Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat left here today after the collapse of efforts to bring him together with Syrian President Hafez Assad to patch up a bitter feud that has hampered the PLO's efforts to formulate a new policy.
Arafat, who had come here initially for a meeting of the PLO's 66-member Central Council, left in a huff for Amman, Jordan, at noon today after having delayed his departure for four hours waiting for an expected invitation to meet with Assad.
That Arafat went to Amman from Damascus to renew talks about future relations with Jordan's King Hussein -- a political enemy of Assad's in the past -- seemed certain to add more fuel to the dispute. That Arafat's trip to Amman was taking place at the same time as that of U.S. special envoy Philip C. Habib -- which U.S. officials said was a coincidence -- also could be expected to heighten Assad's suspicions of the PLO leader.
Senior PLO officials close to Assad had worked hard for weeks to persuade him and Arafat to meet here this week to thrash out their differences, which have threatened to sabotage the PLO's search for a new strategy following its expulsion from Beirut last summer.
Neither Assad nor Arafat, however, was prepared to accept the other's conditions for such a meeting, according to informed PLO sources. These Palestinian sources tried today to play down the significance of the continued rift between the PLO chairman and the head of the Syrian government, which remains one of the PLO's most important backers.
According to these sources, Assad wanted Arafat to make an open gesture of praise of Syria's support of the PLO to erase Arafat's past suggestions that the Syrians let the PLO down in its moment of greatest need during the summer-long siege of West Beirut by the Israeli Army.
Arafat, these sources indicated, wanted Assad to treat him as a head of state when he visits Syria, just as other Arab leaders treat him when he visits their countries.
The snub of Arafat by Assad was only the latest of a long series since the end of the siege of Beirut last summer.
At the Arab summit in Fez, Morocco, in September, the two leaders hardly talked to each other. Two weeks ago at Leonid Brezhnev's funeral in Moscow, South Yemeni President Ali Nasser Mohammed tried to bring them together, but again Assad refused, reportedly saying they could meet in Damascus.
The big problem that underlies the dispute, which predates last summer, is Arafat's resentment of what he sees as Assad's effort to bend the PLO to make it serve Syrian, not Palestinian, interests.
Arafat's fear that Syria threatens the PLO's political independence led him to put his political headquarters in Tunis, the seat of the Arab League, rather than Damascus, as Assad had wished, after the PLO left Beirut. Assad saw Arafat's move to Tunis as a slap in the face, according to Syrian officials here.
"The problem is one of total mistrust between the two," said one PLO executive committee member who asked that his name not be used. "Arafat suspects Assad of trying to manipulate the PLO for Syrian ends, and Assad suspects Arafat of serving the interest of conservative Arab states that are eager to undermine his position."
Because of Syria's importance as a conduit for arms supplies to the PLO, because of its control of at least three of the eight guerrilla organizations that make up the PLO and because it has a great deal of influence on at least half of the PLO's 15 executive committee members who make their home in Damascus, the rift between Arafat and Assad has deep significance for the PLO's unity.
The split is a major factor in the organization's failure to schedule a meeting of its Palestine National Council, its parliament in exile, that ultimately must give Arafat and the PLO leadership a mandate to pursue new diplomatic initiatives. PLO members influenced by Assad want the National Council meeting to be held in Damascus.
Arafat, worried about Syrian pressure on the council's deliberation, insists that it meet this time in Tunis. As a compromise, he has indicated privately that he would be willing to hold a council in Algiers.
The PLO's leadership, split over the Syrian dispute, also has been unable to reach a consensus on the broad political line the organization should be putting to the National Council when it meets.
These internal differences include discussions of the extent to which the PLO should work to renew relations with Egypt, mend its fences with Assad and continue its dialogue about future relations and links to King Hussein's Jordan. There also are differences about whether to accept the mutual and reciprocal recognition of Israel implied in the Arab peace proposal advanced at the Arab summit meeting at Fez in September.
All these issues were aired this week in the PLO's Central Council, which, after much debate, gave Arafat a vote of confidence to pursue the delicate diplomacy he has been exploring since leaving Beirut. That diplomacy, despite Arafat's renewed dialogue with Hussein, does not envisage an exploration of President Reagan's Middle East peace plan.
In the first official PLO deliberation since the Reagan plan was proposed Sept. 1, this week's Central Council session found the plan wanting because it neither gave the PLO a role to play nor accepted the principle of Palestinian self-determination and the right to an independent state.
The council issued a communique expressing these criticisms of the Reagan plan but stopped short of rejecting the plan outright. This, according to PLO sources, was to leave Arafat free to pursue PLO efforts to enter into a dialogue with the United States over the Middle East.
U.S. officials and some of the more conservative, pro-American Arab governments had been hopeful that Arafat could be induced to authorize Hussein to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians for a return to Arab rule of the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip.
The Central Council, however, confirmed that the PLO would not delegate the responsibility of representing the Palestinians to any other entity. The PLO, the council's final communique reiterated, remains the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people."
Arafat's talks with Hussein are expected therefore to center on discussions of some future tie between an independent state of Palestine on the West Bank and Gaza and the kingdom of Jordan.
Beyond that, Arafat is hoping to negotiate with the king about stepping up the PLO political, and perhaps military, presence in Jordan.