Chairman Yasser Arafat flew here today for a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Central Council amid intensive efforts by aides to patch up a long-simmering quarrel with Syrian President Hafaz Assad.
PLO officials said Arafat would be meeting with Assad to discuss the differences that led him to set up his headquarters in Tunis, rather than here, after evacuation of the PLO from Beirut last August.
Although officially the PLO has insisted that its differences with Syria were being exaggerated, officials have expressed private concern that the dispute was acting as a brake on the political momentum they hoped had been generated by the guerrillas' survival in their summer-long war with Israel in Lebanon.
"It is important that the ice be broken between Abu Amar Arafat's nom de guerre and President Assad if we are going to be able to work out an effective strategy for the future," a PLO executive committee member said in private here. "The PLO needs Syria and Syria needs the PLO."
The split has already meant the repeated delay of the meeting of the PLO's Palestine National Council, its equivalent of a parliament-in-exile, which is supposed to help the PLO leadership chart a new political program for the post-Beirut era.
Arafat's agreement to hold this week's meeting of the 66-member Central Council, a body between the leadership and the wider parliament-in-exile, was a concession granted after intense mediation by other PLO leaders with President Assad.
Arafat has been clamoring for a meeting of the National Council to give him a new mandate to explore possible negotiating options since shortly after his Sept. 2 evacuation from Beirut. However, his refusal to hold the meeting in Damascus, where the past two were held, has split the PLO leadership. Part of it is based in Syria and thus is under varying degrees of Syrian government pressure.
For reasons of PLO political independence, Arafat has been insisting, the National Council should meet in Tunis -- the site of his headquarters as well as of the Arab League. He has also suggested privately that a compromise would be to hold the meeting in Algiers. He accuses Assad of trying to dominate the PLO and make it a tool of Syrian national policy rather than the independent voice of the Palestine liberation movement.
Not only has the dispute blocked the convening of the National Council but it has split PLO ranks to the point that there has been no agreement on what the PLO's future policy should be. The dominant current, backed by Arafat, opts to pursue diplomacy rather than war in the search for a national homeland. This view is supported by such moderate Arab backers as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
A minority current, supported by Syria, argues that no diplomatic efforts can succeed, given Israel's refusal to give up its occupation of Palestinian lands on the West Bank of the Jordan or the Gaza Strip. This group lobbies for a preservation of the PLO's now weakened military option. It suggests reorganization to carry the guerrilla struggle into Israel itself.
According to officials of the PLO's executive committee, any delegation of authority to Jordanian King Hussein to bargain with Israel over the occupied territories--as envisaged by President Reagan's Arab peace initiative--is not seriously under consideration. They say such a policy would force the organization to give up its role as the only representative of the Palestinians.
Arafat made two previous visits here, tense and brief, since leaving Beirut. The first followed his evacuation in September, for a Central Council meeting. He met Assad with a group of other PLO leaders. Later the same month, he came for the funeral of his military chief of staff, Abu Walid, who was killed in an ambush in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.
The actual Central Council meeting on Thursday is not expected to be of major significance. There had been reports that it would finally set the date and venue for the Palestine National Council session, but Central Council President Khaled Fahoum said its work will be mostly to approve reports from the executive committee and to approve the Arab Middle East peace initiative produced in September at Fez, Morocco.