YASSER ARAFAT did his usual deft job of maneuver at the meeting of the PLO's governing body, the Palestine National Council, in Amman. The question had been whether he would dare to split the movement -- to divorce the part that conceivably might attempt to negotiate a settlement with Israel from the part that demands the dissolution of Israel. His characteristic answer was to equivocate.

Mr. Arafat convened the PNC over the objections of Syria, which uses Palestinian nationalism as a vehicle for asserting Syrian leadership in the Arab world, and which finds Mr. Arafat insufficiently subservient. He convened it, moreover, in Jordan, a country whose hints of readiness to negotiate with Israel make it anathema to Damascus. Given Palestinian dynamics and Syria's bent for violence, this was a courageous move. It was also a self-serving one, since a chairman who cannot call a meeting is not much of a chairman.

While challenging Syria by convening the PNC, however, Mr. Arafat propitiated it (and some of his Palestinian critics) by adopting the Syrian political program. King Hussein had urged Palestinians to take a "fresh approach" based on the territory-for- peace Resolution 242 of the United Nations. But Chairman Arafat said no, endorsing the one approach -- an international conference with Soviet participation -- that is a certain non-starter. The United States, Israel and Egypt have all rejected it, though Egypt, for particular reasons, gave it faint lip service the other day.

So now Mr. Arafat has a new stack of press clippings saluting his leadership prowess, and the Palestinians are not one whit closer to statehood.

A Hussein-type negotiating approach, had the PNC accepted it, would have forced upon Israel a showdown between its own moderate (Labor) and rejectionist (Likud) tendencies. To help avert such a showdown was perhaps a principal reason why Israel refused to let West Bank delegates to the PNC go to Amman; West Bankers feel the weight of the occupation most keenly, and lean toward getting on with talks. In any event, the Jordanians refused a visa to an Israeli Arab member (Labor) of parliament who, it is reported, hoped to tell the PNC it must stop calling for the destruction of Israel. Things are tight all over.

The survival of Mr. Arafat as PLO leader has become something of a political spectator sport. It is not to be confused, however, with progress toward the Palestinian goal of winning a state. Only the Palestinians' resolute acceptance of a requirement to recognize and negotiate with Israel can take them that way. Those who encourage them to look for shortcuts and end runs do them no favor.