King Hussein back in favour as Yasser Arafat's star declines: In Nablus, Sarah Helm finds that many Palestinians believe peace might only come through Jordan

FOR THE bus drivers of Nablus, on the Israeli-occupied West Bank, all new routes lead to Jordan. For the farmers all new markets go through Jordan. And for increasing numbers of Palestinians here, political stability may only come not through a Palestinian state, but through political and economic partnership with the Hashemite Kingdom.

Nablus, the largest Palestinian town on the West Bank with a population of 150,000, has long been a bedrock of Palestinian nationalism and support for the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Jordan's King Hussein, who controlled the West Bank until Israel captured it in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, has been viewed by many here as a traitor for abandoning the town to Israeli forces in 1967.

Now, in Nablus, the King is back. Uncertainty and fear about the future still clouds debate in the streets but far-reaching new political and social trends are clear. Three months after signing the Gaza-Jericho peace agreement, PLO Leader Yasser Arafat's credibility is being questioned. The influence of radicalised young PLO activists, who came to power in the 1987 intifada, is waning, and it is not only Islamic militants who are seeking to exploit the vacuum. The middle-class Palestinian establishment, the businessmen, and the older tribal leaders, are seeking power again. Many, with relatives either inside or close to the King's court, look towards Jordan and are slowly, but surely, rehabilitating King Hussein as a future alternative to Mr Arafat, who must be noting these developments with alarm.

Nearly a year after he took his turn on the White House lawn, it is King Hussein who is on prime time, while the PLO chairman sits in a Gaza Hotel with jobs riots on his doorstep. In big West Bank towns like Nablus, the time is ripe for the King to boost his influence. Every family in Nablus has relatives on the East Bank, creating a ready knot of social ties. Nablus is also, a commercial centre. All its top business families have investments in Jordan and and the town's famous olive oil and soap is exported through Jordan. In Nablus there is no sign yet of gains from Gaza-Jericho 'self-rule'. Even when Israel re-deploys in the rest of the West Bank, Nablusians fear the autonomy they are offered under Mr Arafat's deal will be even more limited than in Gaza and Jericho.

No member of Mr Arafat's new Palestine National Authority is from Nablus or the northern West Bank. Talk of new investment is all focussed on Gaza. Meanwhile, Mr Arafat has appointed a new Nablus mayor, 'just as Israelis used to appoint mayors', say his critics. In a recent poll 74 per cent of Palestinians in Nablus said they favoured co-operation with Jordan in political and economic fields. 'These results would not have been seen two years go. If there were elections here now, pro-Jordanian candidates would win wide support,' said one influencial political figure in the city. 'This is the start of new trend. People here are starting to get restless - they feel ignored by Arafat.'

In Nablus there are many signs of new Jordanian influence. In the central square, a branch of the Jordan Gulf Bank is about to open, and the managers are hoping investors will be heartened by the King's new peace deal with Israel. At the bus terminal, Attar Odeh is planning to operate the lucrative bus routes to Jordan and beyond once borders are open. 'It will be good business if we can get the lines,' he said.

In political debate the voices of West Bank pro-Jordanian tribal leaders, are heard again. 'He is an honest monarch. I am sure that in his heart he wants to regain the territory he lost - to regain it in front of the world,' said Nasser Eddin Nashashibi, a leading pro- Jordanian author, whose new pro- Jordanian newspaper is gaining sales in Nablus. The younger Nablus generation still declares undying support for Mr Arafat. But many of them work in T-shirt shops in the Old City where they once threw Molotov cocktails.

The political elite of West Bank towns are experts at reading the political signals from Amman, just 40 miles away, and they say they know exactly what the King is up to. They believe it is misleading to suggest that King Hussein holds out serious hope of re-annexing the territory in the short term. What he can hope for is to turn the West Bank into a dependent, relatively prosperous, satellite of Jordan. The King knows, they say, that with his ever-troubled involvement in the West Bank, he cannot force himself on the people. He must create a climate in which Palestinians chose loyalty to him out of self-interest. 'From now on, Palestinians are going to be increasingly concerned with who can best deliver,' says Ziad abu Amr, political scientist at the West Bank's Bir Zeit University. 'If Arafat flunks the test, people will look for alternatives, and the alternative is not just the Islamic movement, but Jordan too.'

At the same time, the King must block the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank, which would weaken Jordan, drawing away investment, and de-stabilising the delicate political balance on the East Bank, where more than half the population is Palestinian. Israel also hopes to block the emergence of a state, by squeezing Mr Arafat, economically and politically. With his new peace initiative, the King can work in tandem with Israel to undermine the PLO chairman. Economic deals are being discussed which give Israel and Jordan an upper hand in the region. And the King is undermining Mr Arafat's efforts to present East Jerusalem as his future Palestinian capital, by holding himself up as saviour of the Muslim holy sites. It is no coincidence that Mr Arafat has not visited the King for several months, nor that he chose to live in Gaza not Jericho, so as to be closer to Egypt than Jordan.

The Jordanian option is a depressing one for those who ever held out a hope of a real Palestinian independence. It means the taming of the nationalist spirit. As Ali Jabarwi, of the Centre for Palestine Research and Studies in Nablus puts it: 'The result will be a pacified non-political West Bank. With more jobs many will be happier. But politically we will be squeezed in the sandwich between Jordan and Israel.'