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Giving Peace A Chance : 'Mostly, I'm Afraid for Us to Fail' : A top Arafat adviser is worried. So are other PLO members--about money, politics and how well they will perform as government leaders.

September 14, 1993|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TUNIS, Tunisia — Being invited to the office of Bassam abu Sharif, the chief public liaison for the Palestine Liberation Organization, is a little like arriving at Alice in Wonderland's mad tea party after most of the guests have been there far too long.

People who had appointments for hours earlier sit in the reception room and stare vacantly into space. Small cats race between the guests' feet until a woman rushes in from the kitchen and scoops them up. Bodyguards, a reminder that Abu Sharif once lost part of his hand to a bomb, lounge and chain-smoke in the halls with automatic rifles at their sides.

Abu Sharif himself, looking harried and distracted, speaks in 30-second intervals interrupted by phone calls. " Habibi! (My friend!)" he yells into the phone with delight each time, and any attempt at rational conversation in the room is gone.

Most of the time, these scenes take place somewhere between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. The PLO naps by day, gears up in the evening and works frenetically until dawn.

With the possibility of Palestinian self-rule emerging soon in the Gaza Strip and Jericho, the question emerges: Is this any way to run a government?

"If the government would be running like this, it would be a catastrophe," Abu Sharif admits. "Of course we're worried. But this is natural. When children go for the first day to the university, they get tense. On the day when a woman gets married, she gets tense. . . . We are about to start something new after 45 years of mobilization on both sides."

How the PLO will transform itself from a 1960s-style national liberation movement--a band of revolutionaries exiled amid the white-tile villas of Tunis who still use words like armed struggle in casual conversation--to a government of institutions and accountability is anybody's guess.

But these are questions that the international community--and Palestinians themselves--will want answered soon. The PLO says it needs $11.9 billion from the international community and Palestinian investors over the next seven years to carry out its development program in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

How readily will money flow to an organization dogged by allegations of corruption and run under a one-man chain of command?

Increasingly in recent years, Palestinians have complained that without Chairman Yasser Arafat's say-so, most all Palestinian business grinds to a halt. The PLO functions almost exclusively by way of a phone call in the middle of the night from its temperamental leader--or a communique from the bank of fax machines he keeps in his office or the portable fax that follows him onto his private plane.

"No Palestinian can go to sleep without a telephone next to his head," one Arafat aide said ruefully of the chairman's penchant for pre-dawn business emergencies. "Of course, you can't run a country the way you run a revolution."

Can you run a country on coffee, cigarettes and marathon late-night meetings?

"Smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee is not only a trait of the Palestinian people. You find it elsewhere," a senior Arafat aide replied reproachfully.

"We have a democratic leader who listens to the views of all of his advisers and his opponents, who works long hours. And he cannot be stopped, if there is a necessity to call somebody in the middle of the night . . . just because (that somebody) is sleeping. We have a job to do," he said.

"Maybe that doesn't happen in other countries, but they are settled societies," the aide said. "We are not a settled society. We have worked very hard for 30 years now, and we have come out now with this accord. I would be lying if I tell you the institutions are all there. The institutional framework is there, and it has to be developed. We have the political will, and we have the people who are ready to create something out of nothing."

For years, the PLO has been running hospitals, clinics, orphanages, universities, schools and syndicates in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Ahmed Suleiman Khoury, the head of the PLO economic wing, Samed, who led the secret peace talks in Oslo, has also been in charge of the next step--coming up with a full seven-year development program. It is a sophisticated proposal for regional and international economic cooperation, developing infrastructure, creating new jobs to bring down an unemployment rate of 54%, developing agriculture and establishing a Palestinian banking system.

It envisions building 235,000 new housing units in the first five years and projects the need for a Palestinian economy that will generate $2 billion a year.

But with the cutoff in funding from the wealthy Arab Gulf countries that followed the PLO's support for Iraq during the Persian Gulf War, the PLO is in a financial mess.

Salaries have had to be cut for bureaucrats, teachers, doctors and other public servants in both Tunis and the occupied territories.

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