Washington — As a veteran diplomat with the Palestine Liberation Organization describes it , the PLO is now looking to a period of diplomatic, rather than military, struggle.
But if its diplomatic effort fails to produce realistic hope that a Palestinian homeland will be created, the PLO will take up the military option once again, according to Hasan Abdul Rahman, head of the PLO office here.
''I am sure there will be a period of time in order to allow a peaceful process to start,'' said Mr. Rahman, in reference to what will come next if the projected PLO evacuation from Beirut takes place without a hitch, ''but the military strength of the PLO will be used in case the peaceful process is not productive.''
The dapper, mustachioed Rahman arrived here recently after serving for eight years as the deputy permanent representative of the PLO at the United Nations. In Washington, he does not have formal diplomatic status but serves as the director of an information office.
Rahman's presence here represents, in the view of some Middle East experts, an upgrading of the PLO office in Washington.
Rahman holds a master's degree from the University of Puerto Rico, did work toward a PhD degree at the City College of New York, and holds a permanent resident permit here. He spoke to a group of reporters at a breakfast meeting.
Rahman was asked if the PLO would seek revenge against the United States or against Arab regimes that failed to give it significant support. Could one expect more extremism from the PLO? he was asked.
''There is anger, there is frustration among the Palestinians,'' Rahman replied. ''This can be employed constructively, or destructively. If there is a hope among the Palestinians . . . that they can have the right to self-determination and the right to live in a state of their own, then it can be employed constructively.''
Rahman said that the PLO favored ''peaceful coexistence'' with Israel rather than the destruction of Israel. He said that the parts of the PLO's National Covenant which call for the ''liberation'' of all Palestine from the Israelis expressed an ''ideological position'' that would be immediately transformed if the Palestinians were able to realize the right to self-determination. He said that given the ''logic'' of the situation, this would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state on the Israeli-occupied West Bank and in the Gaza district.
''The PLO is not advocating the destruction of Israel,'' said Rahman.
But he also said, ''If the Israelis think we will disappear from the face of the earth, they are wrong. . . . Palestinian nationalism is something which cannot be destroyed. So how can we . . . secure the rights of the Israelis and the rights of the Palestinians? This cannot be achieved militarily. Therefore, we are offering a peaceful settlement.''
Rahman said that the PLO would accept United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which implicitly affirms Israel's right to exist, if the Palestinians are provided with ''the other part of the equation'' -- the right to self-determination.
A US State Department specialist on the Middle East, speaking not as an American spokesman but as an independent analyst, said that Rahman's remarks were ''worth taking note of . . . worth putting on the record.''
''It is important that we have a senior PLO person saying these things,'' he continued. But the official added: ''The thing to bear in mind is that you could also find another PLO member who would say the opposite. . . . It remains to be seen to what extent he represents the top leadership.''
But much of what Rahman was saying seemed similar to statements coming from PLO officials in Beirut. At the breakfast meeting, he took the position that the PLO had won a victory in Beirut by holding off the Israelis for 67 days. He argued that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin had had the intention of destroying the PLO, but that one battle in particular, on Aug. 4, had a telling effect on the Israelis.
''There have been some military losses by the PLO but . . . by comparison with the strength of the Israeli Army . . . we have been able to achieve incredible victories,'' he said.
Rahman further argued that both politically and militarily, the PLO had emerged from the Israeli invasion of Lebanon stronger than it had been before the invasion.
He said that what the PLO was now seeking was ''an organized, honorable withdrawal'' from Beirut and safety for the friends, allies, and relatives of the PLO who would be left behind.