A past master at the art of survival in the convoluted world of Arab politics, Palestinian guerrilla chief Yasser Arafat suddenly has run out of room to maneuver and friends and enemies to play off against each other.
Tonight, he faces what is doubtlessly the toughest and loneliest choice of his 13-year stewardship of the Palestine Liberation Organization--whether to accept American terms for what is described as his "total surrender" and probable banishment from Beirut or risk total annihilation at the hands of the massive Israeli forces now poised to strike at the gates of the city.
His decision seems to boil down to choosing between his own death or the eclipse of the cause he has spent a lifetime promoting with ever greater success in every capital of the world.
It is the ultimate tight corner he had so long artfully avoided, yet it is the logical conclusion of the go-it-alone struggle the PLO has been waging ever since Israel launched its invasion of the south 17 days ago.
Arafat, 52, the miracle man of Palestinian politics, has to all appearances run out of allies and protectors, Arab or other nationalities.
Still smiling, unshaven and unbowed, he stands alone with his motley array of guerrillas and a few Lebanese supporters now trapped in a 10-square-mile area that could become the Palestinians' modern-day Deir Yassin.
That was the village outside Jerusalem where in 1948 more than 200 Palestinian men, women and children died in an attack by the Irgun, Israel's preindependence underground terrorist group, which was trying to drive the Palestinians from the land.
Aside from Syria, which had its own battle to fight, the Arab states have totally abandoned Arafat and the PLO in their greatest hour of need. Even the Arab oil powers have proven unwilling to jeopardize seriously their relations with the United States by intervening in the crisis.
Unlike the Arab-Israeli wars in 1967 and 1973, none of the Arab nations--not even Syria--has brandished the threat of cutting off diplomatic relations with Washington or--for those that have it--using the oil weapon.
This self-imposed impotence of Arab leaders comes as no big surprise to Arafat and his lieutenants, who know only too well the loneliness of their cause in the Arab world at times of crisis.
What has stung them to the quick and escaped their calculations is the abdication of the Soviet Union, their main arms provider and big power backer, to the United States and Israel in a major test of influence in the Middle East.
Their cries of deep disappointment with the Soviets become louder with each passing day and the silence from Moscow more deafening.
"I would have thought a week or 10 days ago there would have been some tough talk from Moscow," remarked a diplomat here, echoing the general view of PLO expectations.
"But there hasn't, and now it's too late. I am baffled by this."
The latest PLO plea to the Soviets came last night from the editor of its news agency, Wafa, who noted bitterly that the United States was "putting all its weight" into shaping the political course of events while it used Israel, its local ally, "on the battlefield."
"No one is asking our Soviet friends to resort to their magic weapons. All that is requested is an intervention somewhat close to the size of the American intervention," he said.
"The opportunity is still there, with only the element of time to consider," he added.
Yet, it is precisely time that seems to have run out on Arafat. He must decide within the next 24 to 48 hours whether he is worth more to the Palestinian cause alive or dead--a martyr on the Beirut battlefield to serve as an inspiration to future generations of Palestinians or the standard bearer of the Palestinian flag lowered to half-staff in the capitals of the world that will still have him.
Just where he would go to set up a new headquarters is part of his dilemma. Israel is demanding his banishment to a country that has no borders on its own territory. This seems to leave out even its peace partner Egypt, which has offered to host him and a Palestinian government in exile.
In any case, the symbolism of Arafat and his colleagues sailing off to Egypt, the first Arab country to recognize his life-long enemy, seems too strong for them to contemplate at this crucial juncture in the PLO's history.
Whether any of the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf will accept him on a permanent basis is highly doubtful given their longstanding fears that the Palestinian revolution is a threat to their own stability. This leaves only North Africa, a distant point from the heart of the Palestinian struggle. Most likely Arafat would choose Algeria, if he has to choose, since it was there in 1962 that he launched his Fatah organization in Arab politics.
Arafat faced the same dilemma once before--in Amman, Jordan, where in September 1970 King Hussein's Bedouin troops surrounded his guerrillas and after a bloody battle forced them all to leave the country.
The big difference between then and now is that he had Lebanon as a fallback, with its border on Israel.
Now Arafat has no fallback. He would have to give up totally the direct armed struggle and become purely a political figure--a role he had already begun to try out before the Israeli invasion as he pushed for diplomatic recognition of the PLO in the capitals of the world.
For the sake of preserving the considerable political gains they had already made on the diplomatic battlefield and the unity of the PLO, Arafat and his top lieutenants may well decide to complete the PLO's transformation into a purely political organization and leave Beirut.
But the atmosphere among the rank and file of the guerrillas and some of their top leaders seems to be one of grim determination to fight to the death here--to die with honor so that the cause may live and spur coming generations to keep up the struggle.
It is in this fight-to-the-death atmosphere that Arafat and his associates must decide the fate of the whole movement, a decision that is likely to affect not only the PLO but the whole Arab world and its relations with the West.