TUNIS, JUNE 3 -- Embarrassed by a maverick guerrilla group's abortive raid on Israel, the Palestine Liberation Organization struggled today to save its hard-won dialogue with the United States without alienating its frustrated rank and file.
Throughout the weekend, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in Baghdad and colleagues at his headquarters here exchanged fax messages, seeking a formula to satisfy U.S. demands that the PLO discipline Abul Abbas -- whose Palestine Liberation Front carried out the attempted attack Wednesday -- or risk breaking the 18-month-old link with Washington.
The PLO and the U.S. government are conducting separate investigations into the seaborne operation, in which two boatloads of Abbas's guerrillas were intercepted by Israeli military forces off beaches near Tel Aviv. Four of the guerrillas were killed in a clash with Israeli troops, and 12 captured. The assault, in which no Israelis were hurt, prompted renewed Israeli demands for Washington to end the dialogue with the PLO on grounds it constitutes a clear-cut case of terrorism.
But as Arafat prepared to confer in Baghdad with senior Palestinian colleagues on the threatened halt in dialogue, officials and diplomats said that growing grass-roots militancy has left the PLO with little apparent leeway.
Arafat set the tough tone himself by insisting that Abbas, who has opposed Arafat's more conciliatory peace policy, can be removed from the 15-member PLO executive committee only by the Palestine National Council, or parliament-in-exile, which is tentatively scheduled to meet in November.
The absence of an Israeli government, much less one committed to peace talks with the PLO; increased violence in the Israeli-occupied Arab territories, and the U.S. veto in the U.N. Security Council of a proposal to send a fact-finding commission to the West Bank and Gaza Strip have left a feeling of resignation here about the future of the U.S.-PLO dialogue.
Nonetheless, senior PLO officials said in interviews that they hope the United States will not break off the dialogue and that they would have stopped the Abbas operation had they known about it.
But hard-liners and moderates alike rejected as unacceptable U.S. suggestions that the PLF raid violated the PLO's 1988 anti-terrorism pledge, which officials here said specifically exempted operations against military targets inside Israel in the name of "legitimate armed struggle" -- an interpretation Israel has disputed.
The Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Siyassa quoted Abbas today as saying in an interview that the "main objective" of the raid was "a resort for senior Israeli army officers," the Reuter news agency reported. "It was the storming of specific enemy positions . . . including the private camp for officers where they bathe," Abbas said. He criticized U.S. labeling of the guerrillas as terrorists, saying, "Where are the civilian casualties? The actual fighting was with naval and air enemy forces."
The PLO officials here, faced with a credibility problem with their own increasingly militant followers, said they attach more importance to maintaining unity than to preserving a link with the United States that so far has produced little clear progress.
Salah Khalaf, also known as Abu Iyad, Arafat's principal lieutenant, summed up the mood, saying that as the price for initiating the dialogue in December 1988, "we recognized Israel. We did everything the Americans asked, and Israel didn't give an inch."
Two years ago, Arafat "put pressure" on Abbas and other radicals to persuade them to embark on the peace process, Khalaf said, adding that as recently as March he personally felt the PLO was on the brink of inaugurating direct negotiations with Israel.
"What can we say to them now?" he asked. He noted that previously moderate Palestinians in the occupied territories who had been the driving force for opening peace negotiations decided on their own Friday to cut all contacts with U.S. officials.
"They informed us afterwards," Khalaf said, indicating the Tunis-based leadership's problems with growing Palestinian grass-roots radicalism fed by recently rising casualties in the 30-month-old uprising against Israeli occupation.
"We run the risk of being transformed into generals without troops," he said, warning that if that happened, "the Americans would be obliged to deal with Abu Nidal, Abul Abbas and Sheik Yassine."
Sabri Banna, also known as Abu Nidal, runs a badly split extremist group that was expelled from the PLO in the 1970s for repeated acts of terrorism against Israelis and moderate Palestinians.
Ahmad Yassine heads the Gaza-based Islamic fundamentalist organization Hamas, which does not recognize Israel and which has greatly extended its influence into the West Bank since the uprising began.
"The United States and Western Europe know well how much the PLO helped in fighting terrorism in keeping with our definitions of operations outside Israel," Khalaf said. "In the past 10 years we have helped stop more than 200 operations against U.S. and West European" targets.
Khalaf and other leaders reiterated a total commitment to a "strategy of peace negotiations" even while clinging to the PLO doctrine of armed struggle.
In practice, such a stand struck some analysts as tantamount to PLO recognition that armed struggle no longer is a realistic option for achieving a Palestinian state.
Even suspending the U.S.-PLO dialogue is equally dangerous for the PLO, Israel and Middle East peace efforts, analysts suggested, because any interruption would be interpreted as a weakening of resolve to push ahead toward a peace process.
Khalaf acknowledged as much in saying that breaking off the dialogue would be a "gift to extremists of all kinds who oppose the PLO peace strategy" and would signify "the end" of Secretary of State James A. Baker III's peace plan.