Syria-Jordan confrontation poses new problems for PLO leaders

Leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) here in Beirut are facing a new set of problems provoked by the current Syria-Jordan rift. Coming after the outbreak of the Gulf war, which is pitting two close PLO allies (Iran and Iraq) against each other, the effect could be a further political weakening of the Palestinians' umbrella organization.

The mainstream of the PLO, under its chairman, Yasser Arafat, has been in a close alliance with Syria since 1977. And it was under Syrian auspices that the organization began tentatively, at around that same time, to heal its bitter differences with Jordan's King Hussein.

At that stage, Syria and Jordan were good friends. But now, as the tension between the two threatens to explode into outright border clashes, the PLO leaders must decide which side of this new fence to be on.

That is not easy. Syria's support is vital if the PLO is to retain its considerable armed presence in Lebanon. But Jordan, too, has been promising increased facilities to the Palestinian guerrillas of late -- and more important , Jordan's allies in Saudi Arabia and Iraq are key contributors to the PLO budget.

The dilemma was brought to a head by the holding of the latest Arab summit meeting in Amman, Jordan, Nov. 25 to 27.

Syria, arguing that Arab differences made such a gathering useless, spearheaded a move to postpone, and finally boycott, the event.

Jordan, for whom the hosting of the summit marked a new mood of national pride and acceptance back into the Arab fold, insisted on going ahead.

On the eve of the summit date, Mr. Arafat held urgent talks with Saudi Crown Prince Fahd. "If you attend, you may lose the support of Syria," the Crown Prince is reported to have said, in a veiled warning to the PLO. "But if you boycott, you could lose the support of others."

When Mr. Arafat later went to Syria, President Hafez Assad simply said, "We face a common problem in Lebanon. We can either face it together -- or each one on his own." The Plo chairman was convinced.

Jordan's allies, however, continued to woo the PLO at a distance, despite the organization's absence from the summit. They pushed through a series of resolutions that (on paper) gave the organization stronger Arab political backing than hitherto.

Mr. Arafat is said to have been pleased with these results. In post-summit contacts with the Saudis he apparently argued that the PLO's nonattendance was, in fact, constructive, as it forced those who did participate to follow a strictly pro-PLO line.

Many of the summit participants, however, expressed concern that the PLO's absence was a result of Syrian pressure.

Some PLO activists confirm freely that this was so. But they are worried that this fact should be pointed out by leaders such as the Jordanian monarch, whom they still accuse of wanting to take over the PLO's role of speaking for the Palestinians.

"Of course, we are glad when King Hussein publicly subscribes to summit resolutions confirming the PLO's vital role," one PLO official commented. "But when, at the same time, he accuses the PLO leadership of acting under pressure, then he's saying the PLO is not really representative."

This issue is at the heart of current Palestinian fears. They are afraid that US President-elect Ronald Reagan's friendly references to the long-serving Jordanian monarch might signal an attempt by the incoming US administration to draw King Hussein into talks on Palestinian issues.

PLO sources say the King has indicated his readiness to respond to such overtures, not least in a recently published proposal that Jordan, the PLO, and notables from the Israeli-occupied territories should form a joint negotiating team.

The Syrians, eager for support in their own dispute with Jordan, are trying to play on such fears. One of their two demands to the Saudi conciliator in the border confrontation concerns their own grievances against Jordan -- but the other is that Jordan should renounce all claims to speak for the Palestinians.

There are some fears among Palestinians here that the Syrians might demand further PLO loyalty, by caling for PLO action against Jordan. Or they might, if they were to attack Jordan, take their peace-keeping troops out of LEbanon, leaving the PLO exposed to Israeli attacks there.

But despite such fears, and the series of setbacks suffered due to the tensions between many of their allies, PLO officials are not despairing yet. They are generally confident that the loyalty and discipline of the hard core of Palestinian guerrilla groups will see the organization through whatever stormy seas lie ahead.

"When it comes down to it, we are the Palestinians," one official summed up. "Our dilemma is the dilemma of the Palestinians, having no homeland, no base. That is still the problem we have to solve."

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