PLO after Beirut: much rhetoric, few answers

Ten bittersweet days of reunion in celebration of its survival after last summer's epic battle of Beirut are over for the Palestine Liberation Organization.

As 350 delegates to the 16th Palestine National Council or parliament-in-exile - fighters, professionals, and businessmen - scatter back across the Arab world, they must confront again the harsh consequences of the Beirut defeat.

''Where will the PLO be six months from now?'' one Palestinian leader pondered as limousines pulled away from the mammoth luxury l'Aurassi Hotel, a conference headquarters high above the sparkling portside of Algiers.

The memories and casualties of Beirut - the sophisticated city where the Palestinians had built a capital-in-exile of a virtual state-within-a-state that employed as many as 30,000 bureaucrats and fighters - haunted the PNC meeting. The question of whether the Palestinians can devise a strategy to cope with the reality of their exile remained unanswered at the meeting's end.

''Anywhere else feels strange after Beirut,'' said a PLO political worker who moved from Beirut to Amman, Jordan. Other senior PLO staff complained of still living in hotels, some moving restlessly from country to country on PLO salaries still paid by oil-rich Arab states, unable to adjust to other less cosmopolitan, more restricted Arab capitals.

On the surface the conference - which included days of fraternal praise from visiting third-world delegations and table-thumping, morale-boosting rhetoric in plenary session - often seemed light years removed from the recent crushing defeat in Lebanon.

The meeting clearly had other purposes than political debate. It reassured delegates that the battered PLO had indeed survived.

''It's like an old-fashioned revival meeting,'' explained businessman and academic Nabil Shaath, a key aide to PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. ''It is a cry to the world that the elementary Palestinian will to survive is there. The rhetoric is healing.''

The meeting was also an emotional message to those Arab countries that the PLO felt had let them down in Beirut - notably Syria and Libya - that it could stand independent of them - or so it believed.

''We are here, we represent the Palestinian will, and our unity cannot be broken up by any Arab or American decision,'' Arafat shouted defiantly from the rostrum.

But the issue dealt with more seriously in backroom leadership meetings was, of necessity, centered on the PLO's political options. These overshadowed military questions, which had been the focus when the PLO still had control of its Lebanon base.

Gone were the khaki uniforms that many delegates wore to previous gatherings. Military men now wore three-piece suits, ''looking like British MPs,'' in the words of one delegate.

Chairman Arafat sounded the wishful theme song of the PLO's moderates in a rambling final speech that paid tribute to last summer's casualties and heaped scorn on the Israeli Army and its alleged United States military collaborators:

''We fought bravely in Beirut,'' he said, ''and we will negotiate bravely. We will enter the political battle that is being waged also very bravely. There are plans, many plans, that we have. . . .''

Despite the verbal attacks on US policy, PLO moderates, led by Arafat, are painfully aware that they need the US to facilitate their entry into the diplomatic process. The only operational negotiating plan for solving the future of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, where 1.3 million Palestinians live, is the Reagan Mideast peace proposals. But these provide no role for the PLO and oppose an independent Palestinian state in favor of a Palestinian entity in association with Jordan.

US diplomats were looking for a PNC ''green light'' for non-PLO West Bankers to join Jordan in a joint negotiating team for talks with Israel. This was never even considered here. Nor was unilateral recognition of Israel, the US price for talking directly to the PLO. This is considered the PLO's ''last card'' even though the US has shown little interest lately in seeing it.

But chairman Arafat was exuberant in the wee hours after the close of the meeting that his moderate forces had managed to extract language from the PNC resolutions that did not close the door entirely on the Reagan plan, despite heavy pressure from PLO hard-liners.

He also exuded confidence at winning his way on other issues: the opening to continue talks with Jordan; the placing of the issue of future PLO-Egyptian contacts under the Executive Committee, which he substantially controls; and expansion of contacts with those American and European Jews and Israelis who accept the idea of a Palestinian state.

In fact, Mr. Arafat's performance demonstrated once again his skills in surmounting pressure by more radical opponents. ''He got about as much as he could have hoped for,'' said one PNC member.

