The Aug. 29 terrorist attack on a Vienna synagogue is seen in the Middle East as the latest evidence that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is under pressure, seriously split, and unable to control factions related to its cause.
Western and Arab political analysts in recent days have said the PLO is being warned by radicals within its ranks and by Syria not to alter its Mideast policy. Syria's Hafez al Assad is reported to be concerned that PLO chairman Yasser Arafat is listening more to the urgings of European leaders -- such as French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson who met with him Aug. 30 -- that a policy of moderation be continued. Radicals fear this could lead to relations with the United States and eventually to PLO recognition of the state of Israel.
The Viennese have refused to connect the attack on the synagogue, in which two passers-by were killed and 20 injured, with the PLO. But they suggest there may be a link with the breakaway Al-Assifa Palestinian group or with Syria.
Moderate Arab sources had noted a Syrian link last month in an alleged plot in Vienna to bring weapons into Austria.In Beirut, the PLO denounced the synyagogue attack, calling it "cowardly and criminal." It disclaimed any involvement.But Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Simcha Ehrlich, speaking Aug. 30 on army radio, blamed the PLO as a whole and accused it of violating the July 24 cease-fire agreement. (Israel has insisted the cease-fire was not with the PLO but with the Lebanese government.)
Mr. Ehrlich said "any act of murder violates the cease-fire" and maintained that the PLO was responsible "even if terrorists were acting on their own."
If Israel follows its previous pattern of responding to such attacks in kind, it could lead to a new flare-up in southern Lebanon. Both Western diplomats and the PLO's Arafat have said recently that the cease-fire is very fragile and that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin is preparing to resume cross-border military activity. The Israeli military has been making a case, notes one Western diplomat, by frequently reporting Palestinian buildups in southern Lebanon.
Mr. Arafat recently warned of an Israeli attack sometime after Mr. Begin's visit to Washington Sept. 9.
Renewed hostilities in Lebanon, says an Arab anlayst in Cyprus, would set back a US-PLO dialogue which he believes otherwise is in the offing. Association with terrorism in places such as Vienna would further darken the PLO image. With its diplomatic option in the West shut off, says the analyst the PLO would be forced back to militarism against Israel and would have to rely on Syria, Libya, and the Soviet Union as its sole supporters.
There has been considerable discussion in diplomatic circles lately of the PLO proclaiming a government-in-exile as a first step toward opening negotiations with the West and with Israeli. Leading moderates Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia have been advocating this.
But Mr. Arafat still sees this step as being far away. The reason, according to an Arab source, is that Arafat fears once the PLO has a government-in-exile it will be faced immediately with declaring a policy toward Israel. This could seriously split the moderates and radicals of the PLO, he says.