AMMAN, Jordan -- "Is it true," asked the Jordanian official politely enough, "that an Israeli is more precious than an Arab?"
Why, he persisted, was the world in such a rush to confront Iraq but is still hesitating over concerted action against Israel, even after the killing of 19 Palestinians in Jerusalem?
This is the core question that infuriates and frustrates the Arabs, even those members of the U.S.-led multinational force, and raises the thorny issue of linkage.
"Linkage can mean many things and can mean nothing," said a Western diplomat in Jordan. "Saddam's [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's] understanding of linkage is that everything is linked and should be solved at the same time. This is not acceptable. . . .
"But we recognize that there are remaining issues in the Middle East that have not been addressed satisfactorily in the past. The Palestinian issue is one.
"So a big credibility gap between the West and the Middle East leads people here to say, 'We can't believe you Westerners when you tell us you are law-abiding countries and all you do is motivated by law, because what have you done about the occupied territories? What have you done about Lebanon?' They are valid questions."
Jordan, with a large Palestinian population, is not a member of the multinational force, and the angry reaction here to the Palestinian killings, in what for years was territory governed by Jordan, has been unrestrained.
The Jordanian paper al-Ra'i, echoing Mr. Hussein, said yesterday: "The uprising of the Palestinians is a clear sign to the foreign invaders of Palestine and the Arabian Peninsula that Amman, Baghdad, Tunis, Algiers and other free Arab capitals cannot be forced to be subjugated to the will of the colonial powers and the whims of Israel and the United States."
Jordan is opposed to the presence of foreign forces in the region, but it says it is supporting the U.N. embargo of Iraq at a potentially crippling cost to its own economy. It retains a warm and open relationship with President Hussein, as do the other countries referred to.
Jordanians feel their stance in the crisis, which they view as defending peace and seeking justice, has been much misunderstood and maligned.
Crown Prince Hassan, King Hussein's brother, contended in one outline of Jordanian policy: "President Hussein of Iraq is very popular in Jordan -- as he is throughout the Arab world. This is a limiting factor on Jordan's maneuverability.
"The application of sanctions has meant economic suicide for Jordan. The hope must be expressed that Jordan will not be asked to commit political suicide, too."
Implicit in the assessment was the fear that were Jordan to take up arms against Iraq, the Hashemite kingdom would face popular revolt and might even come to a bloody end.
U.S. and European leaders have been sympathetic to the economic problems facing King Hussein but have also been disappointed in what is widely perceived as his Iraqi-accommodating political posture.
Again these days, the king, who has turned political survival into an art form, is striving for balance between two sides. He is seeking the unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait that the anti-Hussein coalition is demanding and at the same time is urging the sort of settlement of all the region's problems that President Hussein has proposed.
"The king remains today the only person in the world who can negotiate in good faith between the two sides," said one Jordanian official.