YASSER ARAFAT voice of the PLO

He is reviled in some quarters as a symbol of mindless terror. He is revered in others as the ultimate symbol of national pride. But how to get behind the rhetoric, to understand the man, assess his motives, unravel the circumstances in which he operates?

The names of Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have become both highly controversial and intertwined. But despite their wide currency, they remain to many in the West an enigma.

In a Middle East of rolling unrest, of raucous ayatollahs and soviet troops in Afghanistan, the names are an enigma that warrants explanation.

It is just over 20 years since the first signs appeared of the Palestinian group that was to become the dominant force in the (independently founded) Palestine Liberation Organization. Little noticed outside a small circle of some 300 supporters, a new monthly magazine called Filastinuna (Our Palestine) appeared in Beirut in October 1959.

It pages roared with the rage of those Palestinians made refugees during the founding of the state of Israel ten years earlier. They felt betrayed and neglected by the Arab regimes. The opinion column in the magazine, which reflected these feelings, was signed with the acronym that was later to become famous -- Al-Fatha, now the PLO's militant arm.

On the same page, a collection of tales of the refugees' misery was signed with the initials of the man who already had been working for several years to formulate and build up the new group -- the Kuwait-based Palestinian engineer Yasser Arafat.

Born Rahman Abdel-Raouf Arafat al-Qudwa al-Husseini in 1929, the future PLO chairman was raised by his merchant father in Jerusalem and Gaza. After leading the Palestinian Students' Union in Cairo from 1952-56 and helping in the resistance to the 1956 Anglo-French invasion of Suez, he left for Kuwait, where in the early 1960s he became immersed in full-time political work.

In his youth he was something of a right-winger, and was swayed by Islamic ideals. But Yasser Arafat traveled politically leftward under the influence of the Algerian and Chinese revolutionaries he came in contact with in the early 1960s.

His position today is best summed up in his own terse words, "I am realist."

First and foremost for the PLO chairman, that has meant executing a fine balancing act in the cutthroat world of inter-Arab politics -- an act Mr. Arafat has mastered with such consummate skill that he is increasingly called on to mediate inter-Arab disputes.

More important, the PLO meanwhile has elbowed it- self into a relatively priveleged position in the Arab game of nations.

Target of countless assassination attempts, the unmarried Mr. Arafat today leads a supercharged life of long hours of work in his several Beirut headquarters, varied with restless, work-packed travels throughout the Arab world and far beyond.

The efficient corps of personal aides he has built up in recent years has to work in relays to keep up with him, but even they often have no idea which continent their leader will be visiting only a few hours later.

The PLO chairman is an intensely private man who says his own life is not important, that he merely represents the life-experience of all uprooted Palestinians. He nevertheless gives rare glimpses of himself to a careful watcher:

During discussions with this reporter at the end of 1979, conducted long after midnight, Mr. Arafat was only just starting to evince physical fatigue after a 20-hour day of work. When the subject of Jerusalem was raised, he paused, smiled, and then recalled that:

"In 1967, after the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, I was inside the occupied territories, in Jerusalem.I passed by the house where I lived as a child. Standing at the door was a man, one of my brothers. I recognized him, but he didn't recognize me because of my disguise. I felt strongly that here I was, coming home. But I didn't go in.You can't be sentimental in the revolution."

At that stage, Mr. Arafat already had been a full-time revolutionary for some years. He had built up his guerrilla group, Al-Fatah, along with fellow-activists from the Students' Union in Cairo, several of whom still remain in the top ranks of the Fatah leadership.

In 1959 these men first propounded a daring reversal of the old Arab nationalist slogan -- subscribed to by veteran Arab nationalist Dr. George Habash, among others -- that "the road to the liberation of Palestine lies through Arab unity." We can't wait that long, the angry young men of Al-Fatah protested, and anyway, what did the other Arabs ever do for Palestine?

Although they realized, then as n ow, that Palestinian guerilla operations could never alone challenge Israeli military might, they were adamant that the spark for wider actions must come from the Palestinians themselves.

