AS leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization gather in Tunis today to issue their first formal pronouncement on the Gulf crisis, events in Jerusalem, not Kuwait, provide the crucial backdrop. Anger over Monday's bloody clash in Jerusalem between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian demonstrators that left at least 19 Arabs dead is certain to solidify support for Iraq among the PLO's 100-person Central Council, one of the most reliable bellwethers of Palestinian opinion.
The incident may give the PLO a boost, despite its unpopular embrace of Iraq, by adding to the growing conviction among most of Iraq's adversaries that a solution to the Gulf crisis must lead to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
The Central Council meeting on Oct. 10 is the first since the Gulf crisis began. Although the council is empowered only to recommend policy, its deliberations will provide the sharpest picture so far of where the PLO stands on the Gulf issue.
On Oct. 8, the United States responded to the hour-long battle on Jerusalem's Temple Mount by proposing a UN resolution condemning Israel and calling for the appointment of a fact-finding mission to report to the secretary general. A decision on the precise wording of the resolution was expected Oct. 10.
US officials say the move was needed to maintain the solidarity of the alliance between the US and its moderate Arab allies, which are opposed to Iraq.
Attempting to capitalize on the Oct. 8 incident in Israel, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein threatened to avenge Palestinian losses by launching a new rocket capable of reaching Israel.
In addition to cementing PLO support for Iraq, the Oct. 10 session in Tunis is likely to widen the breach between the PLO and Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two moderate Arab backers of the US.
Piqued by the PLO chairman Yasser Arafat's pro-Iraqi stance, the Saudis last weekend refused to allow his Libyan jet to cross into Saudi air space on a flight between Jordan and Yemen. Far more serious have been threats by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to deport Palestinian workers once the Gulf crisis is over.
``It is not the first time that Palestinians have been deported from the Gulf,'' Arafat said, referring to expulsions that took place in the 1950s when Palestinians backed Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. ``Depriving people of their livelihood is tantamount to killing people.''
Yet attempts by Arafat to continue informal contacts between Tunis and Riyadh have brought public criticism from several PLO officials.
``If you try to place your legs in two places, the two might be cut off,'' warns PLO executive committee member Abdullah Horani.
The council will also discuss details of an Arab peace initiative designed to strengthen the linkage between resolution of the Gulf crisis and the 40-year Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Arafat has been heartened by recent US and European statements that imply a connection between the two conflicts. He says this is the harbinger of an international consensus on the issue, which is likely to be reinforced by the Jerusalem incident.
Following the outbreak of the Gulf crisis, the PLO threw its support behind Iraq. It opposed an Arab League resolution condemning Iraq and backed a peace plan that would have left Iraqi troops in Kuwait.
The PLO's decision to embrace Iraq marks a qualitative break with the past. It is the first time the PLO, which has always banked on Arab unity to challenge Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has aligned itself so firmly with one side in an inter-Arab quarrel. It is also the first time the PLO has risked an open break with the Gulf states, which have been a major source of financial support to the Palestinian cause.
PLO sources say the PLO's stance is a reflexive response to deep frustration over the failure of the US to pressure Israel into negotiating with the PLO, following a politically difficult decision by Arafat to officially recognize the state of Israel in December 1988.
The result has been the collapse of peace hopes, just as the first of an expected 2 million Soviet Jewish 'emigr'es have begun flooding into Israel and some started to settle in disputed areas of Jerusalem and the West Bank.
``The PLO position is an act of desperation by Palestinians who were disillusioned with the Americans after the hopes of January 1989 were crushed,'' says Daoud Talhami, a member of the central committee of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, based in Damascus, Syria.
Palestinians have also rallied to Saddam as the only Arab leader willing and capable of standing up to Israel.
``Saddam is the first Arab leader to say, `If you strike, we'll strike back,''' says an Arab journalist in Amman, Jordan. ``For the first time, Palestinians have a wall to lean against.''
The PLO's risky alignment with Iraq has already led to cuts in financial assistance from Gulf states and has tested the patience of Western nations whose diplomatic support is crucial to Arafat. Nevertheless, it is overwhelmingly backed by Palestinians who say they have no other way to put pressure on Israel to negotiate.
``Ask Palestinians if it was the right decision for Abu Amar [Arafat] to make, and 95 percent of them will say yes,'' says Muhammad Nashashibi, a PLO official in Damascus.
Faced with such unanimity, PLO officials who disagree with Arafat's line are unlikely to say so publicly in Tunis, Palestinian sources predict.