AMMAN, Jordan — Only a few weeks ago, the Palestine Liberation Organization seemed to be riding high. It appeared to have dispelled its image as a motley collection of terrorists committed to destroying Israel. It was invited to send representatives to Britain for serious talks and even seemed on the threshold of opening discussions with the United States.
When Israeli warplanes bombed PLO headquarters in Tunis on Oct. 1, there was such widespread sympathy for the Palestinians that relations between Israel and such Western European nations as Italy were sent into a tailspin. Even the United States, though first describing the Israeli raid as a justifiable retaliation against terrorism, appeared equivocal in its support for the Jewish state's action.
Now, however, the international standing of the PLO has plunged. The hijacking of the Italian liner Achille Lauro is described by many analysts as the worst political setback for the Palestinian cause in a decade.
Britain canceled its talks with two PLO officials in a diplomatic fiasco over the wording of a press statement about Israel's borders and right to exist. And, in the wake of the cancellation, Jordan announced plans to reassess the Middle East peace initiative that it had undertaken in partnership with the PLO--diplomatic parlance suggesting that it was furious with the Palestinian organization.
Even the Nonaligned Movement, an admiring and consistent supporter of the Palestinian struggle, quietly dropped efforts last week to invite PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat to address the U.N. General Assembly.
However, the events that have had such a negative impact on the PLO's standing in the West have had the opposite effect among many Palestinians. Arafat, they say, acted honorably to end the ship hijacking and thus cannot be blamed for it. And they argue that the PLO leader was correct in not accepting Britain's terms for negotiations, no matter how embarrassing the result.
Western diplomatic analysts believe that, faced with a gathering crisis, Arafat may have put top priority on shoring up his political position within the PLO at the expense of future peace talks.
They noted that the chairman, who is legendary for Byzantine political maneuvers, frequently has adopted positions that--even though they may make him appear foolish in Western eyes--help him to maintain his credibility with rank-and-file Palestinians.
In 1983, for example, Arafat negotiated a political accommodation with Jordan's King Hussein but then, at the last minute, backed out, embarrassing the king and derailing peace efforts for two years. The maneuver came after it became apparent that the agreement was unacceptable to many within Arafat's guerrilla movement, putting him in danger of losing his leadership role.
Appears to Err
"Arafat is a master at seeming to shoot himself in the foot," a diplomat said. "But he may feel it's more important to preserve the institution than the cause. He has the PLO to protect, but no territory."
By far the most damaging recent event was the hijacking Oct. 7 near Alexandria, Egypt, of the Achille Lauro and the murder of a 69-year-old American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, who was partially paralyzed.
U.S. accusations that the mastermind of the terrorist operation that led to the the hijacking was Abul Abbas, whom Arafat said he sent to Cairo to negotiate an end to the abduction, have created the impression in many Western minds that the PLO bears responsibility for the murder.
Abbas is a leader of the Palestine Liberation Front, which gets most of its financing from Arafat's mainline Fatah guerrilla group. He is also a member of the PLO's governing executive committee.
Syria, which has been feuding with Arafat since 1983, provided the coup de grace by efficiently finding Klinghoffer's gunshot body and turning it over to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus at a time when PLO officials were still denying that the American tourist had been slain.
"You have to admit the Syrians really know how to play to the gallery," one diplomat observed.
Not only did the hijacking cause a furor in the United States, but the resulting crisis may even make the PLO unpalatable to such formerly staunch supporters as Italy, whose government collapsed as one of the far-reaching ramifications of the incident.
In the midst of all this, the PLO suffered a major diplomatic defeat when the British canceled the meeting in London with two members of the PLO executive committee: Elia Khouri, an Anglican bishop, and Mohammed Milhem, a former mayor of Halhoul on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. They had been invited to meet with British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe as part of a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation.