Yasser Arafat must feel the deep irony of his present position. Here is the man who has nurtured and kept alive the cause of the Palestinian people. Yet he not only is no closer to his goal of establishing an independent homeland for them. He himself is in peril of losing leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He has been expelled from Syria and is in effect a commander in chief without an army. Hard-line PLO fighting units have challenged him in Lebanon and those guerrillas loyal to him are dispersed in many different Arab countries.
Is this the beginning of the end of the Arafat era?
It is premature to write off a shrewd, tenacious leader who over the years has not only led the PLO's military and diplomatic fight against Israel but has battled to keep the many diverse factions of the PLO together under the same banner. He is a survivor. But, having failed so far to attain his political objectives, and with occupied Arab land fast slipping under permanent Israeli control, Mr. Arafat would seem to confront a choice: He can either try to make up with the rebels within the Fatah ranks of the PLO and continue the violent, militant struggle for Palestinian self-determination. Or he can gather together the moderate mainstream elements of the Palestinian movement, reconstitute the organization, and seize the opportunity to push for a negotiated settlement of the Palestinian question under the United States peace plan.
Needless to say, the latter course is one that could be calculated to win Washington's support. It has been difficult for the United States to deal with the PLO because of the radical, extremist elements in it, who have invariably managed to frustrate opportunities for negotiation. Recently, for instance, they undermined Arafat's efforts to give King Hussein of Jordan a green light for entering West Bank autonomy talks. Yet the general assessment is that the vast majority of Palestinian Arabs, both in the West Bank and in the diaspora, want to negotiate peace. Arafat, for his part, remains popular.
Not only Mr. Arafat confronts the dilemma of where to go next, however. So does the United States. It has yet fully to confront the ''Syrian factor'' in its quest for a Middle East peace. President Assad's support for the rebellion against Arafat in the Bekaa Valley is but his latest demonstration that Syria has a role in Mideast peacemaking and intends to play it. The Syrian leader's concern is that, if all of Israel's other neighbors make peace with it and the Arab nations do not stick together, Syria will emerge with the short end of the stick. Hence, backed by the Russians, it is battening down in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.
President Reagan's diplomats are preoccupied with how to persuade President Assad to accept the Lebanese-Israeli agreement for a troop withdrawal. But the need is to get down to discussion of even broader, more fundamental issues. What does Assad essentially want in the Middle East? Is he prepared to live with an independent Lebanon if he gets his land back on the Golan Heights - land unlawfully annexed by Israel? What political, economic, and diplomatic price is he asking? For too many years Washington has neglected its ties with Damascus and now it must work to build a relationship. Or, alterna-tively, leave the field to the Russians who are only too happy to have regained a solid foothold in the Middle East.
At issue is not just the short-term disarray in the Palestine Liberation Organization. It is a matter of where the Palestinian movement is going in the years ahead, what kind of leadership it will develop, and what its objectives will be. A younger generation of Palestinian leaders is coming to the fore. Many of them, impatient with the lack of progress in achieving justice for the Palestinians, feel that the only way out now is to bring more militant Arab governments and leaders to power throughout the Middle East.
The danger is that the PLO and the Palestinian cause will become radicalized and entirely reject negotiation as the path to peace. It should be Mr. Arafat's - and Washington's - aim to prevent that from happening.