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Aid Palestinians? Kuwaitis Furious, Fearful : Mideast: The PLO's wartime betrayal is not easily forgotten. But the emirate and other Gulf states will be pressured to finance a future Palestine.


KUWAIT CITY — From the halls of power to the palatial villas where the Kuwaitis hold their late-night gabfests called diwaniyas, the talk of this oil-rich emirate this week is as passionate with fury as with fear.

The fear: Kuwait's postwar debt crisis that the government has warned soon could tear into the world's most secure welfare state.

The fury: Kuwait's Public Enemy No. 2, the Palestine Liberation Organization leader, of whom Kuwaitis speak with the derision of a nation that for three decades supported, housed and cared for half a million Palestinians--until Yasser Arafat embraced Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi strongman's occupation of their tiny emirate three years ago.

Hardly fertile ground for the financiers of a future Palestine.

Yet, when Secretary of State Warren Christopher convenes a crucial international donors' conference on Arafat's behalf today in Washington, it will be Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states--increasingly cash-strapped countries for whom a shared resentment of the PLO's betrayal during the 1990 Gulf crisis is still fresh--that will be the focus of the American effort to raise urgently needed aid for Arafat's emerging Palestinian state.

At the United Nations in New York on Thursday, Christopher said he expects the donors' conference to produce pledges of more than $2 billion, including significant money from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. "Frankly, I'm very encouraged by the response that we've gotten," he said.

As representatives from dozens of countries and international agencies prepared to file into the State Department conference room for today's historic seminar, commitments totaling just over $1 billion have already been made by the European Community, Japan and the United States.

But during the next decade, Arafat will need much more to supply enough industry, jobs and public services to consolidate self-rule in the Israeli-occupied lands, beginning with the sleepy town of Jericho and the impoverished Gaza Strip. It is a goal that remains as remote as this distant emirate.

So it is toward the Gulf and its oil-producing Arab states that most supporters of the Gaza-Jericho autonomy plan look for the remainder of the answer--toward nations such as this emirate with 10% of the world's known oil reserves, where not a single Kuwaiti would openly advocate that their government contribute a penny to the Palestinian cause.

This is, after all, a country that summarily expelled more than 200,000 Palestinians in less than three years after the traumatizing occupation, in which thousands of Palestinians collaborated with the Iraqi tormentors in everything from interrogation and torture to national plunder.

"I don't think the Kuwaiti people will support giving anything to the PLO," said Sheik Saud al Sabah, Kuwait's minister of information and a member of its royal family. "Even the government doesn't want to give anything to the PLO."

The aid issue already has cut deeply into the Kuwaiti consciousness, not only at the nightly diwaniyas, where Arafat is denounced routinely with unprintable expletives, but also in the newspapers and among the nation's new, elected national assemblymen, who are expected to debate hotly any future government donations to Palestine when the Parliament reconvenes later this month.

But Minister Saud was quick to add during an interview with The Times this week that the issue of who will pay for Palestine goes far beyond Kuwait's enduring national grudge against Arafat; it cuts to the heart of U.S.-Kuwaiti relations. And he confirmed that Kuwait's powerful foreign minister will represent the emirate at today's donor meeting, an emotionally difficult gesture that U.S. officials lauded as key indicator of Kuwaiti support for the peace process.

"We want to help our friends in the U.S.," he said, conceding that the nation that led a 33-nation military coalition to liberate Kuwait has made it clear that a financial contribution to Palestine is synonymous with a personal favor to the United States.

"But we're going to take our time and think about it," the minister added, indicating that the Gulf states together will likely seek to form a fund, supervised by the United States or the United Nations, that would go directly to Palestinian projects in the autonomous zone, bypassing the PLO. "There's plenty of time. I don't think the whole peace process hinges on whether we pitch in or not."

The PLO has established a new organization, the Palestine Economic Development and Reconstruction Authority, or PEDRA, to oversee the use of aid. U.S. officials have noted, however, that each donor country would retain the right to monitor and audit how its aid was being spent.

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