THE next battle in the Palestine Liberation Organization's fight for international recognition of ``Palestine'' as a nation begins today in Geneva. The World Health Assembly - the annual, two-week gathering of the World Health Organization (WHO) - faces a membership application from the self-described ``State of Palestine.'' It was submitted by ``President'' Yasser Arafat, better known as the chairman of the PLO.
In seeking to join one of the 18 specialized agencies affiliated with the UN, the Palestinians are taking what a European delegate calls ``the-camel-in-the-tent approach'' to changing from permanent observer status to that of UN member.
A score of entities now hold permanent UN observer status - a kind of second-class citizenship behind the UN's 159 full-fledged members. Such delegations enjoy many of the privileges of the regulars, but they are not entitled to vote or hold office. An Asian ambassador refers to the PLO's bid as a ``creeping membership campaign.''
Mr. Arafat has rejected a WHO request that the PLO withdraw the application and spare the assembly disruptive wrangling.
He is up against some big guns. The most unequivocal reaction was US Secretary of State James Baker III's threat to withhold United States financing from WHO if it accepts the application. A similar threat in 1979 prevented an Arab-led effort to expel Israel from WHO, whose primary concern is health and nutrition in third-world countries.
Diplomats say the application is also getting a cool reception from the Soviet Union, UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar, and WHO Director-General Hiroshi Nakajima. The International Telecommunication Union and other UN affiliates that the Palestinians have sounded out are reported to be equally unenthusiastic about granting membership.
The US-Soviet quasi-d'etente, plus Moscow's avowed determination to strengthen the UN, has weakened even the nonaligned movement's almost-automatic support for liberation movements. Many delegates cite concern that granting the Palestinians WHO membership would - as a US diplomat expressed it - ``open a can of worms.'' Specifically:
They almost certainly would apply for membership in other UN agencies, provoking disruptive splits.
Agency membership would reinforce their claim to UN membership, rather than the observer status the organization now has.
Palestinian success would establish a precedent opening the doors to other liberation movements: Namibia's SWAPO, the African National Congress, and Western Sahara's Polisario rebels.
At the UN, the Palestinians already have scored two diplomatic victories and suffered one setback. In December, an extraordinary General Assembly session attended by Arafat changed the name of the observer delegation from ``PLO'' to ``Palestine.'' However, the UN has taken no stand on just what the ``Palestinian entity'' is.
In January, the Palestinians were given status just short of a member government by the Security Council in an 11-1 vote. As the PLO mission, it had been allowed to address the 15-nation Council only through the sponsorship of a UN member state. Now it may do so directly. The US cast the only negative vote, but because the motion was procedural, a veto did not apply. Britain, France, and Canada abstained.
A quiet withdrawal masked a Palestinian defeat in an almost unnoticed, behind-the-scenes bid to upgrade its UN status. The Palestinians quietly conveyed to Pakistan's Ambassador Sardar Shah Nawaz, the January chairman of the UN's 40-nation Asian group, their interest in succeeding to the alphabetically rotated position in February.
But in private consultations, Mr. Shah Nawaz found wide opposition to the Palestinian succession. Even South Yemen, a stout advocate of the PLO cause, reportedly said a Palestinian chairmanship would be a disaster to the Asian bloc's unity.
Informed of the consensus, the PLO did not press its request, and the chair went to the next in alphabetical line: Papua New Guinea.