For Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, it was a vote of international confidence.
Yet while the three recipients of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize were treated to a relaxing interlude in the face of a growing lack of confidence back home, the day’s festivities provided yet another reminder that there is still much work to be done.
In the hours before and after the three leaders received their coveted awards Saturday night, the Israelis and Palestinians expressed deep divisions over how to proceed toward the next phase of their ongoing peace initiative.
The Israeli Cabinet last week agreed to adhere to the timetable of the Declaration of Principles signed last year in Washington. But Israeli leaders remained cautious about the next step in the peace process – the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank on the eve of Palestinian elections.
Their caution, sparked by fears for the security of Israeli settlers in the West Bank in the wake of an Israeli withdrawal, was highlighted by Rabin.
“The implementation of the Declaration of Principles must be based on mutuality,” Rabin declared at a joint news conference with Norwegian Premier Gro Harlem Brundtland on Saturday.
As long as Islamic militants continue to launch terrorist attacks against Israelis, Rabin implied, no one can expect Israel to proceed with the implementation of the agreement.
An hour late, Arafat retorted furiously during a separate joint news conference with his Norwegian host.
“Does terrorism prevent elections in Israel? Does it prevent them in the United States?” he asked.
Arafat insisted that elections in the territories should take place as scheduled, “far away from the eyes and the intervention of Israelis.”
Hours after the three received their Nobel prizes, they met for 90 minutes at Oslo’s Grand Hotel to discuss the next phase of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Although some observers expected them to use the momentum of the prize ceremony to reach a major agreement, the three emerged from their session late Saturday night to announce only that they would increase the pace of their negotiations.
They also agreed that midlevel talks between the two sides, which resumed last week in Cairo, would continue later this week, and that Rabin and Arafat would meet again soon.
The late-night talks followed by hours what was perhaps the most controversial awards ceremony in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Arafat’s inclusion among the honorees sparked protests when the awards were first announced and demonstrations over the weekend in the streets of Oslo, Jerusalem and Gaza City.
At the awards ceremony, Rabin spoke of his past role as an army commander and of those who had died in Israel’s were with its Arab neighbors.
“Standing here today, I wish to salute our loved ones – and past foes,” he said. Referring to all the war dead and the families of the fallen, he added, “Tonight I wish to pay tribute to each and every one of them, for this important prize is theirs.”
Peres spoke of the harsh lessons Israel learned from its past wars.
“The wars we fought were forced upon us,” he said. “Thanks to the Israeli Defense Forces, we won them all, but we did not win the greatest victory that we aspired to: release from the need to win victories.”
Countering the criticisms aimed at Arafat as a Nobel honoree, Peres spoke out in favor of the PLO leader.
“I believe it is fitting that the prize has been awarded to Yasser Arafat,” the foreign minister said. “His abandonment of the path of confrontation in favor of the path of dialogue has opened the way to peace.”
In his acceptance speech, Arafat focused on the difficult negotiations that lie ahead. The award was not granted “to crown an endeavor we have completed, but rather to encourage us to continue a road which we have started,” he said.
Throughout the weekend, groups of demonstrators from Israel and the United States gathered on the streets of Oslo to protest Arafat’s inclusion in the awards ceremony and the peace accord itself.
On Saturday, when the 1,000 people attending the ceremony at City Hall left the building, they were confronted by about 50 torch-carrying demonstrators who held up pictures of past victims of PLO terror operations. Placards charged Arafat with being a terrorist and Rabin a traitor.
A fight almost erupted between Jewish and Palestinian demonstrators, but mounted police separated the two groups and several demonstrators were detained briefly.
Last Friday, Rabbi Avi Weiss, the national president of the Coalition for Jewish Concerns-Amcha, and three other members of the organization spend more than seven hours in an Oslo jail after being charged with not obeying the orders of the Norwegian police.
The four were released after pleading not guilty to the charges. Each received a fine of $400 or five days in jail.
Weiss later said the police were guilty of brutality against the Jewish demonstrators, and that he planned to press charges for false arrest.
“What a terrible weekend for Norway,” the activist from Riverdale, New York, said in a statement. “First the (prize) committee obscenely gives Arafat the peace prize and then their police brutally charge into and attack Jews. Our treatment was shameful.”
Rabin later said he was unimpressed by the demonstrations. “Less than 10,000, 20,000 demonstrators don’t count any more,” he said.
Protests against the prize ceremony also took place in various parts of Israel and the Gaza Strip on Saturday.
Several hundred settlers and supporters of Israeli opposition parties demonstrated in Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel Aviv, Ra’anana and at several road junctions in the north.
In Jerusalem, protesters carried torches to the Foreign Ministry and held pictures of 101 Israelis killed by Arab terrorists since the signing of the self-rule accord last year.
The Likud opposition said Rabin had accepted the prize only in the name of the Labor Party and the left.
“Rabin and Peres are humiliating the people and the country by accepting the prize together with a murderer of their people,” the Likud said in a statement.
At the same time, some 5,000 anti-peace Palestinians demonstrated in Gaza City to protest the self-rule accord.
Sheik Abdullah Shami, a leader of the Islamic Jihad fundamentalist movement, said that Arafat’s acceptance of the prize was akin to “spitting on the holy Koran.”