Nicosia, Cyprus — PLO leader Yasser Arafat is struggling to prevent his far-flung organization from splitting into two rival wings.
In the two months since the Palestine Liberation Organization evacuated its Beirut base, it has had a difficult time keeping staff and followers in contact.
Mr. Arafat has had to remain on the road constantly. Headquartered in Tunisia , he is some 2,000 miles from the land the PLO seeks to liberate.
At the same time, the bulk of the PLO's fighting men are in Syria, under the thumb of the Syrian regime - or in northern and eastern Lebanon, accessible only via Syria.
Hence, unless the PLO basing problem is worked out soon, the organization is likely to spin off into Damascus- and Tunis-based wings. The split may never be a declared one, but it will almost certainly give Syria working control over the bulk of the PLO's men and resources.
Any such splintering is likely to have implications far beyond the PLO itself , reaching deep into the Middle East peacemaking process. For Mr. Arafat's claim to speak for the Palestinians would clearly be weakened and he would face the probability of a more radical, Syrian-based faction trying to undermine any move toward accommodation. Even before this, the link between the pro-PLO leaders inside the Israeli-occupied territories and the PLO leadership in exile has been steadily eroding.
The crucial issue of basing and control will be addressed at a meeting of the Palestine National Council (PNC) due to be held next month. But location for the PNC, too, remains uncertain - and for the same reason that a permanent PLO home does: namely, that the most likely venue, the Syrian capital of Damascus, is also the most restricted for the PLO.
Even in normal times back in Beirut, the PLO was a difficult organization to keep under control, being composed of eight distinct resistance parties, each with its own armed elements. These parties and the PLO central structure were and are funded by a dozen rival Arab countries, and they encompass an array of conflicting ideologies, strategies, and personalities.
The parties range from the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) to the centrist Al-Fatah; the strategies run from militarism to diplomacy; and the personalities from the strident George Habbash of the PFLP to the moderate, soft-spoken Hani Hassan of Fatah.
This patchwork organization, of course, was aimed to support the Palestinians living in territory occupied by Israel. But increasingly over the past decade the only real link between the PLO inside and outside Israel was a phone connection in Paris. The Palestinians under Israeli occupation honored the leadership of the PLO but generally had to make their own decisions. Last summer , at the height of the siege of Beirut, Palestinians in the West Bank seriously considered splitting from the PLO on the issue of mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO.
The PLO's social organizations, including Samed - a kind of mini-industry to employ Palestinian refugees - are even farther afield. Samed, for instance, is now in North Yemen.
The PLO's news agency, WAFA, is generally operating out of Damascus but is trying to show its independence by sending dispatches from as many Arab capitals as possible. These are telexed to Cyprus and relayed from there. Likewise, the PLO's monthly magazine, Falestine Al-Thawra, is being produced by a small staff in Nicosia, Cyprus.
For the moment, it seems Mr. Arafat will have to resign himself to Syrian dominance of the PLO, especially that part of the PLO located in Syria or in northern and eastern Lebanon. Syrian President Hafez Assad and Mr. Arafat have been bitter rivals in the past, when the PLO had to live under the guns of the Syrian Army in Beirut. Frequent battles by proxy between the PLO and Syria continued right up to the time of the Israeli invasion last June. More recent fighting in the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli was at least partly linked to the Syrian-PLO rivalry.
The ambush of PLO chief of staff Saad Sayel in Lebanon's Baalbek region Sept. 27 is believed to have taken at least Syrian cooperation, since the area is controlled by the Syrian Army.
Mr. Assad is especially displeased with Mr. Arafat's warming relations with King Hussein of Jordan. After an important round of Hussein-Arafat talks, Syria's state-controlled news agency, SANA, reported that five PLO groups had issued statements condemning the Jordanian regime and talk of a Jordan-Palestine federation. Three of these groups denied issuing such statements. In retrospect, it appears that Syria's SANA was most eager to nurture divisiveness within PLO ranks.
Syria has heavy influence on at least three of the PLO's eight parties. Al-Saiqa, the PFLP-General Command, and the Palestine Liberation Front are led by Syrians. And Mr. Assad often can count on the support of the leftist PFLP and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, both of which operate out of Damascus at present.
If Mr. Arafat continues to operate out of Tunisia and to discuss PLO strategy with King Hussein, the split with Syria is bound to worsen. Already King Hussein has agreed to allow former members of Jordan's Palestine Liberation Army to return to his country, even though many of these men were the same ones who tried to overthrow him in 1970. PLO officials say they are seeking to establish a number of offices in Amman to support the increasing level of PLO activities in the kingdom.