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Syria, Gulf States Voice Support for Israel-PLO Pact : Mideast: Hafez Assad says he won't oppose the plan if it wins support from the Palestinian leadership. The wealthy Persian Gulf nations' funding is crucial.

September 06, 1993|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TUNIS, Tunisia — Syria and the wealthy Arab nations of the Persian Gulf whose money will be crucial to the success of a plan for Palestinian self-rule gave their support to the plan Sunday as PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat launched a dizzying tour of Arab capitals to lure more backing.

Ministers of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, meeting in Saudi Arabia, said they "welcome the draft agreement reached between the two sides as a first step toward achieving . . . full Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands, and at the forefront, Jerusalem."

And Syrian President Hafez Assad, whose support is critical if Arabs are to maintain a united front in the peace talks with Israel, indicated he would not oppose the peace plan if it wins support from the Palestinian leadership.

After a six-hour meeting with Arafat, the Syrian president "affirmed Syria's attitude in consolidating the rights of the brethren Palestinian people, and that it is up to this people and its institutions . . . to approve what it considers fit," said Assad's spokesman, Jibran Kourieh.

Assad, he said, emphasized the rights of the Palestinian people "to decide what they see (as) suitable."

Syrian backing, even if lukewarm, is vital because it is the most important Arab country still in active confrontation with Israel and because Syria controls many of Arafat's most dangerous Palestinian critics.

Arafat shuttled to Damascus and Cairo and reportedly was bound for Amman, Jordan, in an effort to line up a united Arab front behind the peace plan, which calls for Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho and more limited self-rule for Palestinians in the occupied lands.

"We're on the verge of finalizing the agreement," Arafat told reporters in Cairo.

In Tunis, officials of the Palestine Liberation Organization said the last-minute round of shuttle diplomacy was needed to make sure all Arabs are on board with the peace plan. "It is important to inform our partners in the peace process about the latest details in order to have a unified front," said PLO spokesman Bassam abu Sharif.

Palestinian officials hope they can convene what will probably be a stormy session of the PLO Executive Committee later this week in Tunis and win its approval for the peace plan in time to sign it with Israel by early next week.

"It is not going to be an easy job," Abu Sharif admitted, "because the democratic process is difficult. The opposition is there. But the majority will decide on the issue, and I'm sure the majority will vote with President Arafat's line."

In Jerusalem, Israeli officials were closely following Arafat's efforts to win more support in the Arab world, believing this necessary for the agreement's long-term success.

The delay in signing the agreement on Palestinian self-government has left many Israelis uneasy, concerned that Arafat may not be able to deliver what he has promised or worried about the PLO's bitter factionalism.

But Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who concluded the autonomy agreement, told the Cabinet at its weekly meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday: "No one has an alternative. It is impossible to go back. There is no going back."

The current Israeli expectation is that the declaration of principles will be signed in Washington next Monday by Peres for Israel and probably by Mahmoud Abbas, who is also known as Abu Maazen, for the PLO after the letters on mutual recognition are exchanged.

Arafat and his backers have a big selling job to do before then, among fellow Palestinians as well as in Arab capitals.

Palestinian critics believe the "Gaza-Jericho first" plan doesn't address the issue of Jerusalem and doesn't provide any guarantees that Palestinians will have anything resembling sovereignty over the territories they control. Those Palestinians who live outside the West Bank and Gaza say it does nothing for the millions of refugees who are living in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere in the world.

But Arab diplomats working to get the plan off the ground are worried more for the moment about heading off inter-Arab squabbles and finding the billions of dollars that will be needed to finance a budding Palestinian entity in the impoverished occupied territories.

For this reason, Sunday's endorsement by the Gulf foreign ministers was an important first step to opening pocketbooks that have been firmly shut to the PLO since the Palestinians backed Iraq during the Gulf War.

Abu Sharif predicted that the Gulf states--Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman--"are going to revive their aid to the PLO because of new conditions, the new situation."

Both the United States and Egypt have been strongly pressing the Gulf countries to ease their financial boycott, but Gulf officials said it is more likely that they will direct their aid through international agencies or directly to institutions, rather than through the PLO, which Gulf countries have accused not only of political duplicity but of corruption.

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