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Hussein opens a tent flap for Mideast peace talks

King Hussein of Jordan, the Mideast's great survivor, has taken a first, but tentative, step toward American-mediated peace talks. Now, in his dust-tan capital city pitched on seven rolling hills, it is a time for waiting.

The King will want to gauge the response from three critical quarters: the United States, Israel, and Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat.

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The mood of Jordanian officials on all scores seems best described as ''cautiously optimistic,'' with the emphasis on caution.

Senior diplomats here assume at least one of three conditions, and likely more, must be met before the King makes any definitive move to reenter the negotiated search for a settlement of the Mideast's bedrock issue: the future of the Palestinians.

The conditions cited include some sort of go-ahead from Mr. Arafat, a freeze on Israeli settlement of the West Bank, and - crucially - a sign the US is ready and able to press Israel to loosen its hold on the territory.

In recent days, King Hussein has taken two steps seen as signaling willingness in theory to take a more active negotiating role.

The moves followed long thought, much consultation, and some hesitation, informed sources suggest. This is hardly surprising. Palestinians form a sizable majority of Jordan's population: The West Bank area annexed in 1950 and lost to Israel in 1967 is almost totally Palestinian; in the remainder of the country, 50 to 60 percent is also Palestinian.

Arafat's guerrillas and other PLO groups set up shop in Jordan in the late 1960s. Gradually, they became something close to a rival regime, a process culminating in what the PLO dubbed ''Black September' - the 1970-71 war in which the King's Army drove out the guerrillas. In 1974, Hussein's fellow Arab heads of state formally declared the PLO the ''sole legitimate representative'' of the Palestinians, notably in the occupied West Bank.

Yet amid widened Israeli settlement of the West Bank, rifts in the PLO, and a growing sense in the Arab world that time and increased Israeli presence are eroding chances for a negotiated end to Israel's hold of the West Bank, King Hussein has:

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* Reconvened a national parliament fallow since the 1974 Arab summit said only the PLO could speak for the West Bank. The 60-seat body includes 30 delegates from the West Bank.

* Named a new government, slightly hiking the share of ministries for West Bankers. Taher Masri, a member of a powerful moderate clan in the West Bank town of Nablus, became foreign minister.

In a yet unannounced rider to the shuffle, the King is understood to have moved longtime Information Minister Adnan Abu Odeh to a post in the royal palace. Mr. Odeh was an active participant in last year's abortive talks with Arafat on a common negotiating strategy.

With no immediate negotiating moves expected, the next stage in the diplomatic foray by the King, who has ruled for almost 32 years, is likely to involve Arafat. The PLO chief, after Jordan's implicit signal of readiness to take a more active role in speaking for the West Bank, is widely assumed to be planning a return visit to Amman.

Meanwhile, there are internal explanations as well for the reconvening of parliament. Aware of his majority Palestinian population and of its ever-higher standard of living and education, the King has long contemplated a move toward what is officially termed reinvigorated, ''responsible'' democracy.

In recent years, he has confounded naysayers by building a remarkably stable and thriving polity. Diplomats credit the monarch's talent in consensus building , and his regime's ability to parlay the export of brainpower and the benefits of huge Gulf and Arab aid into prosperity for a relatively resource-poor economy. But the aid has eroded somewhat alongside the fall in world oil prices.

Jordanian officials are equally aware that their country cannot thrive in isolation from an unstable Mideast - a lesson brought home anew by a series of recent bomb explosions here, and attacks on Jordanian diplomats abroad.

Diplomats are awaiting the King's keynote address to parliament, delayed until Monday by an illness, for possible hints of his next moves.

So far, caution seems the watchword. In a letter Tuesday to his new prime minister, King Hussein pointedly held to the language of the 1974 Arab summit, saying: ''We are determined to pursue the responsible dialogue with the PLO, the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, for the sake of reaching a formula within a framework of mutual trust, and determination to attain our goals of putting an end to occupation.''

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