KING Hussein of Jordan's status as the Middle East's longest serving ruler has been achieved more through a canny instinct for survival and occasional ruthlessness than by the boldness of his policies. Nevertheless, his offer to meet Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in public shows considerable courage. As the Arab-Israeli peace process progresses, albeit at the pace of a sick snail, it is sometimes easy to forget the pressures moderate Arab leaders face from hardliners in their own camp. King Hussein has long been considered the man most likely to make peace with Israel; and certainly for longer than the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. But he has always had to look over his shoulder at hardliners at home and abroad. Palestinians make up the majority of his subjects and are now as divided over the peace process as Palestinians elsewhere. Muslim fundamentalist and leftist hatred of Israel are a factor in Jordan as they are throughout the Arab world. Caught between rejectionist Syria and Iraq to the north and east and fundamentalist Saudi Arabia to the south, his relations with Israel have necessarily been diffident and low-profile. Iraq's defeat in the Gulf War and Syria's cautious participation in the peace process may have reduced the dangers somewhat. But open meetings with Mr Rabin are risky. It may seem ungracious of the king to portray his offer not as a genuine gesture of peaceful intent, but as a mercenary move to cash in on a multi-million dollar US bribe. He is after all hoping the summit with Mr Rabin will put him back in the West's good books after backing the wrong side in the Gulf War. But given the Arab world's ambivalence over making peace and the danger of his position, a grudging summit offer is better than none at all. The road to peace has never been smooth but King Hussein has made the first move, and a courageous one too.