While the PLO chairman's free-wheeling diplomacy since leaving Beirut - often ignoring PNC resolutions or failing to consult other leaders - has roused criticism even within his Fatah movement, he is still obviously confident that he can continue to circumvent parliamentary restrictions if the inducement is sufficiently great.

A few PNC delegates argued that the US government and Western public opinion would dismiss the sometimes-tortured language of the PNC resolutions and called for a more dramatic peace initiative.

''Our platform will have implicit recognition, but this won't satisfy the West. We will produce a paralyzing consensus,'' argued Shafiq al-Hout, Beirut representative of the PLO whose lined face reflected the suffering of the past months in the Lebanese capital.

Mr. al-Hout castigated what he called a ''unity of kisses'' - a reference to Mr. Arafat's determined and successful attempt during the PNC meeting to paper over deep political rifts between moderate and radical groups, an effort that was capped by his effusive Middle East embraces of even radical leaders who attacked him.

But the moderate PLO leadership is unwilling to split the PLO at this point over the Reagan plan, especially given a deep distrust of American intentions toward the Palestinians, following the massacres of Palestinian refugees in Beirut. US negotiator Philip C. Habib, repeatedly castigated by Mr. Arafat, had guaranteed the safety of Palestinian civilians in Beirut after the departure of the PLO last summer.

''Arafat's problem is that he doesn't believe the US will pressure Israel to leave the West Bank, so why should he stick his neck out and risk splitting the PLO now?'' says Nabil Shaath.

Instead, the PLO appears poised to present a new and moderate public image to the West in hopes that the US will show some interest. ''Our diplomatic work is not a game,'' insisted Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), a top Fatah leader. ''Of all the PNCs since the beginning, this one is the most realistic.''

In an interview with three American journalists - carefully timed to precede the issuance of the PNC resolutions - Mr. Khalaf issued a clear message to the US administration that PLO moderates, who he said were in the majority in the PNC, would back the Reagan plan even without PLO participation in negotiations if the US specified that the goal was Palestinian self-determination and statehood. The message, in effect: We are willing to take dramatic action if you will first make it worth our while.

The PNC platform condemns ''international terrorism'' (even while listing the US and Israel as the chief culprits in Lebanon), a requirement of the British government for inclusion of a PLO man in a visiting Arab League delegation.

Mr. Arafat will also probably soon attempt a reconciliation with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. He made an emotional speech calling for such a step during the PNC, describing the PLO as bound to Syria in a catholic marriage.

At the same time, in a classic juggling act, he will be talking with Jordan about theoretical confederation, should the West Bank be returned. He will also be trying to funnel money into Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and the West Bank to maintain links with those key constituencies.

Observers say the feasibility of the negotiation tack will reveal itself one way or another within six months. But despite attempts at pragmatism, an air of unreality hangs over the PLO's moves.

The US has shown no interest in a Palestinian state. With oil prices dropping , reducing moderate Arab political leverage, the US is under less pressure to make overtures to the PLO. However - and herein lies the PLO's slim hope - the Reagan plan is unlikely to move without a PLO ''green light,'' making PLO hopes hostage to an as-yet unclear US commitment to ensuring the success of the President's plan.

Mr. Arafat's own skepticism about future relations with Jordan may have been revealed when he told a colleague, ''King Hussein and I are cooking pebbles,'' an Arabic expression for a pretense of cooking food.

And the omnipresent ambivalence of PLO moderates toward Syria was reflected in a floor discussion of appropriations for reestablishing the Voice of Palestine radio station in Syria. ''That's crazy,'' Mr. Arafat was overheard to say. ''They would never let us say what we want.''

One longtime Middle East expert at the PNC observed: ''Everyone is making believe that something will happen to keep the process going.''

Still, as PLO leaders dispersed, the general attitude seemed to be satisfaction at the mere act of having kept the organization together.

When asked where he thought the PLO would be in six months, Abu Iyad answered with determined moderation: ''What do you expect us to say? That we are going to destroy the world? I can tell you that whatever happens we will carry on our political struggle . . . in order to reach a peaceful solution.''

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