Arafat's message--fishing for a nibble from the US

Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat has told the world many times that he accepts all United Nations resolutions dealing with the Palestine question. Before, the people who counted never listened or never wanted to listen.

But now that Arafat and his revolution are at the center stage of world attention, the fact that he accepts these resolutions - yet again - makes headlines.

Rep. Paul N. McCloskey Jr. (R) of California said he had a signed document from Arafat attesting to his acceptance.

Mr. McCloskey said the document read as follows:

''Chairman Arafat agrees to all UN resolutions relevant to the Palestinian question.''

It sounds good, but PLO sources and veteran observers of the guerrilla group point out that the PLO does not believe Resolution 242 deals with the Palestinian question.

Although 242 does implicitly recognize Israel and its right to live within secure borders, it refers only to a settlement of the Middle East ''refugee problem.''

The PLO does not see its problem as one of refugees. The PLO says the problem is statehood.

When Mr. McCloskey waved the document at television crews after his meeting with Arafat, he said the chairman had accepted 242. The chairman interjected a correction, saying he accepted ''all'' UN resolutions.

That ''all'' would include Resolution 181, which calls for the establishment of an Arab state alongside the Jewish state in the area once called British Mandate Palestine.

So Arafat's written statement simply echoed earlier ones setting out his tit-for-tat formula for Middle East peace.

''The PLO will give only in return for a present of equal size,'' another official said.

The United States has maintained that the PLO must recognize Israel and its right to live in secure borders as per Resolution 242. That is the price for direct US-PLO talks.

''Recognition of Israel is our last card. We might show we have it up our sleeve edging closer to the cuff ready for play. But we won't play it until we have iron-clad assurances of a Palestinian state,'' a Palestinian official said.

''It is the timing of the statement, not the statement that you should pay attention to - the PLO is sending out an even stronger signal to the United States. The PLO is saying talk to us,'' said a Lebanese analyst who mixes with both Lebanese and PLO leaders.

PLO officials said last week after President Reagan's meeting with the Arab League delegation, believed there was ''some positive movement'' in the American attitude toward the PLO. They said US indecision over the PLO in Beirut was a good sign.

The officials said they thought the American indecision had not stopped the Israelis from attacking west Beirut, but their hesitation had delayed military action.

Given that glimmer of hope, Lebanese political sources took the timing of Arafat's statement to the congressman as an ever so tiny nudge to the administration - hoping the United States would fall off the fence on the PLO's side.

''I know it seems incredible that we are pushing for a settlement to the entire Middle East problem while the Israelis are breathing down our necks ready to pounce,'' a PLO official said.

''The margins are narrow but we are used to narrow margins. They are all we have.''

''If the State Department wants to see this statement as what it needs to open talks, then it can. Arafat has carefully worded it so he wins either way,'' said a veteran PLO onlooker.

''Arafat has tossed out the bait and now is waiting for a nibble. If he gets the nibble, the Israelis will storm west Beirut in the blink of an eye,'' he added.

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