The Palestine National Council ended a week-long meeting here tonight by reaffirming its commitment to Yasser Arafat as its leader and its rejection of any Middle East peace settlement that does not create an independent Palestinian state.
Arafat, who proved again here this week that he is a master of political maneuvering in the Arab world, was reelected tonight as the chairman of the council's executive committee, the governing body of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
While this was a personal victory for Arafat at the end of the grueling 17th session of what the Palestinians consider their parliament-in-exile, he did not appear to have brought the PLO any closer to achieving its central goals.
Challenged by King Hussein of Jordan to take a "fresh approach" to the Palestinians' troubles, the council issued a communique tonight rejecting any Middle East peace proposals that do not recognize the Palestinians' "right of return, right of self- determination and right to the creation of an independent Palestinian state."
The communique rejected basing a peace settlement on U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which has formed the basis for most Middle East diplomacy for almost two decades, or on the Camp David accords or President Reagan's 1982 peace initiative.
Shifts in PLO policy, however, were not expected from this meeting, which centered around the split in the organization and Arafat's struggle with his Syrian-supported enemies for supremacy in the Palestinian movement.
At the end of the meeting, Arafat could claim to have dominated the session and to have used it to reassert the legitimacy of his leadership of the Palestinian movement.
He outmaneuvered his enemies in Damascus and the PLO rebels they support simply by convening the council in defiance of their threats and a boycott by several dissident PLO factions critical of Arafat. From that moment, there was little doubt that the 260 delegates willing to assemble here would support a continuation of Arafat's leadership.
But Arafat still faced strong criticism from within his own mainline PLO faction, Fatah, stemming largely from his decision last year to visit Egypt, a conciliatory gesture to the only Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Within the PLO, this was considered a blatant example of Arafat's freewheeling, personal style of leadership, and his critics were intent on reining him in.
He outmaneuvered them, too, threatening to resign and provoking a predictably emotional demand from the full council that he remain as the acknowledged leader. By the time the meeting ended tonight, the assembly had formally exonerated Arafat by adopting a resolution calling the Cairo visit "a step on the road to strengthening relations between the Egyptian and Palestinian people."
What Arafat could not claim tonight was any discernible movement by the PLO that would make Middle East peace negotiations more likely and carry the Palestinians closer to their dream of ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The council's formal reply tonight to Hussein's call for an effort to forge a joint Jordanian-Palestinian negotiating position based on Resolution 242 again was to reject the resolution, which calls for Israel to withdraw from territories it captured in the 1967 war in return for peace with its Arab neighbors. It does not mention either Palestinian self-determination or a Palestinian state.
The Reagan initiative suggests that the West Bank and Gaza be governed "in association" with Jordan, while the Camp David agreement calls for a five-year period of "autonomy" for residents of the territories before their final status is determined.
The council empowered its newly elected executive committee to explore closer relations with Jordan, and speeches stressed the close links between Jordan and the Palestinians. Joint talks could lead eventually to the kind of joint negotiating position Hussein is seeking to give him the authority to enter peace talks with Israel.
The most optimistic assessments of the meeting saw an evolving Arab "moderate front" consisting of Jordan, the Arafat-led wing of the PLO and Egypt.
But in the face of the PLO's continued rejection of the "territory-for-peace" formula of Resolution 242 -- which is the basis on which Hussein hopes to negotiate and the foundation of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty -- a common negotiating position for a three-member "moderate front" will not be forged easily. At best, Hussein and Arafat appear to be back where they were in April 1983, when they reached tentative agreement to pursue the Reagan initiative as a basis for negotiations.
That agreement fell through when Arafat, under intense internal PLO pressure, backed down.
In winning a reaffirmation of his leadership of the PLO, Arafat appears to have isolated the Syrian- supported PLO dissidents for the moment. He has not, however, healed the rift in the PLO, leaving him at the head of a less-than-complete organization.
Amid all the anti-Syrian rhetoric voiced at the session, Arafat and his top aides made clear that they still seek a reconciliation with Syria that would bring the dissidents back into the fold.
However, any attempt to reconcile differences with Syria and reunite the full PLO is certain to complicate a simultaneous effort to reach agreement with Jordan on peace negotiations with Israel. At some point, Arafat may have to decide which of these contradictory goals he cares about most.
For the moment, in the view of observers here, he has won a tactical victory over the Syrians and the PLO dissidents, giving him time to decide where to take the PLO next.