IN chess a normal early move is to ``castle,'' a special move that puts the king into a corner in a powerful defensive position. In Palestine last week King Hussein of Jordan improved his defenses in a similar manner. He, like everyone else who watches the complex Middle East situation, has seen the gradual buildup in Israel of an idea about a way to escape from its demographic dilemma.
Israel wants the West Bank and Gaza, but dare not move to annex those territories with their 1,659,000 Arabs. To do so, and grant citizenship to those Arabs (which annexation implies), would bring startlingly near the time when Arabs would outnumber Jews in Israel. There are about 700,000 Arabs in the present state of Israel. Add those to the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza and there would then be 2,360,000 Arabs, which is getting close to the total number of Jews in those combined territories. Officially there are about 3.5 million Jews in Israel proper and 50,000 to 60,000 more in the occupied territories. But at least 400,000 of the Jews officially counted in Israel actually live in the United States. Also, more Jews have been leaving Israel than arriving there.
If Israel were to grant citizenship to all the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza, with their high birthrate, they would outnumber the Jews by the end of the century, if not sooner.
How can Israel have the lands without the people?
So long as Hussein claimed the West Bank, which was ruled as part of the Kingdom of Jordan from 1948 until 1967, and continued to treat its Arab citizens as citizens of Jordan, the Israelis could claim that Palestinians deported from the West Bank to Jordan were not being transported to a foreign country (illegal under international law) but merely being moved from one part of their country to another.
Israel calls Jordan a ``Palestinian'' state. Its propaganda increasingly plays with the idea that the Palestinians already have a state of their own in Jordan. The demand has long been strong among radical Zionists for the ``transfer'' of a substantial number of West Bank and Gaza Arabs out of those territories, thus clearing the way for Israel to take it all. The idea has been pushed for some time among pro-Israel Americans.
The King's move puts a barrier in the way of any such solution to the problem of the Palestinian Arabs. The King identifies the West Bank and Gaza as being a separate place inhabited by a separate people. They have been asserting their independence and their separate identity for eight months now, by fighting for it in the streets, and dying for it daily, at the hands of Israeli soldiers.
The King proposes that these self-identified Palestinians now form a provisional government of their own in exile. He will be happy to let that government reside in Jordan if it wishes. But he wants a truly Palestinian (West Bank and Gaza) political organization to speak for the Palestinians. He himself will not in the future negotiate for them.
This puts an end to the idea long held in Washington that they would negotiate over the West Bank and Gaza with Hussein, who might, in return for past and future American ``benevolence,'' be willing to settle for terms less favorable to the Palestinians than they themselves would expect.
But it also takes away from Israel the argument that they could deport a lot of Arabs to Jordan without being in overt violation of international law. The King's new emphasis is on the separateness of Jordan from Palestine.
Which means that if Israel is to negotiate with someone over the future of the occupied territories, it will have to negotiate with representatives of those people themselves. At some time in the future Israel either will have to talk directly with Palestinians about their future or will be in the adverse propaganda position of being unwilling to negotiate.
The King's move has improved the bargaining position of the Palestinians and put himself in a stronger defensive role.