This hard-hitting nationalist Party -- too simple to be called an ideology, and determinedly nonideological anyhow -- gave a new sense of national pride to the dispersed, and dispirited, Palestinians. It took Fatah deep into the squalid refugee camps of the Palestinian diaspora, as into the more prosperous Palestinian communities of the Gulf and the extensive Palestinian student groups of West Germany.

By 1969 Fatah, in alliance with Dr. Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and other smaller guerrilla groups, was strong enough to gain control of the PLO, which had been set up as purely political body by Egypt's President Nasser five year earlier, partly to counter Fatah's growth.

Eleven years and two bruising Arab civil wars later, the political map of the PLO has changed little, except to reflect the continued widening of Al-Fatah's influence:

The soverign policymaking body of the PLO is the 374- member Palestine National Council (PNC), a sort of parliament-in-exile whose members represent the various Palestinian communities, mass organizations, and interest groups. The PNC elects a 15-man executive committee, whose members are joined periodically by 40 other representatives to form the policy-reviewing Palestinian Central Council.

Mr. Arafat is chairman of the executive committee. Its members also include Abul-Lutf and other Fatah supporters, along with representatives of the pro-Soviet, pro-Syrian, and pro-Iraqu guerilla groups and some "neutral" independents. (Dr. Habash's PFLP resigned from the executive committee in 1974, accusing the Fatah leadership of selling out the Palestine cause.)

"For the Palestinians, the PLO is their homeland and their future," Mr. Arafat explained proudly to a visiting delegation of balck Americans led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. "Actually, it is the government-in-exile, the state. all we need is a piece of land."

But if the PLO, with its diplomatic activities, its $27 milion network of social services and schools, its hospitals and aid programs, somehow encompasses all Palestinians, then the day-to-day decisions at the top still depend heavily on the balance inside Fatah. The input from the other guerrilla groups today is marginal, of importance only when it can sway a body of opinion from within Fatah.

There, the allianced may shift and cahnge, but the bases of power remain the same, rooted firmly in the baronies carved out over the years by each of the leading members. Mr. Arafat, Abu Iyad, Abu Jihad, Abul-Lutf, and half a dozen other minor barons. Each controls what amounts to virtually his own political machine -- each replete with more or less well-developed security, information, public relations, and other political apparatus.

This involves much needless duplication of effort and could possible prove dangerous if serious rivalry developed among the barons. But in Fatach terms it works, and it does allow for a certain rude democracy in which all points of view from extreme left to extreme right can be heard within the organization.

The only thing absolutely beyond the pale for Fatah members is unauthorized links with the Arab regimes, ever eager to influence Fatah policy from within.

Overall Fatah policy is made by a series of secret congresses, with the longest gap between those held in 1971 and mid-1980. Between congresses, decisions are supposed to be taken by a 15-member Central Council grouping all the other major barons, whose work is reviewed by a Revolutionary Council of 65 members.

In daily practice, however, Mr. Arafat has a key leadership role within Al-Fatah. He sizes up the balance between the other barons with his finely tuned political acumen, then goes ahead with a course of action that reflects the balance of their views, as well as his own.

Mr. Arafat is sometimes accused by Fatah rank-and-filers of going off on his own tangent (and cursed at other times for all sorts of contradictory failings). But he always has been able ultimately to weld his followers into a consensus behind his actions, and has never so far had his leadership seriously challenged.

The nationalist ties linking the barons meanwhile have stood the trials of the years remarkably well, though some of the original founders of Fatah have dropped out along the way and the collective leadership has shown itself merciless to any who violated the rule against illicit contacts with the Arab regimes.

The result of 20 years of Fatah's political development -- a far cry from the raw rage of 1959 -- is, "the most moderate leadership the Palestinian people has ever had," in the words of strong man Abu Iyad. "My father would turn in his grave to see some of the things we accept today," he adds, echoing a common conviction among Fatah and PLO leaders.

Mr. Arafat himself clearly endorses the trend toward moderation in Fatah's thinking over the years, as he revealed in an unprecendentedly frank encounter in mid-1979 with journalists accompanying the Rev. Mr. Jackson's delegation. As the score of media people perched around on the lush sofas of a PLO guest-apartment, a relaxed Mr. Arafat answered questions freely throughout a whole evening.

he described how "the Palestinians are the only victimes of oppression to have proposed two different solutions to their problem." The first of these, he recalled, was the idea of a secular, democratic state in all of pre-World War II Palestine, where adherents of all religious could live together in peace.

