Since negotiations began for the withdrawal of the PLO from Beirut, the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, has at one time or another assumed just about every position imaginable. With some braggadocio, he has declared that the only place he will go voluntarily is Palestine. As the negotiations proceeded, he agreed to the withdrawal of his forces--but not completely. Slyly, he supported the call of Philip Klutznik and Nahum Goldmann at the World Jewish Congress for Israel and the PLO each to recognize the other. He would welcome the intercession of U.S. troops to separate his fighters from the Israelis. Simultaneously, he castigates the Sixth Fleet as the killers of Palestinian women and children. While accusing U.S. negotiator Philip Habib of "blackmail," we are told through intermediaries that Arafat wants Habib to continue.

Hearing all this, the easy thing to do is to dismiss Arafat as deceitful and duplicitous. But, believe it or not, there is a way of understanding Arafat without resorting to ridicule.

An explanation begins in the nature of the organization Arafat leads. It is not a monolith. It is an umbrella organization that attempts to coalesce all shades of Palestinian opinion, which aspire in different ways to achieve a Palestinian homeland. Arafat, while representing all factions, is leader of only one, Al Fatah, and even in this highly vocal and intelligent group, his opinion seldom goes unchallenged. In all, half a dozen groups may be identified with the PLO.

Hypothetically, Arafat could impose his will on the PLO, but at the cost of bloodshed. Any attempt to enforce discipline from the top would fragment the movement, with each group acquiring an Arab sponsor state that best fits its ideological inclinations. The PLO is already halfway along this road, and too much debate over purity of ideology, strategy and tactics could easily push it the rest of the way. Who then would speak for the Palestinians? Rather than having several points of view coming from Arafat's mouth, we would have many spokesmen. With Palestinians in a divided condition, would anyone listen?

For Arafat, therefore, consistency is not important. He must reflect a variety of viewpoints that are not compatible. When faced with the methodology implicit in neogtiations, such as those that have been taking place in Beirut, the inconsistencies in his position become apparent.

Even to agree to withdraw from Beirut could split the PLO and cost the Palestinians what little influence they have. Thus, it is more comfortable for Arafat when events "just happen." His technique for achieving the desired outcome is to allow Arab leaders -- and especially American mediators -- to interpret his statements in ways that best fit their preferred perceptions of the situation. When asked if he was prepared to move his headquarters to Damascus, Arafat noted that the permanent headquarters of the PLO already is in Damascus. What did he mean? At times he almost speaks in parables. Each listener can draw his own conclusion and act upon it without Arafat's being committed. But it is an unending game. Thereafter, he must be prepared to respond to the situation created by those varying interpretations.

Underlying Arafat's gyrations rests the source of his trouble -- an incipient weakness. His influence comes largely from the hold that "the Palestine question" has over Arab minds. And this is a rather tenuous claim to power in a game as bruising as Arab politics. Long ago, Arafat learned that despite the Arabs' emotional attachment to the Palestinian cause, it is a myth -- so far, a sustaining one -- that populations in Damascus, Baghdad or Amman will rise up when he or his followers are mistreated by Israeli, American or even Arab leaders. Sensing his weakness, confronting outside powers that have always been prepared to achieve their purposes with force, and rejecting diplomatic exchange as a device that only conceals the cruel facts of Palestinian subordination, Arafat has a tendency in his relations with others to proceed with mental reservations. He is the heir to Arab experience. Certainly, any scrutiny of relationships over the past century raises as many questions regarding European, American and Israeli treachery as it does about that of the Arabs.

Arafat is more mindful of this background than we. Like most Arabs, he is usually on the losing end in any violent exchange. The situation in Beirut dramatically demonstrates this point. What good is "straight talk" for someone in Arafat's position? He is left to do his best with maneuvers -- to draw when he can on the strength of others, such as the Saudis with their oil weapon and influence in the United States; or to play upon the discomfort that American officials experience from being identified with the Israelis' intended destruction of the PLO even if it destroys Beirut. Perhaps the Americans won't let it happen. Yes, Arafat must even exploit others' humaneness.

In fact, on the issue of PLO withdrawal from Beirut, Arafat may not have a "real position." He is playing for different stakes. Retaining unity in his movement, inspiring support within the Arab people and possibly creating fear among their leaders are more important. More important than armed resistance to the Israeli army is the use of armed resistance to arouse sentiment in others, which in turn protects the PLO.

Interpreted in this light, the many tongues of Yasser Arafat do become intelligible.