First militarily and now politically, the Palestine Liberation Organization is being forced by the Arab powers to take a more moderate stance toward a middle east peace settlement.
"The Arab rulers are trying to make mini-Palestinians out of the PLO," said one Beirut political observer with close ties to the PLO leadership. It was an obvious reference to the mini-Palestinian state on the West Bank of the Jordan and the Gaza Strip that the Arab nations are now pushing the Palestinians to accept.
Syrian tanks ring Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut. Southern Lebanon, the commandos' last safe haven for raids into Israel, is being closed to Palestinian commandos. Moderate Palestinians, backed by Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, are trying to stack the newly enlarged, policy-making PLO National Council with members willing to accept a ministate and the absence of an independent Palestinian delegation at Geneva peace talks.
The PLO leaders are also being pressured to make up with King Hussein of Jordan, whose army drove them form this country six years ago in an act that many Palestinian fighters still regard as traitorous.
This would allow the Palestinians to attend peace talks as part of the Jordan delegation, thereby skirting Israeli objections to dealing directly with the PLO.
The outcome of his Arab pressure on the PLO is still in doubt. But one thing appears clear after interviews during the past three weeks here and in Lebanon: the PLO finds itself increasingly splintered and separated from its major supporters - financial and arms suppliers - as most Arab powers appear to be united in their desire to get a Middle East peace settlement.
The PLO strategy appears to be to stall and hope that Israeli opposition to peace talks will derall the Arab peace offensive, take the hear off the PLO and bring about internal unrest in nations such as Syria and Egypt. Palestinians point to the recent food riots in Egypt as an example of the fragile nature of the Arab governments that are leading the peace offensive.
In this strategy the PLO hardliners are allied with Israel, which appears not to want a peace settlement now that will force it to give up more of its occupied territory than it wants to relinquish.
"Only the Arab want the peace talks," said Yasser Abdou Rabbou, a member of the PLO's government Executive Council and a foe of Arab efforts to whip the PLO into line behind the peace offensive.
But, commented a diplomat here "the Arabs are serious. One indication is they are pulling together instead of fighting among themselves. "They do not expect a quick settlement but they feel it is important to get some movement on an issue they feel has been stalemated for at least two years."
U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim is to visit the area in a few days in an attempt to get some movement started. He will be followed later in February by U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance. Waldheim has suggested a peace talk program that was put forward last month by Egyptian diplomats: the convening of a peace conference in Geneva to show good faith followed by quiet negotiations by committees on major issues.
In Beirut, the Syrians, who make up the bulk of the Arab peace force that ended fighting in Lebanon's 19-month civil war have cracked down on the extremist leftist Rejection Front which rejects any settlement with Israel that would allow the continued existence of the Jewish state. There have been gun battles between the Rejection Front and the Syrian-backed Saiqa Palestinians.
Even middle-of-the-roaders in the PLO are feeling pressure. At least 10 bombs have been found by PLO security force near Palestinian offices in Beirut.
There has been no public outcry as Palestinians in Beirut strive to maintain a low profile. They are even selfcensoring their WAFA news agency bullentins to avoid provoking the Syrians.
It is widely believed here in Beirut and in Damascus that the Syrians last fall tried to replace Yasser Arafat as head of the PLO. But Arafat who remains the George Washington of the Palestinian revolution was able to hold his position.
Now Syria and its Arab allies are trying to dilute his power by stacking the Palestinian's policy-making National Council (parliament-in-exile) with "independents" who will follow the line of the Arab states.
The PLO Central Council - the link between the governing Executive Committee and National Council - agreed last month to increase from 178 to between 300 and 350, with some members coming from the currently unrepresented West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Moderate see the new members as the lever to change PLO policies which they feel have overemphasized terrorism armed conflict and revolutionary rhetoric.
"More than 10 years of armed resistance has done nothing but lose more Arab lands" said maher Risheid, a Palestinian with strong ties to the Jordanian royal families that make him suspect in the eyes of other Palestinians. "What we want now is a new moderate image that will convince the world and especially the United states that there can be a just settlement."
Risheid and the Rev. Elia Khouri, and inactive member of the PLO Executive Committee and and Episcopal priest exiled here from the West Bank insisted in interviews here that a majority of residents of the West Bank and Gaza - the lands that appear to be the likely new state of Palestine - oppose the PLO and want a leadership that will get them back their land. This opposition the two men said came out increasingly after the Palestinian defeats in the Lebanese fighting.