Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation yesterday signed a major agreement here to transfer power in much of the occupied West Bank, rounding off a red-letter foreign- policy week for President Bill Clinton, and just possibly hastening the day of a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement.
The ceremony itself, in the East Room of the White House, was muted. It started 20 minutes late because there was last-minute haggling between the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, over the wording of the accord on the redeployment of Israeli troops from the West Bank city of Hebron. Mr Clinton reportedly put Mr Rabin and Mr Arafat in his private dining-room and left them to work things out. Moments later they emerged with the problem solved.
There was little of the fanfare and none of the sheer effect of the famous handshake two years ago on the South Lawn between Mr Rabin and Mr Arafat, which ended 26 years of bitter enmity between the Palestinians and the Jewish state. But in the longer run it could prove even more significant than the earlier event.
Assembled for the occasion was a cast of Middle East leaders: not only Mr Rabin and Mr Arafat, but King Hussein of Jordan and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, whose countries have already concluded peace treaties with Israel, and were now witnessing the signature of an intricate 400- page deal which transfers large parts of the West Bank to Arab rule.Under the accord, which stipulates the pull-out of thousands of Israeli troops, a Palestinian Council will be set up to provide a real measure of self- rule for a million Palestinians in the West Bank, while Israel also is to release many Palestinian prisoners.
Even so, pitfalls abound. According to Mr Arafat, speaking to reporters before he began an Oval Office meeting with Mr Clinton, the agreement was "definitely" a step towards a Palestinian state. But a Palestinian state is something that Israel still opposes, and the word "definitely" was expunged from the official White House transcript.
More immediately, the deal could yet be destroyed by militants on either side, be they the extremist Hamas group, or armed Jewish settlers who believe the West Bank is biblically an inalienable part of Israel.
These groups, Mr Rabin warned, were the "evil angels of death" whose deeds could turn "a land flowing with milk and honey" into one "flowing with blood and tears," and yesterday's events into "colour snapshots, empty mementos". Mr Arafat stressed the need to co-operate against "the terror and the opposition on the two sides".
Mindful of the need to demonstrate that peace brings economic benefits, the Clinton administration was holding a separate meeting of Western countries here, to press them to make good their promise of $2.4bn (pounds 1.6bn) of aid to the West Bank and Gaza.
For the moment, however, another foreign policy success may be savoured by President Clinton, who has long been criticised for ineffectiveness in the international arena.
Only 48 hours earlier, he appeared in the White House briefing room to announce new progress towards a peace settlement in Bosnia. Yesterday he was presiding over a second US-brokered agreement, hardly less precarious than the one taking shape in the Balkans, but one which could cement a lasting peace in the Middle East.
"Finally the time is approaching when there will be safety in Israel's house, and when the Palestinian people will write their own destiny," said Mr Clinton as he opened the ceremony, urging that it be another step "towards closing the circle of peace, a circle which must include Syria and Lebanon".
Syria, however, remains the hold-out. "Be patient," was the reply of Mr Rabin when he was asked about prospects for a "land-for-peace" settlement between Tel Aviv and Damascus.
Although the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, remains optimistic as he prepares for a fresh round of diplomacy in the region, his Republican predecessor, James Baker, this week predicted failure for the administration's efforts to secure a deal with Syria this year.Reuse content