Pinned between the Israeli Army and the sea, the Palestine Liberation Organization wants to talk to the United States about its future.
The PLO is willing to consider diminishing its military profile if it is guaranteed political existence. It wants direct negotiations with the US.
Beset as it seems, the PLO is curiously confident. It acts as if it has never been in a stronger position. It is not willing even now to talk about recognition of the state of Israel. It is not ready to surrender its leaders.
In fact, the PLO sees itself as having cleverly drawn the Israeli Army, under Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, deep into Lebanon, where it will eventually tire, leaving it open to demoralizing counterattacks and harassment or where it will have to attack Beirut, causing catastrophic destruction. And still, the PLO believes, it will survive.
This is PLO thinking as seen by two important figures in Lebanon today: Hani Hassan, chief political adviser to PLO leader Yasser Arafat, and Saeb Salam, former Lebanese prime minister and the key go-between in crisis negotiations among the PLO, the Lebanese government, and US special envoy Philip C. Habib. The two men spoke June 16 in an interview.
Mr. Hassan said the PLO holds a kind of doomsday card in its hand. ''Our card is Beirut. If Israel wants to come in and destroy Beirut, it would be a crime that Israel and America committed.Make no mistake, the world would blame America. If Israel is ready to pay the price, then Israel should try it. There is no puzzling among the Palestinians about whether we should fight.''
But, Mr. Hassan added, ''Because of the civilians in the city, we are looking to find another solution.''
Both Messrs. Hassan and Salam say the PLO would consider ''no longer showing their arms.'' But as Mr. Salam sees it, ''You cannot expect to see (PLO leaders) put themselves completely in the hands of others. Therefore, there is a difference between being disarmed and being nonmilitant.''
The formula Mr. Salam is trying to devise in daylong contacts with all parties in Lebanon except the Israelis is this: The Lebanese ''Council of National Salvation'' (CNS) should meet at the Baabda presidential palace even if certain factional leaders refuse to attend. This council should then negotiate with the PLO on ''helping Arafat salvage and maintain his political presence here.'' Mr. Salam repeatedly emphasized ''political'' as the key word. The Lebanese Army would then be deployed into Lebanese/Palestinian west Beirut as the PLO put away most of its military weapons.
Simultaneously, Washington should pressure Israel to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, leaving the question of a peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon for later discussion.
Thus far, however, the Lebanese council has not met, primarily because leftist National Movement leader Walid Jumblatt has stayed away. But it is understood that Mr. Jumblatt is under intense pressure from Lebanese leaders and even perhaps from PLO leaders to attend.
Two helpful developments June 16 were that the Israeli Army had decreased its presence around the presidential palace, thus giving more legitimacy and a semblance of independence to the Lebanese government, and US envoy Habib was staying in Lebanon several more days to try to encourage negotiations. The presence of Mr. Habib in Lebanon and the visit by Prime Minister Begin to the US were thought to be contributing to a lull in hostilities.
Yet with each passing day, Mr. Salam admits, the situation becomes more dangerous. ''Had the Lebanese Army come a week ago (into west Beirut), it would have been better. Two days ago, it would have been good. But now people see only weakness and vacillation,'' he said.
''Our objective,'' Mr. Salam says, ''must be to save this country and to save the PLO as a reasonable entity that you can talk with.''
Says Mr. Hassan: ''If America makes one step toward us, everything can be discussed.'' He specified this meant ''the [PLO's] military aspect.''
Hassan said, ''Nobody should think that the PLO is ready to surrender.'' He said, however, that the PLO is eager for the CNS to coalesce so that the PLO can work out an accommodation to save Beirut.