Although the Palestine Liberation Organization's military capability has been shattered for the moment, the driving force behind the PLO - the Palestinian cause - has remained largely intact. It may even have been strengthened.
The Israeli government apparently hoped, and has tried to persuade the United States, that it would wipe the Palestinian cause off the Middle Eastern map. The Palestinians would become just another of the region's historical might-have-been groups like the Assyrians or the Kurds.
But this scenario ignores the fact that the prime instrument for the survival of the Palestinian cause will most likely emerge intact from the war in Lebanon. That prime instrument is the 30-year-old coalition of Palestinian national interests, which under the PLO umbrella continues to wield a sophisticated worldwide politico-military apparatus - the Palestinian National Liberation Movement. It is better known as simply: Al-Fatah.
Al-Fatah controls businesses on five continents, in addition to agricultural plantations in several countries and at least one oil company. Al-Fatah businessmen manage the movement's assets throughout the world, while merging indistinguishably with other Arab businessmen.
It is this network, and the uniting nationalist ideology, that is the continuing guarantor of the Palestinian cause. Over the years, Al-Fatah has succeeded in outmaneuvering the other main guerrilla group claiming to speak for the Palestinians - Dr. George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The latter half of the Lebanese civil war (1975-76) saw the PFLP's potential to challenge Al-Fatah sink to zero, and in late 1978 the formal opposition the PFLP organized within the PLO dissolved.
The PLO is an integral part of the Arab state system. But, with the Arab states now reeling from the double shocks in Lebanon and in the Iran-Iraq war, this state system is likely to disintegrate further into mutually hostile camps.
The Al-Fatah leadership will have to decide, in coming months, what weight to give to their role inside the PLO and what to assign to other existing options. But their dynamism has already endowed the PLO with significant assets throughout the past decade, including its recognition by nearly 150 members of the UN. They are therefore not likely to neglect ''the PLO option'' completely.
And what of the Al-Fatah leadership? Can it survive the present Israeli blows without splintering under the stress? It seems likely that:
* The only casualties the Al-Fatah leadership will suffer as a result of the fighting in Lebanon will be those inflicted directly by the Israelis or their local allies.
* All Al-Fatah leaders who have been leaving Beirut will emerge even more deeply motivated than before to work together.
* Though there is bound to be a period of grass-roots reexamination of the whole Lebanon experience in the coming months, Palestinian communities everywhere will rally around Al-Fatah leadership.
Palestinian nationalism, which is Al-Fatah's political lodestar, was first formulated by a group of Palestinian refugees studying in Cairo and Gaza back in the early 1950s. It was an idea that could accept supporters from the political left to right, religious fundamentalist to secular, provided they subordinated all issues to the fight for Palestinian nationalism.
Around this national idea, Yasser Arafat, Khalil al-Wazir, Salah Khalaf, Khalid al-Hassan, and others were able to build a strong Palestinian Students' Union in Cairo. These same men went on to build the international core of what was named Al-Fatah in October 1959.
United Nations resolutions from 1949 on had urged Israel to allow the Palestinian refugees of the 1948 Arab-Jewish war to return to their homes. But Israel, under its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, did not budge. Rather, tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants were brought in to take over the houses and farms left behind by fleeing Palestinians.
From the outset, Al-Fatah founders argued that reliance solely on diplomacy could not help their cause. The Palestinians, they said, should take up arms to secure the return they dreamed of. Nonetheless, the first five years of Al-Fatah's activities were devoted to solid political work. The group's founders welded together a tight organization spanning the Middle East, North Africa, the Gulf, and Western Europe before they started limited military operations in 1965 .
It was this political network, linking all significant communities of the Palestinian diaspora, that later enabled Al-Fatah to profit from the Arab states' defeat of June 1967 by building up large-scale guerrilla forces in Jordan.