November 04, 1985 12:00 PM

Until recently he had been just another eager bit player in the bloody dramas of the Middle East. Indeed, as the leader of a Palestine Liberation Front splinter group with fewer than 200 members, he was regarded in Palestinian circles as something of a buffoon. But Abul Abbas (the nom de guerre of former schoolteacher Mahmud Zaidan) won instant notoriety this month as the probable mastermind behind the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. When Italian authorities, ignoring U.S. protests, allowed him to slip away, Abbas became a marked man.

Now about 40, Abbas has a fanatical belief in violent struggle and bloodshed as an end in itself. While meeting reporters in Beirut some years ago, he would fondle a chrome-plated automatic. At one time he decorated his office with pictures of the corpses of slain Palestinian fighters.

In a sort of perverse Peter Principle of violence, Abbas’ road to prominence has been paved with ever greater failures. In 1979 he reportedly sent four men in a rubber dinghy to invade the northern Israeli coastal town of Nahariya. There they stormed an apartment building, where they grabbed Danny Haran, a 32-year-old textile executive, and his 5-year-old daughter, Einat. Two of the Palestinians were killed and two captured, but not before they had shot Haran and crushed his little girl’s skull with a rifle butt. The commando leader was among the 50 prisoners in Israel whose release the Achille Lauro’s hijackers had demanded.

In 1981 Abbas sent two commandos across the Lebanese border on hang gliders to bomb an Israeli refinery. Both crash-landed and were captured. Undaunted, Abbas sent two more men to try the mission again, this time in a hot air balloon. They were shot down and killed by Israeli troops. Abbas boasted to the press that he deserved credit for such actions; unlike most underground fighters, he did not shun the limelight.

He certainly has it now. On the run from Italy to Yugoslavia to South Yemen to Iraq, Abbas has taken time to assure the press that he did not plan the Achille Lauro mission. Yet he seems to know a lot about its goals. He insists that the plan was not to hijack the ship but to ride it into the Israeli port of Ashdod, there to launch a suicide attack against an oil-storage facility. And, incredibly, Abbas has insisted that the hijackers did not shoot Leon Klinghoffer, the 69-year-old invalid from New York whose body washed up on the Syrian shore. Despite reliable eyewitness accounts and autopsy reports to the contrary, Abbas has suggested that Klinghoffer died of a heart attack and was thrown overboard by Italian crewmen.

In defense of Abbas it may be said that his warped sensibilities reflect the plight of the Palestinians. He grew up in a refugee camp in Syria after his parents fled from their homeland in Palestine, now Israel. His first wife, the mother of his two children, was the cousin of Kamal Nasser, a Palestinian poet who was murdered in his Beirut home by Israeli commandos in 1973.

Though his political and military achievements were decidedly modest, Abbas won a seat on the Palestine Liberation Organization’s 10-man council by remaining loyal to PLO leader Yasser Arafat when the organization split into warring factions two years ago. He perhaps had already ingratiated himself with Arafat when he took Rim, the sister-in-law of a top Arafat aide, as his second wife two years before the factional split.

But his latest escapade has made him an international embarrassment to the PLO, which reportedly has considered disciplining him. Now an exile even from his exile group, Abbas, through his misguided struggle to win back his homeland, has ensured that he can never call anywhere home again.

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