Washington — Palestinian officials now are discussing what they hope to achieve ''after Beirut.''
The first and loudest point they make is that the massive Israeli assault against them in the Lebanese capital failed to attain the Israelis' goal of destroying their organization and the Palestinian national cause.
The question they are discussing now is simply how to use what remains of the organization to further the cause - in particular, what mix of political and military tactics they should adopt.
There is clearly a general feeling inside the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that the sheer intensity of the Israeli attack against them - and their ability to withstand it - has won them significant political points in the international sphere. PLO members are therefore agreed on not letting this diplomatic momentum slip away.
Already, a new diplomatic campaign has been launched in the United States following the upgrading of PLO representation at the United Nations in New York and here in the US capital.
There is an internal PLO debate, however, over what concrete diplomatic gains the organization can register in the coming months.
All PLO officials stress that what they are looking for in the first instance is the start of an open dialogue with the US. They apparently understand that the present US administration will not go back on the commitment made by Henry Kissinger to Israel in 1975, that the US would not talk with the PLO before the organization recognized Israel and Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.
But PLO chairman Yasser Arafat expressed a strong PLO consensus when he argued that the PLO cannot take this historic step without clear assurances of receiving a commensurate political quid pro quo. The PLO's diplomats are therefore continuing the campaign started back in July to find a formula whereby the necessary PLO commitments will be exchanged for open US support for the concept of Palestinian self-determination.
One key figure in this campaign is Nabil Shaath, a former head of the PLO Planning Center who is shortly to head the PLO's permanent observer mission at the United Nations.
Dr. Shaath was in Washington in mid-August, explaining the PLO position to a broad spectrum of (nonadministration) political and academic figures. He told a lunch meeting at Georgetown University that he saw a broad shift in US public opinion toward the concept of Palestinian self-determination and toward the PLO goal of a Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza areas.
But Dr. Shaath said he senses no parallel shift in Reagan administration thinking. He said the PLO could not achieve its political goal single-handed and that he had appealed to those he had talked to here in Washington - including several senior senators from both parties - to do what they could to help change the administration's mind.
A PLO official who is skeptical that this campaign can bring success is Bilal Hassan, a left-wing Palestinian journalist who is editor in chief of the PLO's monthly periodical Shu'un Filastiniya (Palestinian Affairs).
Mr. Hassan agrees that the political campaign followed by Dr. Shaath and others should be pursued, but he is pessimistic about its results: ''I do not think the US administration will recognize the Palestinians' right to self-determination,'' he told the Monitor in a telephone interview from Beirut.
He placed no particular hopes in Secretary of State George P. Shultz's current effort to map out Mideast policy options. He recalled that PLO leaders had originally been encouraged when Mr. Schultz replaced Alexander Haig as secretary of state. ''But the destruction that has happened (in Beirut) in the Shultz era has been worse than that of the Haig era,'' he said. ''There appears to be little difference between the two secretaries concerning the Middle East.''
Hassan stressed that, despite differing expectations from the diplomatic campaign, Arafat's personal position inside the PLO has been considerably strengthened by the battle of Beirut. ''He now has a much-enhanced reputation as a fighting leader amongst the Palestinian fighters, and has meanwhile attained a real unity of all Palestinian organizations round him.
''It is the first time in the history of the PLO that all the organizations have placed themselves completely under his leadership,'' Hassan considered.