"But the Israelis refused this, so we put forward another solution, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in any part of Palestine from which Israel withdraws."

PLO veteran Shafiq al-Hout, in charge of liaison between the PLO and the Lebanese government, has said that for him, a native of Jaffa in 1948-borders Israel, this change represented "the compromise of a lifetime," But it was a compromise he was prepared to make, he added, if the creation of a Palestinian state elsewhere inside traditional Palestine could give black to him and his family their national identity.

Mr. Arafat, meanwhile, gave the Jackson delegation a dramatic demonstration of how flexible he was prepared to be when he said, "I declare that I am ready to establish this [Palestinian] state even just in Jericho, if that is the only place they withdraw from."

Other points he made that evening included:

* Every Jew who now is living in Palestine is welcome to live there with me, in peace. (Official PLo documents speak only of those Jews residing in Palestine before 1948, so Mr. Arafat's formulation represents a significant departure.)

* he is interested in talking to the US government. "We have an office in New York and are ready to send [officials] to Washington!"

* The PLO executive committee accepted the US-Soviet joint communique of 1977 . We still accept it, he declared.

If the trend in Fatah and the PLO leadership is now toward moderation and a realistic appraisal of international diplomatic and political processes, this does not mean that the military struggle has been forgotten. Al-Fatah military supremo Abu Jihad argues, "Our political actions flow from our unity and military strength."

He dismisses arguments that if the PLo has undertaken not to mount cross-border raids against Israel from Lebanon, then thre is no justification for the presence of some 5,000-plus PLO fighters in souther Lebanon. "This organized, disciplined presence -- even if it is not activated -- forms a basis for our political actions at the international level," he says.

As for the continuing guerrilla actions inside Israel and the occupied territories, these are described by Mr. Arafat and his aides as "the spontaneous acts of any people resisting occupation." Comparisons are frequent with the European underground movements that harassed the Nazis in World War II.

But Beirut journalist Imad Shakkour, who himself studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem before leaving his Israeli Arab village for exile, throws another light on this issue. The Israeli-Egyptian peace, Mr. Shakkour says, "means General Dayan can now sleep safe at night, knowing the Arab armies are not going to attack.

"But Dayan's neighbor, who has a grocer's shop, cannot sleep easy, because he never knows when he might get a bomb in it. So the grocer will start asking Dayan where this peace is that he was promised in the treaty, and he will realize there can be no peace without the Palestinians."

Palestinian activists resent Western charges that the PLO is solely a terror group. They point to the considably higher casualties caused by Israeli actions against guerrillas and civilians alike in southern Lebanon, and ask why double standards should be used against them.

They also resent Western charges that Palestinian aims are not spelled out clearly enough, charging that here, too, double standards are at work. "No one ever asks [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin what his exact aims are," Mr. Arafat accuses. "Does he still stick by his advocacy of a Jewish state from the Nile to the Euphrates, for example? Whereas our aims are perfectly clear and well-expressed."

But for all their blame of the West for its continued support for Israel, the PLO leaders realize that the West, and in particular the United States, has a key role to play in solving their problem. Pragmatists that they are, they realize they must try to deal with the US, and are trying to do so through three interrelated channels.

They are: (1) through the moderate Arab states, uneasy and often unwilling subcribers to the Arab cause, who have their fingers on the West's fuel jugular; (2) through America's allies in Europe and Japan; and (3) through liberal opinion inside American society itself.

With respect to the West then, as inside Israel, in Lebanon, and throughout the Arab world, the PLO leaders are applying a politically sophisticated blend of rational argument. This is backed up with a usually wordless threat to use what forces they can muster if the logic of their arguments is not listened to.

They are on the offensive, but acreful not to appear to bem offensive. They seem convinced that, after an uphill struggle, time is now on their side.

And they are quietly planning for the day when the first stage of their dream , the reconstruction of an independent Palestinian Arab nation in its own homeland, can be achieved.

Tomorrow's center page will profile the Palestinian mayors of the West Bank.m

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