THE Palestine Liberation Organization - whose role has waned since its exclusion from peace talks with Israel - appears to be gaining new strength from the deadlock in the first round of talks and from Israel's decision to deport 12 Palestinian activists from the occupied territories.
The PLO has seized upon the Israeli action to gather support from Arab governments to delay their arrival in Washington for the second round of talks and also to seek action on the part of the United Nations to pressure Israel to rescind its step.
The Israeli decision has drawn harsh criticism from the United States, Russia, Britain, France and other countries, and a UN Security Council debate was expected Monday evening. Palestinian delegates have indicated they would attend the talks, which had been scheduled to reconvene today, if the Council acted forcefully.
Israeli officials, who on Sunday reiterated their intent to proceed with the deportations, say they ordered the expulsions in retaliation for the killings of four Jewish settlers over a 10-week period in the occupied territories. The Israelis say all 12 Palestinians picked for deportation have a history of militancy.
The Palestinians, according to interviews with Palestinian officials and negotiators, are trying to win international rejection of the Israeli action to attain these goals:
* To force Israel to stop its deportation policies and halt the building of settlements;
* To draw both the UN and European countries into the peace process;
* To boost the PLO's role and force Israel to address Palestinian national demands.
The Palestinians scored an important success by convincing Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon to suspend participation in the bilateral talks pending a solution of the deportation issue, Arab analysts say. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat seems to have regained stature in the process as he visited Arab capitals to win backing for this stance.
As a senior Jordanian official puts it: "It is a simple formula. We are seeking a comprehensive peace. If one party is [put in the position of not being able] to participate, the other [Arab] parties cannot attend."
In practice, the Arabs, as the Jordanian official concedes, are taking their lead from the Palestinians, especially those inside the occupied territories. And the Palestinians inside the territories have themselves given a boost to the PLO leadership.
Over the weekend, the Palestinian delegation to the talks defied Israeli and American ground rules by referring to the PLO by name in a written statement. And, when Arab and European governments recently pressured the PLO leadership in Tunis to support a return to talks on Tuesday, Palestinians inside the territories dug in their heels.
Palestinians argue that Israel was able to derail the direction of the peace process and to subdue the issue of Palestinian rights by refusing during last month's first round to give a major role to the Palestinian portion of the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. They view this as an attempt to avoid addressing Palestinian national rights.
They were disappointed in what they saw as a hands-off policy by the US on the issue. This, they say, contravened Washington's commitment to its own proposal for a two-track process, involving both Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian talks.
Palestinian officials say these differences, which created an impasse in the talks, dampened support for the peace process within the occupied territories and sparked increased acts of violence against Israeli occupation forces.
Israel's deportation decision proved to be the last straw, prompting the delegation to postpone its Washington trip, partly out of fear of undermining its support among its constituency.
Palestinian officials and Arab analysts, however, agree that neither the PLO nor the Arabs can afford to boycott the talks and be blamed for obstructing the peace process.
"We have no intention of boycotting the talks. But we want to make it clear that Israel and the US cannot expect the Palestinians to go on making concessions for free," says PLO executive committee member Sulleiman Najab.
For the time being, say Arab analysts, this situation has increased Palestinians' room for maneuver.
But even the PLO leadership acknowledges that, unless international action is taken to deter Israel, the PLO risks loosing more ground among its constituency, whether it authorizes the Palestinian delegation to attend or to boycott the talks.
Should the UN not take effective action against Israel, PLO officials say, the organization will then feel it necessary to support a boycott of the peace process. The Palestinians, they say, would have little hope of achieving their aims through the talks.