With Camp David stalemated, Washington and the capitals of the Middle East are rehearsing for a new diplomatic act to bring about a lasting settlement of Arab-Israeli differences.
The scene for this new act is the rolling, rocky hills of the occupied West Bank and Jordan, where 3 million Palestinians in search of a homeland live.
Egypt's President Anwar Sadat was the leading figure in the first act.
But now it is Jordan's King Hussein who is in the wings preparing for Act II. This is because with Israeli relinguishment of the Sinai two-thirds complete and normalization of Egyptian-Israeli relations continuing, the scene now shifts to the West Bank and the great unsolved problem of Palestinian autonomy. About 50 percent of the Jordanian king's countrymen are Palestinians.
The King has an important negotiating role -- a fact already acknowledged by President-elect Ronald Reagan, who has made an early meeting with King Hussein the cornerstone of his nascent Middle East strategy.
The Gulf war between Iran and Iraq and the ensuing moderate-radical schism among Arab nations are among the recent events that have helped propel King Hussein more toward center stage. Even Arab leaders who rejected Camp David seem to recognize that a similarly styled second act has become necessary.
"It is true," said a Jordanian official prior to the opening of the 11th Arab summit conference in king Hussein's capital, Amman, "that there hasn't been a new idea on the table since Camp David three years ago."
He added, "you cannot undo Camp David -- we know that."
To this oficial the summit conference that opened here Nov. 25 provides King Hussein with an opportunity to assess sentiments among arab moderates and so convey to Mr. Reagan what would and would not be acceptable on the all-important issue of Palestinian national rights.
"When the King goes to Washington, he will try not to just project the Jordanian point of view," says a spokesman. "He will try give a consensus explanation of what the Arab world feels."
One of the most interesting coincidences involving this Amman summit conference is its time and place.
The Gulf war, which began in mid-September, split the Arab world into two camps -- moderates such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia supporting Iraq, and hard-liners such as Syria and Libya supporpting Iran. This division caused Syria and Libya, along with Algeria, South Yemen, Lebanon, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), to boycott the summit.
While King Hussein is hovering in the background to play a more crucial negotiating role, his potential to grab center stage may be undercut by these considerations:
1. A 1974 decision of Arab leaders at Rabat, Morocco made the PLO, not Jordan , the sole spokesman for the occupied West Bank. The PLO is wary of any attempt by King Hussein to negotiate, suspecting that the King still would like to set up a "united Arab Kingdom" unmder which the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and East Bank would be united under Hussein.
The Hussein family still sees itself as the guardian of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the spot where Muhammad is believed to have ascended and received the revelation of Islam. Photographs of the golden-domed holy place, which dates from the 7th century, are almost as ubiquitous around Jordan as portraits of the King.
Jordan controlled the holy places until they were lost to Israel in the 1967 war. Since then, the growing activity of the PLO has presented a competing claim for Jerusalem and the West Bank.
It is likely that the Arab summit will give King Hussein a mandate only to put forth Arab views as a whole and will stop short of endorsing any possible Jordanian peace initiative.
2. King Hussein is at some disadvantage compared to President Sadat. While King Hussein is a ruler of an arid, aid-dependent nation of only 2.8 million (half of them Palestinians), President Sadat represents the preeminent military power in the Arab world -- a nation of 40 million that carried by far the largest defense burden when it fought four all-out wars with Israel.
By contrast, Jordan's moderation toward a militarily powerful Israel is well known. As the least bellicose of Israel's neighbors, King Hussein was criticized in 1973 for only nominal participation in the fight against Israel.
The King's durability and the future of his small, modern nation depend on his ability to maneuver deftly. He has earned the respect of friend and enemy for this ability and is often referred to as "the fox."
Already, however, King Hussein's Syrian foe, President Hafez Assad, has warned that the King is soon to become the "Jordanian Sadat." Yet it is necesary for the Jordan leader to act with the backing of powerful neighbors and financial supporters.
Act II in the peace process would have to be called by a name other than Camp David and would have to be quite unlike its predecessor. The Arab stand has hardened since Mr. sadat's initiative. All Camp David "rejectionists" have vowed not to act alone, and by agreement a special Arab summit would have to be convened to consider a peace plan.
"The Arab position is fixed," a Jordanian ambassador to Europe said in a private discussion. "There is no reason to think Israel either under [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin or under a Labor Party prime minister is about to see our way on the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza. In fact, by giving back the Sinai to Sadat, the Israelis hardened themselves toward the West Bank."
This ambassador believes there is no reason for optimism, but he agrees that a new, as yet unseen plan, is necessary.