READ THE interview with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat in Topic A today -- read it with a certain respect for a politician who has endured an uncommon ordeal and with a definite regret that he has drawn such limited conclusions from it. Read it and wonder, as we do, whether Mr. Arafat is the man, or the PLO the organization, that can take full advantage of the opportunities for accommodation that may conceivably be opening as the Beirut showdown appears to near a close.
To be sure, no realistic observer of any political persuasion would begrudge Mr. Arafat his pride in surviving sacrifice and loss and coming out of the Palestinian movement's first war on its own with Israel with its ranks torn but with its spirit intact. If the rationale of Palestinian nationalism were merely to act with a certain ,elan within the larger Arab nation, then Mr. Arafat and the PLO could claim to have won a substantial victory.
But in the real world -- the world in which Israel exists -- it is only a paper victory. To the extent that Palestinian nationalism is about securing a homeland, a nation, a state for the Palestinians, Mr. Arafat remains bereft. He has his campaign ribbons and his press clippings, but his people are more dispersed and homeless than they have ever been. Perhaps worse, as the evidence of today's interview indicates, their leader still cannot bring himself to take the one step -- acceptance of Israel -- that would transform the odds.
Instead, here is Mr. Arafat, the courageous and clever survivor, Mr. Arafat the self-righteous and self-pitying maneuverer, Mr. Arafat, the player with words, not a character entirely without appeal, but not -- not yet, anyway -- a statesman who can tell his people the hard things that they must be told and that they must accept if their dreams are to start to be made true.
The Palestinian movement has come a long way from the days when it was exclusively a vehicle of Arab rage -- rage at the establishment of Israel, rage at the elements of modernity. Its progress has been incomplete but not insubstantial. Mr. Arafat, for instance, is now prepared publicly to address the Zionist left fringe in Israel. Yet the Palestinian movement remains one that trades on ambiguities and equivocations, that asks its friends to make special allowances for its internal strains, that seems not yet ready to take its destiny into its own hands.
Mr. Arafat asks Israel for a "de Gaulle," someone who would deal with the Palestinians as the French leader dealt with the Algerians. But the Palestinians need their own de Gaulle, a statesman who will, finally, reconcile his own people to the world in which they live.