Amman, Jordan — Nothing better sums up Yasser Arafat's predicament these days than the figure of his one-time military deputy, Abu Jihad, telling a visitor why his arms arsenal has dwindled to just one pistol -- a condition set by his Jordanian hosts. Then there is an Arafat political aide, Khalid Hassan, wondering plaintively why the world insists on being so ``humiliating'' in the terms it wants to dictate to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
But Mr. Arafat is counting on retaining enough strength to soften such terms.
A key test of his ability to do so began late yesterday, in the form of a summit meeting between Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan.
The talks, in which the King is said to want a newly explicit PLO commitment to negotiated peace with Israel, were not yet over at press time.
Even Arafat's aides, however, have not hidden their concern over the PLO's narrowed policy options.
Arafat's predicament is this: Militarily, his guerrilla organization has no chance of ``liberating Palestine'' from Israeli rule. Indeed, with the PLO's ouster from Lebanon by the Israelis' 1982 invasion, the organization cannot even seriously challenge Israel's security.
Yet the entry price to Mideast diplomacy is an explicit renunciation of ``armed struggle'' -- amounting to public PLO incineration of an aspect of its own charter.
Even then, observers say, Arafat can hope for only a small piece of the action, perhaps choosing Palestinian delegates who will almost surely have to leave PLO credentials at a peace-conference door.
And even if all goes well for the PLO on a path toward peace, Arafat is promised, at most, the watery satisfaction of seeing some kind of Palestinian Arab ``entity'' in ``confederation'' with Jordan.
``A weak PLO is malleable'' and thus ``a good partner'' for negotiating peace, remarked one Jordanian privately on the eve of the Hussein-Arafat talks.
Since the birth of Israel in 1948, the area's indigenous Palestinian Arabs had been subsumed in an angry ``pan-Arab'' nationalism.
Yasser Arafat burst on the Mideast scene after the 1967 Mideast war. With Arab states reeling from Israel's lightning victory in this war, Arafat and his fledgling Al-Fatah guerrillas galvinized a distinctly Palestinian nationialism.
Arafat's Arab headdress and permanent stubble of beard became symbol for a cause, a crusade, if the PLO charter is read literally, to ``liberate Palestine'' and supplant the state of Israel with something ``secular'' and presumably Arab.
At the least, as the years passed and full ``liberation'' came to seem a more dubious option to most Arabs, Arafat's PLO clamored for an ``independent Palestinian state'' on the West Bank of the Jordan river and the Gaza Strip, which Israel had captured from Jordan and Egypt in 1967.
First, Arafat and his cohorts staged raids into Israel from Jordan. But as their forays and Israel's counterstrikes undermined Hussein's rule, the King ousted Arafat and his men in a civil war in 1970.
The PLO recamped in Lebanon.
In 1982, Arafat's increasingly well armed Lebanon organization was shattered by Israeli invasion. His headquarters was forced far eastward to Tunisia in northern Africa. Under tight supervision and largely disarmed, his fighters were scattered among other Arab countries -- including Jordan.
This February King Hussein and Arafat capped months of effort at reconciliation by agreeing jointly to seek a ``confederated'' Palestinian-Jordanian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
But Arafat has resisted tendering some form of recognition of Israel's right to exist or explicit commitment to peaceful coexistence in order to invigorate the Jordan-PLO initiative and win United States pressure on Israel to reciprocate.
Worse, in the Jordanian view, the PLO's murky role in the murder of three Israeli civilians near Cyprus last month and the recent hijacking of the Achille Lauro has battered what progress was already made.
Khalid Hassan, Arafat's political aide, says, in effect, the PLO has no workable alternative to negotiation as a road to even truncated Palestinian statehood.
He sees recent PLO military operations as ineffective.
``King Hussein is our visa to the West'' -- to any kind of role in Mideast talks, Mr. Hassan acknowledges.
But he adds that the PLO, as a ``resistance'' body, cannot rush into the kind of explicit peace declaration being demanded, especially since only hedging assurances of self-determination are offered in return.
Abu Jihad, who now spends time not in bunkers but in strategy sessions, also reflects the changed status of Arafat's PLO. Mr. Jihad explains his own ``military'' role isn't what is used to be.
He does not ``send patrols,'' or commandos, ``from Jordan.'' The King, for one thing, remembers 1970. ``We know,'' says Jihad ``that there is a sensitivity between us and Jordan on this issue.''
Waving a hand from his living room couch toward a Jordanian sentry outside, he notes he and other PLO men in Amman are ``under Jordanian protection.''
``We are not allowed guns. Maybe I can have a pistol, but no gun.''
He, like Khalid Hassan, says it is neither the time or the place to make the kind of blanket peace-and-recognition statement that the rest of the world seems to want. After all, Jihad argues, the US seems to be drawing closer to Israeli efforts to exclude the PLO from talks.
But the dilemma is that armed struggle has its practical limits as well. And, Jihad acknowledges, ``The Palestinians are in need of the Jordanians . . . . in need of continuing on the path to peace.''