Life in Lebanon is never easy for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Each day brings reminders of the PLO's half status in anarchical Lebanon, of clear Israeli military dominance, and of growing Lebanese resentment.
Outside a PLO office in Beirut's shopping district at noon recently, armed guards quietly watched the white trails of two US-built Israeli fighters (F-15s or -16s) streaking through cloudless Lebanese skies while antiaircraft batteries on the edge of Beirut popped harmlessly in the distance. In the south, planes and commandos routinely raid as far north as Sidon.
With American Middle East policy slowly taking shape and Lebanon tense, this is a critical time for the controversial Palestine Liberation Organization.
Somehow, Middle East analysts say, the PLO must convince the new American President that its case is legitimate, that it is not fractured and ready to fall apart.
But so far, PLO officials say, Washington isn't listening.
Three proposals have emerged from Western quarters in recent weeks suggesting that the PLO could improve its standing in Washington by (1) recognizing Israel, (2) forming a government in exile, and (3) divorcing itself from its more violent supporters, such as Syria.
There are reasons, PLO officials say, why they will follow none of these suggestions.
"We have declared many times that we are ready to participate in any political effort [to settle the Arab-Israeli dispute]," PLO central committee member Shafik al- Hout told the Monitor March 5. "We will abide by the rules of the United Nations, its Charter, and its resolutions. What we are implicitly saying is that recognition of ISrael is no problem. But this should come as the last chapter in negotiations.
"Besides," he adds, "it is really insignificant in the realm of security. If [PLO chairman Yasser] Arafat recognized Israel and then is pushed out five months later by George Habash [head of the MArxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine], what's the point?"
Moreover, al-Hout and other Palestinians say, there is no guarantee that Israel would reciprocate. As one PLO official says, "That is a recipe for a lynch mob. Why give up something for nothing?"
The idea of a government-in-exile, which was proposed recently by Egypt's President Anwar Sadat, is rejected for now by the PLO as being premature and possibly upsetting to the Lebanese.
"Assuming Europe or America or the Soviet Union can come up with a well-defined peace initiative, then we can see the necessity for a government-in-exile," al-Hout says. "The Vietnamese, the Algerians, and other liberation movements have done it when there is a political reason for doing so. If we do it now, we add new responsibilities without gaining new privileges."
He adds that given a fairly high level of resentment of Palestinians by Lebanese, creating a government-in-exile could appear to the Lebanese as if "we were planning to stay in their country forever." But if and when an exile government is believed necessary, the National Palestinian Council could form a government with little problem, al-Hout says.
On the sensitive issue of Syria, PLO officials says it is unfair for Washington to believe that the PLO is a puppet of the Syrian regime. They maintain that since facing the Syrians in a tense military confrontation in February 1977 the PLO has had a great deal of maneuvering room with Syria.
"Most of the time we're stuck in the same boat as Syria," a PLO official says. "There's no way the Israelis are going to give either of us anything."
Despite allegations that Syria is pressuring the PLO to break ties with Jordan and follow Syria in strategic matters, PLO officials say that at times Syrian policy and PLO policy coincide, at other times diverge and that there are no manipulations.
PLO officials agree that what is most needed to help their cause is greater unity among Arabs and the possibility of linking a solution to the problem of a PAlestinian homeland with Arab oil.
"America's relations with oil countries is of vital interest to all parties" says al-Hout. "We have been accepting the Saudi's moderate line to the US administration to change to a more even tone. But the US is not listening."
He adds that the PLO is gennuinely a "national liberation movement" and not a terrorist organization, as President Reagan branded it before his election. By failing to see the difference, he says, the US has pushed the PLO further and further into the radical camp.
"Communism and socialism have not had a traditional market in the Middle East ," he says. "It had one way of entrance and that was the Palestine question. Unfortunately, nobody is doing American policy more harm than Americans when they fail to see this. "