BEER SHEVA, ISRAEL. — ''Yasser Arafat has made a fatal mistake.'' Thus confided a prominent Palestinian friend from Gaza a few weeks after Mr. Arafat had embraced Saddam Hussein and expressed his explicit support for Iraq's overrunning Kuwait.
At first I could only wonder. Until then the continuing Palestinian uprising had merely boosted Mr. Arafat's acceptability in the world. Furthermore, by repeatedly renouncing terrorism and by recognizing Israel's right to exist in secure borders in the Middle East, Mr. Arafat had seemed to have become a statesman, a leader of a national movement. Indeed, many Palestinians would fervently agree that Walter Lipmann's definition of a leader aptly describes Mr. Arafat: ''Leaders are the custodians of a nation's ideals, of the beliefs it cherishes, of its permanent hopes, of the faith which makes a nation out of a mere aggregation of individuals.''
And yet here one of the indigenous leaders of the Palestinians in Gaza was uttering a forceful condemnation.
I submit that my friend was not greatly concerned about the immorality of Sadadm Hussein's aggression. The emirs of Kuwait were never strongly supportive of the Palestinians cause. What is more, their ostentatious affluence seemed obscene in the widespread poverty that characterizes most Arabic countries and peoples; it won them few friends. My friend did admit, however, that the Palestinians cannot honestly demand that Israel give up occupied territory, and at the same time support Mr. Hussein's brutal gobbling up of Kuwait.
What did concern my perceptive Paletinian friend was that by his immediate support of Saddam Hussein, Mr. Arafat may have lost two qualities that any leader of a popular revolutionary movement needs if he is to survive: a sense of vision, and a sensitivity to the true aspirations of one's constituents.
At first it seemed that Mr. Arafat had not lost his sensitivity and vision. Mass demonstrations in support of Saddam Hussein erupted among Palestinians in Jordan, Israel and the occupied territories. But these demonstrations of support quite rapidly cooled off as the Palestinians began to realize that they are once again painting themselves into a corner. And that is the source of Mr. Arafat's mistake.
Palestinians have painted themselves into corners several times their short difficult history. But Mr. Arafat seems not to have realized that the intifada has created a strong indigenous assertive Palestinian leadership that is willing to think for itself.
Not only think. The daily exigencies of the intifada demand responses, immediate consultations and responsible decisions. Often the Palestinian leadership in the occupied territories cannot clear these decisions with the administration of the PLO in Tunis. Put differently, the current leaders of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, whether they like it or not, are persons with power and influence, and these people were never consulted when Mr. Arafat made what quite a few are willing to quietly denounce as his ''fatal mistake.''
Yet why is this mistake so ''fatal?'' Some Palestinians will of course cite economic reasons. Mr. Arafat has lost the financial support of Saudia Arabia, the Emirates and, of course, the exiled Kuwait government. Others will mention that he has made the Palestinians even more politically isolated by identifying with Mr. Hussein, who has alienated a majority of the Arab world.
But the more thoughtful will today hint to a deeper problem. In Biblical terms, Mr. Arafat seemed to have sold the Palestinian birthright for a pot of lentil soup. The strength of the Palestinian uprising in the past three years arose from two major sources. It was a popular struggle for freedom and justice and it refused to employ and to support armed violence in its struggle. With his decision to endorse Mr. Hussein's brutal deeds, Yasser Arafat seems to have eroded these achievements. No wonder why my Palestinian friend in Gaza is seriously worried.
Haim Gordon is in the Department of Education at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.