Since Israel's invasion of Lebanon, the Western world's attention has focused on implications for the future of the Arab-Israeli conflict and on the opportunities created - or ended - for its peaceful resolution. Yet the way in which the Lebanese crisis unfolds in the near future will also have far-reaching implications for the Persian Gulf.
The presence in Lebanon of the Palestine Liberation Organization - symbolizing the deeper problem of Palestinian nationalism - has been the core factor behind the present crisis. Likewise, the fate of the PLO, and the way in which the whole Palestinian problem will now be approached, will be most consequential for the future shape of Middle East politics and in particular for the prospects of long-term stability - or lack of it - in the Gulf.
Among the reasons:
* Throughout the region there are hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have been away from their homeland for many years, but they remain Palestinian in their thinking and in their support for the goals of Palestinian nationalism.
* A large part of the population of smaller Gulf countries consists of Palestinians (e.g., 25 percent in Kuwait). Even Saudi Arabia has a large number of Palestinian workers.
* This population is among the most sophisticated and politically aware of the Arab peoples, with a higher proportion receptive to such extremist ideas as pan-Arabism, Arab socialism, and now various forms of revolutionary Islam.
* Many Palestinians play important professional roles in Gulf governments, bus-inesses, and other institutions; and they have numerous sympathizers among other nonin-digenous (particularly Arab) peoples in these countries.
During the past 15 years the growing Palestinian presence in Gulf countries has been a key motive for the latter's direct involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, even though it has stopped short of actual military confrontation. Together with other factors, the net result of this involvement has been closer interaction and direct linkages between developments in the Gulf and those in the zone of Arab-Israeli conflict.
Since the mid-1950s and all through the 1960s, when waves of pan-Arabism and Arab socialism swept through the Arab world, Gulf countries have faced a legitimacy problem with a large part of the Arab public. At the root of this problem has been the conservative nature of their leadership, their closest Western ties, and their almost total passivity in the face of the Israeli ''enemy.'' Moreover, their oil riches and their leaders' extravagance - while the majority of Arabs have lived in poverty - have been deeply resented by many less-favored Arabs.
Nevertheless, in recent years the Gulf Arab countries have partially managed to offset this legitimacy problem in the Arab world, essentially by organizing the 1973 oil embargo; by giving massive aid to the Palestinians and to other Arab countries; and by engaging in intensive efforts to try gaining for the Palestinians through diplomatic means what they did not manage to gain through costly wars.
Essential to these efforts, and to the Gulf countries' success in enhancing their prestige and position in the Arab world, has been the close working relationship developed with the PLO and its leaders. Even so, many Palestinian groups - as well as other Arabs - have continued to consider these countries as being basically hindrances to achieving the nationalist aspirations of the Palestinians and of the Arab world, in general.
In fact, these groups would very much like to see the existing Gulf regimes replaced with ones considered to be more congenial. So far, however, they have been kept in check by the dominant moderate forces within the PLO. Yet should the PLO disintegrate and the Palestinians lose any hope of finding a reasonable solution to their plight, there is a real chance of strong Palestinian agitation and perhaps even subversion in the Gulf countries, potentially supported by collaborators among non-Palestinian elements.
Indeed, the general political passivity of Palestinians quietly seeking a living in Gulf countries could disappear in short order. There is precedent: in 1976, Kuwait suspended its parliament and the parts of its constitution dealing with freedom of the press and new elections. The reason cited was that the Palestinians were in a dangerous mood as a result of troubles in Lebanon, and the Kuwaiti government feared that, having lost their homes in Lebanon, they might try to turn Kuwait into a provisional homeland.
Like observers elsewhere, Palestinians are conscious of the Gulf countries' importance to the West. With their hopes dashed of finding a peaceful solution to their problems, they could well conclude that the only way to get the West to act is to hit it where it hurts most: in the Gulf. Coupled with the destabilizing impact of revolutionary Iran, such a development could prove to be too much for fragile Gulf societies, particularly if cooperation is established between some Iranian elements and dissatisfied Pales-tinians.
Iran is certainly trying to portray itself as the champion of the Palestinian cause, through such symbolic gestures as sending a few hundred Revolutionary Guards to Lebanon, while the Gulf Arabs are conspicuously inactive. Of course, the Iranians would be deluding themselves if they thought they could succeed at this venture of winning Palestinian allegiance. Yet under certain circumstances - e.g., deep Palestinian frustration - a temporary alliance between Iran and the Palestinians cannot, and should not, be dismissed.
It is almost a truism that, at some point in the next few years, significant internal changes are bound to take place in the Gulf countries.
The key question is whether or not this can be achieved in a peaceful and evolutionary way. Certainly, the frustration of Palestinian aspirations, followed by desperate actions, would reduce the chances for an orderly transformation of Gulf societies.