EMMITSBURG. — Emmitsburg -- Yasser Arafat's support for Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf crisis significantly weakened the PLO as an international player and rendered it irrelevant in the Middle East peace process. The decision-making paralysis of Mr. Arafat and his advisers has become an impediment rather than an impetus to peace.
It is time for the Palestine National Council to elect a new leadership. The peace process and the Palestinian cause would be better served if the PLO acquires a new chairman and a new executive committee with more representation from the West Bank and Gaza.
In talking to Palestinian leaders in the occupied territories, one gets the impression that they are genuinely interested in peace with Israel; they are also flexible and willing to compromise. However, they readily recite the now-familiar statement that the PLO is the only body that can negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians and that they would not participate in peace negotiations without PLO approval.
It is clear to Palestinian leaders in the occupied territories that the pro-Saddam position of the PLO has brought economic disaster to the Palestinian community -- in the Gulf, in Jordan and in the West Bank and Gaza. Mr. Arafat has been unable to recover from that grave miscalculation. The coalition Arab states, including Egypt, have rejected his overtures, and the Western coalition countries, especially the United States and England, have been equally adamant in maintaining distance from the PLO.
The Palestinian people's identification with the PLO for psychological and political reasons is understandable. But for this bond to be translated into policy, the PLO must rid itself of failed leadership. West Bank and Gaza leaders, well cognizant of the reality of the Israeli occupation and the poor economic conditions of their people, are eager to see a movement on the peace front and to participate in it. But they are frustrated by the paralysis of the Arafat leadership in Tunis.
The four-year old Palestinian intifada has lost much of its momentum and direction. Whatever psychological, political and moral gain the intifada might have made in its first two years seems to have dissipated. Again, the weakened PLO and the disarray within the leadership have contributed to this situation.
Since the Gulf crisis, the economic conditions of Palestinians in the occupied territories have worsened, and the level of violence against Palestinians has risen dramatically, both by Palestinians and by Israeli occupation forces. The widespread unemployment the West Bank and Gaza, and the anti-Palestinian policies of the Gulf states have added to the economic hardships of Palestinians under occupation. More and more Palestinians are calling for a change in tactics as well as in strategy.
A vast majority of Palestinians in the occupied territories still supports the creation of a Palestinian state, as envisioned in the 1988 PLO declaration of independence. But disagreements have developed over the implementation of independence. The Palestinian press openly debates who should speak for Palestinians and in what context. At least five positions can be distinguished.
* The pro-PLO centrist group, represented by such leaders as Faisal Al-Husayni, Hanan Ashrawi, Radwan Abu Ayyash, Hanna Siniora and others, has called for negotiations with Israel on the basis of ''land for peace.''
* The Islamist group, represented principally by Hamas, has argued that the policies of moderation have not produced any tangible results and therefore the Palestinian leadership should no longer offer any concessions.
* The radical secularists, best represented by the Shabab (youth) leaders of the intifada, oppose Mr. Arafat's leadership and advocate more hard-line policies.
* The pro-Jordanian group, represented by successful businessmen and entrepreneurs, has advocated a more active role by Jordan and closer coordination between King Hussein and the PLO leadership.
* The new group of relatively younger Palestinian intellectuals, academics, professionals and journalists has called for open debate of the issues in the press and has advocated solutions that are based on a pragmatic assessment of the realities on the ground.
New Palestinian initiatives and approaches to the peace process now seem to be coming from the West Bank and Gaza. The PLO is becoming marginalized. If the Palestinian people are bent on identifying with it as the embodiment of their political aspirations, then the PLO must elect new leadership to better reflect the interests, influence and demography of the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians.
Unless a new leadership is elected -- one that is not associated with the disastrous pro-Saddam policies -- the PLO cannot expect to re-engage in the peace process or to regain its stature as a regional player.
Emile A. Nakhleh is professor of political science and chair of the Department of Government and International Studies at Mount Saint Mary's College.