The United States yesterday blamed the breakoff of talks between Jordan's King Hussein and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat on "the failure of the PLO leadership to meet the king's challenge." Officials said the latest event will force "a total reevaluation" of American efforts to revive the stalled Middle East peace process.
They insisted, however, that the process is not dead but has entered what State Department spokesman Charles E. Redman called "a period of reflection on the part of all the parties" on the goal of peace talks between Israel and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. He said the United States would consult with Israel, Jordan and other Mideast allies about how to put the negotiating effort back on track.
"There is never the end of anything in the Middle East," another U.S. official remarked. "We're at a pause." He suggested that Hussein's harsh criticism of Arafat in a three-hour speech Wednesday was intended primarily "to put his feet to the fire" rather than end their negotiations.
The PLO leadership is meeting in Baghdad to consider its next move, according to Egyptian sources who insisted that the peace process was not ended and that the breakoff was "a tactical maneuver" by the king.
Redman also confirmed the king's disclosure that the United States recently agreed to his insistence on inviting the PLO to a proposed international Mideast peace conference, despite Israel's strong objections.
Hussein, who announced Wednesday that he was ending his year-long effort to reach accord with Arafat, revealed that on Jan. 25 the Reagan administration sent him a promise that the PLO would be invited, provided that it accepted U.N. resolutions recognizing Israel's right to exist, expressed willingness to negotiate and renounced terrorism.
Hussein termed the promise "a signficant change in the U.S. position" because it would signify acquiescence in the PLO's attendance in its own right rather than only with Jordan.
Redman quoted Hussein's description of the U.S. promise and said, "That quotation is an accurate statement of our position and expectations under these specific circumstances discussed with Jordan at that time." But he also declared, "Of course, the PLO's failure to meet the king's conditions makes this a moot question . . . . The PLO has now failed the king's test, and history moves on."
U.S. officials said privately that Israel apparently was not informed of the Jan. 25 message, although some speculated that Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres might have been told by high-ranking administration officials.
The Israeli foreign ministry said in Jerusalem that it had no knowledge of the U.S. message to the PLO, and a ministry spokesman said Israel was considering asking the United States for an explanation.
The United States and Jordan have been pressing the PLO for two years to accept U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 as the basis for a peace conference. The resolutions call for Israeli withdrawal from Arab territories occupied in their 1967 war in return for Arab acceptance of the Jewish state.
Arafat has sought in exchange a U.S. declaration of the "legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, including their right to self-determination within the context of a confederation between Jordan and Palestine," according to Hussein.
Washington has refused but did issue a carefully worded declaration Feb. 10 saying that the United States regarded the Palestinian problem as "more than a refugee question" and acknowledging "the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people."
The statement was largely a rewritten version of one issued in February 1985, but it caused considerable stir in Jordan, where it was seen as a significant concession, and in Israel, where it was regarded as a shift toward the PLO.