of his increasingly weakening position, Arafat has sought and received backing from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
He is also attempting to draw closer to Egypt in the hope of mobilizing its leverage with the United States in favor of granting the PLO a direct role in the peace process.