Leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization are noticeably worried about the negative impact the Iraqi-Iranian war is having on their own struggle just when they thought they were making giant strides in gaining international recognition, particularly in Western Europe. s
The war, they feel, has eclipsed their own cause as the central issue in Middle East politics and is weakening Arab and newly won Iranian support for the Palestinians as the conflict in the Persian Gulf forces into open new regional divisions and rivalries among their allies.
Worse yet, they see their two main enemies, Israel and the United States, taking full advantage of the situation to improve their own military positions in the region to the detriment of the Arab and Palestinian causes, with the Israelis possibly using the war as an opportunity to launch a far wider offensive against Palestinian strongholds in southern Lebanon.
"We don't like this war," Khalid Fahoum, the chairman of the Palestine National Council, the PLO's legislative body, said bluntly. "We think it is very unfortunate, and we are doing our best to get a cease-fire as soon as possible."
"It has diverted attention" from our struggle, he said, "and if it continues, I am sure it will weaken us. Unfortunately, I think it will continue."
Expressing similar views, Abdul Muhsin Abu Meizer, a PLO executive committee member and its Damascus spokesman, said with a note of nostalgia in a separate interview: "We had succeeded in proving our case as the number one cause in the area and in the political life of the Middle East."
He proudly recounted recent Palestinian success at the United Nations and noted that the diplomatic battle for recognition had clearly turned in their favor in Western Europe.
"We try to draw the attention of the international community to our cause and such a war between Iran and Iraq does not serve our interests," he complained.
That the Palestinians immediately recognized the potential threat of the war to their struggle was dramatically underlined by PLO leader Yasser Arafat's early attempt to mediate between the two warring countries. His bid not only failed, but boomeranged as he found himself obliged to reject the entreaties of both parties for his open support, to their common anger.
Later, reports from Tehran said the government had virtually halted its propaganda campaign on behalf of the Palestinians as anti-Arab sentiment engulfed Iran in the midst of its struggle to beat back the invading Iraqi forces.
The Palestinians are desperately trying to refocus world attention on their own struggle, especially right now in Lebanon, where Christian-Arab rivalries threaten to explode into an open confrontation between PLO supporters and opponents and where the Israelis are taking advantage of the confusion to reinforce a Christian buffer zone in the south.
The two PLO officials here echoed the cries of alarm coming from Arafat in Beirut that Israel is preparing a "wide aggression" against the Palestinians in southern Lebanon under cover of the Iranian-Iraqi war.
They said a buildup of Israeli heavy weaponry and troops was under way inside the swath of Lebanese territory along the Israeli border that is controlled by the maverick Lebanese Christian, Maj. Saad Haddad, who has declared the territory he controls to be "Free Lebanon."
Palestinian intelligence, Abu Meizer said, reading from reports he had received from Beirut, had recently sighted 120 Israeli armored vehicles. Three batteries of long-range artillery and three battalions of Israeli commandos moving into Haddad's territory. There was no confirmation of these reports available here.
Until yesterday's raid on two villages in southern Lebanon, Israel had last staged a major incursion into that region in late August.
While the Palestinians see Israel the Iraqi-Iranian war as a cover for more offensives into Lebanon, they view Washington working with just as much calculation now to expand its military presence throughout this region.
"The United States is trying to benefit from this war for its interests in the area, which do not reflect those of the Arab of the American people," said Abu Meizer.
The only "bright" spot the Palestinians see on an otherwise gloomy, war-ravaged Middle East, political landscape is the recent Soviet-Syrian treaty of friendship and cooperation promising a greater Soviet military involvement in their struggle.
"We consider the increased Soviet presence to be good for us because it is a counterweight to balance the increased American presence which is against us, gives us nothing and supports Israel," said Fahoum, who has a daughter at Georgetown University and spent several years in Washington in the late 1950s as a diplomat.
Beneath this bravado, however, it does not seem the Palestinians really expect the expanded Soviet involvement to produce the "just peace" they are calling for or to eliminate the "false peace" they say was born of the Camp David accords.
Their hopes appear to be pinned rather on some new initiative from Western Europe later this year, even though they have nagging doubts that anything serious will materialize. But Fahoum accuses the United States of blocking Western Europe from launching a serious alternative to Camp David.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians seem determined to press forward with their own strategy of concentrating on diplomatic means to gain recognition for their demands for an independent state.
Fahoum said this was still the "majority policy" of the PLO despite recent debate within the organization about its validity."