King Hussein's declaration that Jordan no longer has a role on the West Bank provides the greatest challenge ever to the Palestine Liberation Organization. How the PLO acts in the next few months will probably determine whether it establishes an independent state or disappears into the oblivion of failed irredentism.
The king's half-hour speech upended the politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict. His categorical statement, "there should be the separation of the West Bank from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan," formally ended his family's seventy years of effort to control Palestine, an effort that has involved British overlords, Zionist visionaries, and Palestinian separatists. Even if Hussein or his heirs should someday go back on this decision, the cards have been so thoroughly reshuffled, the old order can probably never be resumed.
Hussein is a savvy politician who just celebrated his 35th year on the throne, so we should start by assuming he knows what he is doing. This unexpected step seems to imply that he no longer thinks it worth trying to regain the territories lost to Israel in 1967. Because the West Bank issue creates domestic tensions and international hostility, it jeopardizes the stability and well-being attained in Jordan. The fact that both the king and the Jordanian population increasingly have something to lose may explain this change of heart.
In dropping out, Hussein leaves three major actors still claiming the West Bank, and indeed the whole of Palestine: the Likud party of Israel, the PLO, and the Syrian government. His retreat can be seen in terms of a game of musical chairs with four players and three seats; when the music stopped on Sunday, Jordan was left standing. Obviously, the remaining three players are pleased to have made the cut, but Jordan's elimination also complicates matters for each of them, and especially for the PLO.
Hussein's decision holds out great opportunity and danger for Yasir Arafat, who now stands face to face with Israel on an empty diplomatic field. Egypt is out, Syria's claim is weakened, and the Iranian rulers have more urgent matters to settle. The PLO now has a chance to translate its formidable international popularity, its stellar media presence, and its deep pockets into tangible political gain. But this opportunity creates its own challenges, for unless the PLO quickly does something to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, it may well sink under the weight of disappointed expectations.
In confronting the Israeli occupation, the PLO has two possible courses of action: it can emulate the campaign of terror mounted a few years back by the Shi'ite of south Lebanon, and try to throw the Israelis out by force. Or it can adopt the negotiating route recently sketched out by Arafat's aide, Bassam Abu Sharif. The key point is, the time has come for the PLO to choose. What Arafat calls the "yes-no" policy, an ambiguous stance which keeps all his options open, has worked brilliantly. But, if the PLO is to profit from King Hussein's unexpected gift, it has to forego some of its old ways. The overheated rhetoric and the wildly untenable aspirations have to go; the ugly treatment of Palestinian civilians must end, as must the open disdain for the political views of the West Bank residents. In short, the organization must become decisive, realistic, and responsible.
Can all this be done, and rapidly enough? Not likely. Change will probably be difficult because, after a quarter century, the PLO has developed entrenched ways. Also, in their own way, the PLO leaders have prospered mightily, so it is hard to see them making major changes on the heels of this, their greatest success ever. Finally, the PLO itself contains many autonomous groups, each pulling in a slightly different direction, and this fractiousness makes it exceedingly difficult for Arafat to impose a quick change of direction.
A failure by the PLO to exploit its present opportunity will allow the Jordanians to argue that, for the good of the West Bank and Gaza residents, it again must return and again shoulder the burden of dealing with Israel. And who would then say no? Not many Palestinians-though some Arab leaders would object.
One of those would surely be Hafiz al-Asad of Syria, the last fervent anti-Zionist ruler still left on Israel's borders. Though not an overt claimant to the West Bank, Assad has invested heavily in a shadow, anti-Arafat PLO structure based in Damascus. He is grooming this force to challenge Arafat, with the hope that it will one day eliminate him, opening the door for Syrian control over the Palestinian movement. King Hussein has now dealt this aspiration a major setback, for Arafat is now at peak strength among Palestinians.
For Israel, Hussein's withdrawal makes negotiations appear more remote than ever. The pulling away of its favorite Arab interlocutor leaves the Labor party (and all those hoping for Israel to evacuate the West Bank) high and dry. By the same token, the Likud party, which hopes to retain today's boundaries, is strengthened.
For the United States, the king's withdrawal from the fray reduces to pulp both President Reagan's 1982 initiative (in which he called for "self-government by the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza in association with Jordan") and Secretary Shultz's recent diplomacy. American plans were predicated on the king's participation, and now he's gone.
This failure points to a unchanging rule which, unfortunately, our leaders keep forgetting every few years: to achieve success in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, Washington has to follow, not lead the Middle East states. When Americans get out in front and on their own try to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, they get egg on the face. It may be un-American not to act on a good idea, but the record shows that careful mediation and quiet pressure accomplish far more than do elegant plans.