Moderate Palestinians from the West Bank and elsewhere are searching for ways to halt the movement of the Palestine Liberation Organization toward take-over by hard-line factions.
Some West Bankers have placed hope in a conference of non-PLO moderates called to examine alternative new Palestinian strategies. The conference is scheduled to take place on June 29 in Tunisia.
The conference, which had PLO chairman Yasser Arafat's approval, was originally planned for May. The intention was to give pragmatic Palestinians a chance to discuss their options in the wake of the breakdown of talks between King Hussein and Mr. Arafat on the joint formula for a Palestinian-Jordanian team to negotiate with Israel.
Now the conference, postponed until late June, ''has taken on a more immediate aspect,'' said Palestinian-American Prof. Hisham Sharabi of Georgetown University in a telephone interview. He was referring to the PLO's internal rebellion and Syria's ouster of Mr. Arafat from Damascus.
According to Professor Sharabi, 15 West Bankers - including elected mayors, east Jerusalem notables, and exiled West Bank mayors Mohammad Milhem and Fahd Kawasmeh - along with 20 Palestinians from Western Europe, the United States, Jordan, the Gulf, and elsewhere were scheduled to be invited. None are PLO members and, according to Palestinian sources, PLO officials are not invited.
At the moment, it does not appear Israeli authorities will permit the West Bankers - ''an essential component,'' Sharabi says - to attend the meeting.
The population of the West Bank has been perhaps the most pragmatic segment of the scattered Palestinian community and the most supportive of the PLO chief's tendency to lean toward political negotiations. This is because the West Bankers think time is running out to try to halt permanent Israeli annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The absence of West Bankers at the Palestine National Council (the Palestinian parliament in exile) in Algiers in February contributed to the limitations set there on Arafat's freedom to act as he wishes.
Veteran West Bank moderates like Nablus merchant Hikmat al-Masri, who has been invited to the Tunis conference, think a Palestinian meeting is vital. ''The Palestinian National Council represents only the resistance fighters. The other Palestinians who live in the occupied territory and elsewhere should be represented at a new conference to reconsider deeply the future of the Palestinians,'' he insists.
Arafat has been under pressure from Syrian-backed Palestinian fighters in the Bekaa Valley to forgo diplomacy in favor of military operations.
The Tunis meeting could, if it comes off, provide a forum to debate what should be done if the PLO falls under Syrian control.
Some West Bankers also are beginning to discuss a previously unpopular topic - the need for an official split between moderates and hard-liners in the PLO.
Although such a split seems inevitable, West Bank leftists, nationalists, and even moderates have insisted until now that PLO unity be preserved at all costs.
Robin Wright reports from Beirut:
It appears that only radical concessions will prevent Arafat from losing his grip over Fatah, which makes up 80 percent of the PLO.
There is growing concern that the PLO's future will becharted in the Bekaa Valley, with the rebels - aided by the Syrians, Libyans, and a pro-Syrian faction of the PLO - striking the remaining loyalist strongholds. That would almost ensure the demise of Arafat as an independent leader.
Some Syrian tanks earlier pointed at Israeli targets in southern Lebanon have been repositioned against loyalist targets. And with Syrian backing, hard-line PLO rebels are believed to have gained an edge politically and militarily.