Grizzled PLO chief shows he's a survivor

AS he swept into the auditorium where the Palestine National Council was meeting Wednesday, Yasser Arafat was greeted with tumultuous applause and cries of ''You must stay.''

Only the night before, Mr. Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization since 1968, had formally resigned during a meeting of the PNC executive committee here.

As expected, the PNC rejected the grizzled leader's resignation, and Arafat got his public show of support before a television audience that included his largest constituency - the Palestinians living in Israeli-occupied territories.

''He is a true showman,'' one admiring diplomat said.

For two years, veteran Middle East analysts have predicted the imminent demise of Arafat. But the wily symbol of the Palestinian national movement dumbfounded the analysts and infuriated his opponents last week when he arrived in Amman to preside over the much-delayed convening of the 17th session of the PNC, the Palestinian parliament-in-exile.

The gathering of the PNC gave Arafat the chance to put his defeats behind him and reaffirm his control over the main factions of the PLO.

It remains to be seen whether he will be able to turn his triumph into a mandate to steer the guerrilla organization he made famous on a more moderate course that could lead to a settlement with Israel.

There are many Palestinians who have neither forgiven nor forgotten the string of Arafat losses that started with the Israeli invasion of south Lebanon June 6, 1982.

That invasion crushed the military infrastructure Arafat had built in south Lebanon. It also led to the expulsion of Arafat and his fighters from Beirut. The PLO held out against intense Israeli shelling of the capital for almost two months.

But when Arafat and some 9,000 Palestinian fighters were evacuated under American auspices, they left behind them undefended Palestinian refugee camps, and Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila were massacred by the Israeli-backed Lebanese Phalangist militiamen.

Arafat next was faced with a Syrian-backed rebellion within the ranks of his own Al-Fatah, the largest Palestinian guerrilla organization. In March 1983, Fatah loyalists in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, were attacked by Syrian-backed Palestinian rebels. Arafat subsequently was expelled from Damascus by Syrian President Hafez Assad, and the split in the PLO widened.

President Assad insisted that Arafat, whom the Syrians and some PLO hard-liners view as too moderate, be deposed before another PNC was held.

Besieged by the Syrians, scattered among the Arab nations, the mainstream Fatah faction of the PLO has seemed weaker in the last few months than it has in the last 17 years. Its stated goal of establishing a Palestinian state seemed more distant than ever.

Had the Syrians not insisted on Arafat's ouster, one Jordanian official speculated, ''the Palestinians would probably have gotten rid of Arafat at this council. In any other revolution, he would have been shot for what has happened.''

But instead, the bulk of the Palestinians seem to have rallied around their leader. In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, thousands of Palestinian students demonstrated in support of Arafat and in support of the convening of the PLO. Two students were killed during demonstrations in Ramallah last week before the West Bank colleges voluntarily closed their doors for the duration of the PNC.

''They support him because he is the only leader they've got,'' said a Western diplomat who spoke on condition he not be identified.

''Arafat is still a symbol; to the whole world he is a symbol of the Palestinians,'' said a Palestinian journalist covering the PNC.

Arafat managed to convey a twofold message by holding the conference in the face of Syrian opposition.

To the Syrians, he said that he still is in control of the PLO and has enough options within the Arab world to risk the wrath of the Syrians. To the Israelis and the international community, he said that the PLO, weakened though it may be , is still the organization any Arab leader who hopes to negotiate a regional settlement must have on board.

Western diplomats in Amman said they thought Arafat emerged from the council stronger than when he went into it. But he still had no mandate to join King Hussein of Jordan in any new peace initiative.

Now that the conference has ended, the PLO will have to decide its next step. That decision, several analysts predict, will probably be one of opting to ''continue to play their waiting game'' in the Mideast peace process.

In doing that, Arafat runs some risk that eventually the Palestinians living in the occupied territories, and leaders such as Hussein and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, will tire of waiting for the PLO.

''In the last two years, Arafat lost an awful lot of prestige in the minds of a lot of the Arab leaders,'' said the Western diplomat. ''He has spent the time globe-trotting, visiting every country that will have him. Someone commented recently that Arafat's motto should be 'I travel, therefore I am.' ''

The PLO still faces the reality of a Middle East where no Arab government is willing to serve as a base from which the Palestinians can launch attacks on the Israelis, where there appears no hope of a new peace initiative being launched in the near future, where the Arab states are so badly divided that they cannot hold an Arab summit.

In such a climate, Arafat's greatest victory here may well be that he once again has emerged a survivor.

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