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Documentary : Travels With Arafat, on Board the Peace Plane : The PLO chief looked exhausted and a little nervous as he flew to Washington to make history.

September 21, 1993|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TUNIS, Tunisia — The voice on the telephone was clipped and curt. It said: "Be in the lobby of the Hilton at 7 a.m. And hush this."

It was well after midnight, and the voice belonged to Bassam abu Sharif, the political adviser to Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and a man with whom I had been pleading for the past 24 hours to allow me to accompany Arafat on his historic trip to Washington.

"Does this mean I'm on the plane?" I asked breathlessly.

"Be there at 7," he replied.

"Will someone pick me up there?" I asked.

"Just be there at 7. And hush." He hung up before I could say thank you.

I arrived at the Hilton at 6 to find several other journalists standing around the lobby, trying to look hushed. Normally friends, we eyed each other wordlessly, warily trying to figure out if they knew what we knew.

Eventually, two PLO aides drove up to the lobby and quietly told us to report to the VIP terminal at Tunis International Airport, where we spent the next several hours having our luggage and gear painstakingly checked for stray bombs or automatic weapons.

Each piece of the hand-painted china set I'd bought at the old Tunis bazaar, which I was unfortunately about to haul by hand halfway around the world, was carefully unwrapped and scrutinized by dark, mustachioed and relatively humorless security men who'd apparently never seen a set of china get on board a plane with the PLO chairman.

This was no superfluous exercise. Only a day before, the notorious Abu Nidal organization had threatened to execute the "treasonous" Arafat for making peace with Israel; an equally ill-reputed group led by Abu Moussa had pledged to cut short his 64-year-old life, and others had been issuing statements proposing that streets be washed in Arafat's blood.

"If the plane goes down, your office will definitely want someone on it," one bemused colleague said of the frenzied and furious journalistic competition for interviews and details of the landmark peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Inside the Moroccan air force-chartered Boeing 707, striped in the red and green of the Palestinian flag, we sat and waited for the man affectionately known in Palestinian circles as the "Old Man."

Presently, to the drumbeat of a Tunisian honor guard, Arafat, dressed in his characteristic green combat fatigues and with the usual pistol at his side, strode toward the plane. He was surrounded by his bodyguards and top aides, and with a farewell handshake from the Tunisian prime minister he climbed on board.

Arafat's private cabin at the front of the plane was comfortable but not opulent, lined with plush lounge chairs and end tables. A private bedroom adjoining the front cabin had a double bed and a private bath with tub.

Arafat, embarking on what was probably the most important trip of his life, eased into one of the lounge chairs and stared silently out the window as the city of Tunis faded from view under the climbing jet.

At this point, no one was sure where we were going, nor would anyone tell us. The schedule board at Tunis International had shown a charter bound for Paris, and there had been rumors that Arafat would meet French President Francois Mitterrand on his way to Washington. A fuel stop surely would be necessary somewhere. But as we headed west, it seemed we were crossing Algeria, Morocco, then climbing north across Spain and out over the Atlantic.

"It is with immense pleasure that my crew and myself welcome the president of Palestine on this blessed trip," the Moroccan pilot, Col. Ahmed Moukhtar, said over the loudspeaker. "May God crown it with success."

For most of the trip, Arafat sat chatting amiably with his top aides, among them Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Maazen, the quiet intellectual who had drafted the PLO's peace initiative and who had soared to prominence within the organization as the peace movement took hold, and Ahmed Suleiman Khoury, also known as Abu Alaa, the PLO financial wizard who headed the secret peace talks in Norway.

Occasionally, Arafat would invite journalists up for private interviews, and to all of them he gave the same message: The state of Palestine was about to be launched. He was going home to Jericho soon. It took courageous men to make a brave peace.

"Are you a brave man?" I asked him.

"History will give the answer, not me," he replied.

Sitting there, looking exhausted and a little nervous, Arafat didn't appear to feel that brave. The opposition to this peace deal from within the Palestinian ranks was perhaps the greatest he had ever faced. And no one could say what lay ahead in Washington. Acceptance, finally? Or more rebuffs? Who would meet him at the airport, for example? Secretary of State Warren Christopher, or some lesser official?

He refused to discuss with his aides whether he was going to try to shake the hand of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, yet that must have been going through his mind.

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