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Arafat Vows Move to Homeland and Union With Jordan : Mideast: PLO leader expects to return to Jericho or Gaza Strip 'within weeks.' He says the uprising in Israeli occupied territories is coming to an end.

September 13, 1993|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat vowed Sunday to return to his occupied homeland in Jericho or the Gaza Strip "within weeks" and said that Palestinians will seek an immediate confederation with Jordan after they attain statehood in the next several years.

"It is coming," Arafat confidently predicted in an interview aboard his jet, bound for Washington for today's signing of a groundbreaking peace accord with Israel. The Palestine Liberation Organization leader also issued his first public prediction that the intifada, the 5-year-old uprising in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, is moving toward a close.

"It will decrease, because the building (of a new society) is more difficult than the fighting," the PLO chairman said. "Look. It is very easy for any officer to open fire and to start a big war. But peace is for brave men only. Peace needs courageous men."

Arafat, who has sheltered himself from public view for the past week, looked exhausted after more than six days of grueling meetings with his top leadership trying to sell them on the plan for an early Israeli withdrawal from Jericho and the Gaza Strip. But there was also a sense of subdued jubilation among the 15-member PLO delegation as it made its way toward Washington, the first official PLO visit after last week's renewal of U.S. dialogue with the organization.

As his red-and-green-striped Moroccan air force chartered jet eased down onto the runway at Andrews Air Force Base, applause broke out in the back of the cabin, where a dozen of Arafat's glum-faced bodyguards and aides had sat silently for much of the flight.

"Arafat is in Washington," one of them said quietly.

For the PLO stalwarts on the plane--many of whom, for years branded as terrorists, had never before set foot on American soil--it was an affirmation of a country they hope will be called Palestine and of an organization that has survived three decades of Middle East politics.

"There has been a change," Arafat said. "The same change which happened in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nobody expected it, but it happened. We are now after the Cold War and we need new calculations and new vision. By this which we are about to do tomorrow, our people are taking their place on the political map, and also on the geographical map, in this new world order."

Arafat said he hopes to leave his headquarters in Tunisia for "Jericho or Gaza very soon. Within weeks, I hope. Within weeks.

"It is enough for me to go there, and to pray," he added, hinting that his first visit may not be a permanent stay. "I am a strong believer. I hope to pray on a free land."

His aides have said a long-term transfer of the PLO leadership to Gaza or Jericho is probably three to four months away.

The potentially volatile issue of Arafat's return to the West Bank or Gaza Strip would presumably be one of the issues discussed during a face-to-face meeting between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The two leaders have differed dramatically in their interpretation of the Declaration of Principles, which Arafat made it clear he believes will lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories at the conclusion of negotiations on the area's final status.

"The final status (resolution) will lead to a complete, independent Palestinian state which will confederate with Jordan according to the free choice of the two peoples. It is coming," Arafat said.

But Arafat's lieutenants who are traveling with him, including the architects of the secret talks in Norway that produced the unexpected agreement with Israel, made it clear that the PLO has a message for the United States, as well as Israel, to deliver today.

A key part of the 24-hour-long visit will be meetings with American officials to discuss the $2 billion to $3 billion the PLO believes it needs to begin self-rule in the occupied lands.

But Yasser Abed-Rabbo, a key Arafat aide who was involved in the Norway talks, said PLO officials will also seek to impress on the Americans their belief that back-channel peace talks cannot be a permanent substitute for even-handed American brokering of the ongoing peace negotiations in Washington.

"The main thing is we want the U.S. to be more involved in the process," Abed-Rabbo said. "I can say frankly we have chosen the way in Oslo because we felt, both of us (Palestinians and Israelis), that the American suggestions were far away from being realistic in meeting the real interests of both sides."

Arafat flew to Washington on Sunday with a mandate from only half of his 18-member Executive Committee. Several members of the committee resigned in protest over the plan, which they believe entails a halt in the Palestinian uprising, along with recognition of Israel, without getting enough concrete gains in return.

The PLO chairman was defiant, insisting that internal opposition is part of the democratic process and that he continues to represent the will of the majority of Palestinians.

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