JERUSALEM (May. 4)
It almost didn’t happen.
After nearly seven months of tough negotiations, the long-awaited moment when Israel would cede to the Palestinians control over the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank nearly did not come to pass.
The decorum of the signing ceremony in Cairo on Wednesday morning was shattered when Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, who was about to sign some of the documents, balked.
He had been presented with what apparently were maps of the autonomous region around the West Bank town of Jericho. Details of the size of that region were one of the points that had not yet been agreed to.
The principals, including U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who had carefully nursed the negotiations along for so many months, abruptly left the stage.
There, Arafat was reportedly assured that explicit reference to the need for further negotiations on certain issues, including Jericho, was included in the documents.
Within a matter of minutes, the principals returned to the stage. Arafat smilingly signed the documents, and history was made.
“Today we declare that the conflict is over,” Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said, as the accord that for the first time grant the Palestinians a measure of self-rule was signed.
The ceremony, before an audience of 2,500, culminated a rocky road that began last fall in Washington with a handshake between longtime enemies that shook the world.
A FRAGILE AND COMPLEX AFFAIR
The break in diplomatic protocol in Cairo on Wednesday was more than an embarrassment to the participants. It sent a powerful, if spontaneous, signal that negotiating this agreement has been a highly fragile and complex affair.
It suggested that the ceremony had been organized before sensitive details had been completely clarified to the satisfaction of both parties, in deference to intense U.S. pressure to sign.
And it highlighted the fears, felt by many on both sides, of the daunting challenges that lay ahead, as a new era in Israeli-Palestinian relations dawned.
The agreement signed this week marked only the beginning of a five-year interim period, by the end of which time the two sides are supposed to have worked out a permanent arrangement for the territories.
In his speech Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called the break in that morning’s proceedings “the tip of the iceberg of problems we shall have to overcome in the implementation of even the first phase of the declaration of principles.
“To overcome 100 years of animosity, suspicion, bloodshed — it’s not so simple,” he said. He called the agreement “a very daring project.”
Lester Pollack, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, was in Cairo and called the moment “very dramatic, a very serious episode.”
He added that there was little of the euphoria that had been present at September’s ceremony in Washington, when Israel and the PLO signed the declaration of principles that this week’s agreement fleshed out.
Pollack attributed this sense in part to Arafat’s last-minute recalcitrance and in part to the violence that has plagued the region in the interim.
During this time, a Jewish settler gunned down at least 29 Palestinians at a Hebron mosque in February and the Palestinians launched numerous terrorist attacks before and after that incident.
‘NOW IT IS IN THE HANDS OF ARAFAT’
Steven Grossman, president of the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee, was also in Cairo. He said the moment of truth had now arrived for Arafat.
“For months Arafat has said he couldn’t control anything in the (territories) because he didn’t have the authority,” Grossman said. “Now it is in the hands of Arafat and the PLO to make this work, to control violence and begin to put in place the leadership” to “create a new reality for the Palestinian people.”
Underlining concerns that the PLO may not be ready to assume control of its new territory, Rabin told reporters after the ceremony Wednesday that Arafat had asked for up to a three-week delay in implementing the handover of authority.
Rabin said Israel would likely agree to the delay, albeit reluctantly.
At the ceremony, Peres good-naturedly told the audience after the glitch with Arafat that they had witnessed a live birth.
“What really happened is that we finished our negotiations by half past 2 in the morning and apparently we were short five minutes. We apologize for taking these five minutes from you.
“We have had a dream before we have had a map. Now we have a map and a dream together,” he said.
“Chairman Arafat, our partner in a very difficult journey,” said Peres to Arafat, “we did it.”
The Israeli foreign minister also added: “We assure you we shall not stop here. We shall reach peace with Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, and make it comprehensive and durable.” He also pledged to continue negotiating with the Palestinians for a permanent solution.
After a few remarks in English, Rabin switched to Hebrew to address his constituency in Israel and to recount the history of the bloody conflict between Israel and the Palestinians over the land.
“What did we want?” he asked. “We wanted to return to the land of our forefathers. We wanted a homeland, a refuge, a place to lay down our heads, to be like all people, to live.”
Turning toward the Palestinians, he said, “We have killed you, and you have killed us. We must try to put an end to the cycle of terrible violence.”
“Today we stretch out our hands to each other,” Rabin said. “Let the future flourish.”
In his speech, Arafat saluted, one by one, leaders of other Arab countries, thanking them for their support, and saying he sought stronger links with them.
He also emphasized the accord was a first step in the road toward increased Palestinian autonomy. “It’s only a beginning to open doors to remove the occupation altogether and build to new relations between our peoples, for our children and your children’s future.”
He said it required “even more courage for the next step,” as well as vision and patience to build a strong and comprehensive peace.
Arafat criticized the recent closure of the territories, which was imposed for security reasons and bars the entry of Palestinians into Israel. He said it is counter to the spirit of peace and damages the Palestinian economy.
For his part, Mubarak, who played host to the ceremony, praised the leaders of Israel and the PLO, saying they were “heroes” who showed “great courage.” He said they “proved they have a vision and were determined to reach peace despite the challenges.”
“It’s time you all shake hands and clear your hearts from the past and look into your (own) interests and forget your animosity,” he said, addressing the Israelis and Arabs.
“It’s time to use your resources to build and repair what has been destroyed,” he said, “to plant roses and not mines.”
Christopher called the achievements realized in the agreement “remarkable” and he praised both sides for their perseverance in the face of countless difficulties.
“To their eternal credit,” he said, “Israelis and Palestinians pressed forward in the face of extremists who sought to kill faith in the future by inflaming the hatreds of the past. We’re here today because unspeakable acts of violence could not still the voices of peace or weaken the resolve of the peace-makers.
“For Palestinians, the challenge now is to build democratic, accountable institutions, to provide for the economic well-being of their people, to uphold the rule of law and to guarantee respect for human rights.”
All the speakers paid tribute to Egypt’s centrality in the peace-making process.
Syria and Lebanon were pointedly not represented, with Syria on Wednesday calling the accord an obstacle to peace.