Beirut — Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat says ''all roads lead to Palestine.'' However, the Beirut road the Palestinians have traveled for 12 years is now a dead end.
In the past 12 days, more than 11,500 PLO guerrillas and leaders have left Beirut. The last ship, carrying 769 Palestinians, sailed Wednesday for Syria.
They have been scattered to eight Arab countries, but in terms of numbers, they have gone largely to Syria. A total of 7,587 wound up in Syria, including the key leaders - with the exception of Mr. Arafat.
PLO sources say Mr. Arafat will make Tunis his base for awhile, but eventually, he, too, will join his men in Damascus.
The Syrian capital has always officially been the PLO headquarters. However, the Palestinians have never used it, preferring the freedom of Beirut.
Keen to show a unified PLO despite the grave setback of losing Beirut, PLO leaders have emphasized they are now regrouping.
Mr. Arafat's No. 2 man, Abu Iyad, of his own guerrilla group, Al-Fatah, made this point before leaving the Lebanese capital.
''We are now going to Damascus, where there will be a firm headquarters of the Palestinian revolution,'' he said. He is known to be more hard-line than his boss.
His tagline to that declaration hinted that Damascus was not to be a long stopover en route to the PLO quest for Palestine.
''But we are going out in search of an Arab capital which will offer the same to us as Beirut.''
Most Arab capitals are run by politically and militarily repressive regimes that would not stand for a Beirut-like PLO blossoming in its seat of power.
A French journalist who had been a longtime Beirut resident and PLO-watcher left the Lebanese capital when Arafat did.
His au revoir to his colleagues pointed to what many diplomats, observers, and PLO officials privately call the PLO's next Beirut.
''I will see you in Amman within a year,'' the journalist categorically told a table full of Middle East watchers.
Amman is not Beirut, but it certainly ranks second in terms of having a more open, relaxed society than other nations in the Arab world.
More than 60 percent of Jordan's 2.5 million people are Palestinian. Israel has long suggested Jordan as the obvious Palestinian state. King Hussein rejects this notion.
The PLO says it doesn't want Jordan itself, but it certainly would settle for the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza strip.
The PLO is ''back to zero,'' as one PLO official put it Sept. 1 before the last boat set sail from Beirut.
''The most difficult problem we will be facing is to keep the political line of the PLO united and to keep this line in the right way. This problem of being scattered will be easily solved later on,'' said George Habash, leader of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), after arriving in Damascus.
The line he referred to was the line Yasser Arafat has been carefully drawing since he became chairman in 1969.
Mr. Arafat, through political twisting, turning, cajoling, and sidestepping, has made diplomacy the chief Palestinian weapon. Since 1974, Arafat has discouraged the military option - covert or overt - especially outside Israel or the occupied territories.
Many guerrillas packed their duffel bags, swearing the world would soon witness an unparalleled wave of terror to get even for what happened to them in Lebanon.
Lower-ranking officials agreed that some return to terrorism might be in the cards. However, the leadership has nixed that publicly.
Moreover, the statement came from the one PLO leader considered responsible for much of the PLO's early days as hijackers and bombers, Mr. Habash.
Asked if the PLO would turn to terrorist acts outside Israel, he replied, ''I can assure you the PLO and the PFLP will not follow this line.''
The leadership appears bent on milking the war in Lebanon for political gains.
''If Arafat and the institutions around him can manage to hold political unity, quite a lot of political gains of this war can be invested in forwarding the PLO,'' said a ranking PLO official days before sailing to Tunis.