With soaring vows to end a century of bloody strife between Arabs and Jews in a land that is sacred to both, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat signed a bulky peace agreement Thursday that allows Palestinians to govern themselves across most of the West Bank.
A beaming President Clinton presided over a glittering ceremony at the White House, the now-familiar setting for the formalities that have slowly rolled back the Arab-Israeli conflict during almost two decades since Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s dramatic visit to Jerusalem.
The 450-page document governs almost every second of a six-month schedule for dismantling the Israeli occupation and installing Palestinian self-rule over the cities and villages where most West Bank Arabs live. But additional negotiations, probably stretching over years, will be required to reach a final settlement of the conflict.
Nevertheless, Thursday was a day of geopolitical theater for Rabin, Arafat and a supporting cast that included a king, a president, a few prime ministers and a gaggle of foreign ministers, from Jordan, Egypt, Russia, Norway, Spain, Japan and much of the Arab world.
For Clinton, the ceremony was a chance to celebrate a foreign policy success. Although the pact was negotiated directly between Israeli and Palestinian delegations, U.S. officials helped the process along, sometimes by mediation and sometimes by scolding. Clinton reinforced that point. “We will not rest until Muslims and Jews can turn their backs to pray without any fear, until all the region’s children can grow up untouched by conflict,” Clinton told the gathering.
Paradoxically, the assembly of some of the world’s most powerful individuals seemed almost unremarkable. Rabin and Arafat exchanged a perfunctory handshake, arousing none of the emotion produced two years ago when the same two men shook hands for the first time.
But both Rabin and Arafat also waxed eloquent in their assessments of the impact of the agreement.
In a speech studded with Biblical references, Rabin said that the pact should “end once and for all 100 years of bloodshed.”
Arafat called for an end to terrorism - a tactic that his Palestine Liberation Organization employed for decades against the Israeli occupation - and declared: “Enough killing … of innocent people.”
At the same time, both Arafat and Rabin acknowledged that the pact is opposed by often violent factions of Palestinians and Israelis who, for reasons that are mirror images of each other, regard the delicate compromise as a sellout.
“The enemies of yesterday,” Rabin said referring to the Israeli government and the PLO, “share a common enemy of today and in the future: The terrorism that sows death in our homes and on the buses that ply the streets. The sounds of celebration here cannot drown out the cries of innocent citizens who traveled those buses to their deaths.”
Arafat said: “We are betting everything on the future. Therefore we must condemn and forswear violence totally, not only because the use of violence is morally reprehensible but because it undermines Palestinian aspirations to the realization of peace. From this day on, we do not want to see any waste of … any innocent Palestinian life or any innocent Israeli life.”
In Israel, opponents of the pact staged relatively small and sporadic protests. About 250 opposition leaders conducted an invitation-only countersigning ceremony at the Jerusalem Convention Center, declaring Rabin’s peace agreement with Arafat “null and void” and vowing never to give up any of the Biblical land of Israel, including the West Bank.
“One thing is clear - this is not a day of joy for the people of Israel,” Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud Party, said at the mock signing.
The agreement signed Thursday marks the second stage of the Israel-Palestinian peace process. Two years ago, Arafat and Rabin signed an agreement that led to Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the isolated West Bank town of Jericho. The latest pact extends selfgovernment to the other Arab cities and villages of the West Bank. Jewish settlers living in the territory will remain under Israeli law and will continue to be protected by Israeli troops.
Under the terms of the agreement, Israeli troops are scheduled to leave all Arab cities by next March. After that, the appointed authority now in place will be replaced by officials elected by Palestinians.
Compared to the situation that existed just three years ago, the agreement makes breathtaking changes in the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.
But the most intractable disputes were left for the final phase of negotiations, scheduled to begin next year.
Those talks must decide the fate of Jerusalem and of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
Immediately after the White House ceremony, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher convened a conference at the State Department of the world’s wealthy countries to try to appeal for the money needed to finance Palestinian self-rule.
U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross said that the $2.4 billion over five years that was pledged two years ago should be enough if all countries will make good their pledges. But he said the money is coming in very slowly.
Graphic: The Middle East: Long road to peace (Only in Idaho)