In sharp contrast to the euphoric signing of the Declaration of Principles two years ago, this week’s agreement between Israel and the Palestinians was codified at a somber and businesslike White House ceremony.
But not before one last hitch threatened to postpone the long-awaited, much- delayed signing of the 400-page Interim Agreement, which officially transfers large portions of the West Bank to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Only moments before the scheduled East Room ceremony Thursday, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sparred over the accord’s map detailing the extent of Israel withdrawal from the explosive city of Hebron.
President Clinton, who was presiding over the presigning meeting between the parties, walked out of the room, telling Rabin and Arafat to work out their differences, according to a U.S. diplomat.
The flap kept more than 100 diplomats, members of Congress and heads of state waiting for about 20 minutes until the ceremony began.
The private ceremony – no American Jewish or Arab organizational leaders were invited – was attended by many Jewish members of Congress.
Other last-minute disputes over the release of Palestinian prisoners and the size of Jericho were deferred to a future joint committee to hammer out the details.
At the nearly two-hour ceremony, Rabin and Arafat exchanged 4-inch thick, blue leather, three-ring binders that contained the agreement and its numerous appendices spelling out every detail of a phased Israeli withdrawal from what amounts to about 28 percent of the West Bank.
Clinton joined Rabin, Arafat, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Karia, also known as Abu Alaa, in signing the document. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Hussein, as well as diplomats from the European Union, Norway and Russia, signed as witnesses.
Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia each sent a representative.
Clinton praised the Israelis and Palestinians for taking “this historic step.”
“Finally, the time is approaching when there will be safety in Israel’s house, when the Palestinian people will write their own destiny, when the clash of arms will be banished from God’s holy land,” Clinton said.
This agreement “means that Israel’s mothers and fathers need no longer worry that their sons will face the dangers of patrolling Nablus or confronting the hostile streets of Ramallah.”
“And it means that Palestinians will be able to decide for themselves what their schools teach, how their houses should be built and who they will choose to govern,” the president said.
During his remarks, Rabin recalled the victims of terrorism. “The sounds of celebration here cannot drown out the cries of innocent citizens who traveled those buses to their death,” the prime minister said.
Issuing a challenge to Arafat, Rabin said, “We should not let the land that flows with milk and honey become a land flowing with blood and tears. Don’t let it happen.”
Calling on Egypt and Jordan to join Israel and the PLO in the war against terror, Rabin said, “If all the partners to the peacemaking do not unite against the evil angels of death by terrorism, all that will remain of this ceremony are color snapshots, empty mementos. Rivers of hatred will overflow again and swamp the Middle East.”
Rabin defended the agreement against critics, reminding “my Jewish brothers and sisters,” that “we are not alone here on this soil, in this land. Se we are sharing this good earth today with the Palestinian people in order to choose life.”
The day was not without its diplomatic fireworks.
At a photo opportunity before Clinton met one-on-one with Arafat earlier in the day, the PLO chairman said the agreement would “definitely” lead to a Palestinian state.
Clinton refused to say whether the United States has changed its longstanding opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state.
At the signing ceremony, Arafat hailed the agreement as “a step which paves the way to free and democratic Palestinian elections, capping thereby the political components required for the establishment of an independent Palestinian national entity on the Palestinian territories.”
Arafat also touched on the explosive issue of Jerusalem, which is slated for negotiations in final-status talks scheduled to begin next year.
“Our people, irrespective of their faith – Muslims, Christians or Jews – consider Jerusalem to be the heart and soul of their entity and the center of their cultural, spiritual and economic life,” he said. “The sanctity of Jerusalem for us all dictates that we make it the joint cornerstone and the capital of peace between the Palestinian and the Israeli peoples in as much as it is a beacon for believers all over the world.”
And Arafat used the opportunity to speak out against terrorism with words that were greeted with cheers by those gathered for the ceremony.
“We must condemn and foreswear violence totally, not only because the use of violence is morally reprehensible, but because it undermines Palestinian aspirations to the realization of peace, the exercise of our political and national options, and the achievement of economic and cultural progress in Palestine and in the region,” he said.
“From this day on we do not want to see any waste of or threat to any innocent Palestinian life or any innocent Israeli life. Enough killing and enough killing of innocent people.” he said.
As talk shifted to the future of the Middle East, Rabin noted the absence of Syria and Lebanon from the podium at the ceremony.
“In order for peace to be completed, in order for this picture to be completed and for the Middle East to become a jewel in the world crown, it still lacks two people – the president of Syria and the president of Lebanon. I call upon them to come and join us, to come to the platform of peace,” he said.
After the signing ceremony, the leaders of Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the PLO joined Clinton in issuing a communique, in which they called on Syria and Lebanon to join the Mideast peace process.
Clinton, who basked in the foreign policy success of the latest accord, said at the ceremony that in the Middle East “that those of us believe that the world was created by, is looked over by and ultimately will be accountable to one great God, all of us came from there.”
Ending the ceremony, Clinton added, “Whether we find that wisdom in the Torah or the Koran or the Christian holy Bible, if we could all learn in that place to find the secret of peace, then perhaps the dream of peace on earth can truly be realized.”
After the ceremony, international leaders gathered at the State Department to discuss future economic assistance to the Palestinians.
Only moments before the signing ceremony, the House of Representatives approved a one-month extension of the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act, which allows U.S. foreign aid to flow to the Palestinian Authority. The Senate was expected to approve a similar extension.
Rabin briefed American Jewish leaders later in the day. The Israeli leader planned to visit Capitol Hill on Friday.