Middle East Accord: Rattling of pens mars the signing ceremony: Suspicions and walk-outs almost scuppered the peace ceremony in Cairo, reports Sarah Helm

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The Independent Online
'HONOURABLE guests. The signing of the historic Gaza Jericho agreement will now begin,' announced a lilting voice, as a polystyrene sphinx looked on.

The pristine documents drawn up during seven months of negotiations were positioned, stage right, on a gold- leaf table.

Standing on the platform were the 'heroes and brave men of peace', as Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian President and host of the party, described the principal actors - Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, and Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. A mirage of electric stars twinkled happily, and the scene seemed set for the march of Middle East history.

All, however, was not well. Neither peace-maker seemed ready to sign. Then Mr Arafat moved forward. Some documents he signed, but others he pushed away. Israeli aides in the chamber froze. Mr Rabin took his turn at the desk, but after a flourish or two of the pen he was back in line, his jowls as red as the handkerchief in Mr Mubarak's top pocket. 'Crisis. This is a crisis,' the Israeli aides murmured.

At the podium, Warren Christopher, US Secretary of State, performed his part. 'This agreement has tested our faith in the power of reasoned compromise,' he intoned, oblivious to the drama.

The 2,000 dignitaries in the audience dutifully clapped. But the men standing in the wings broke ranks. 'Negotiations are still going on after the agreement has been signed,' said Bill Delaney, the CNN correspondent.

Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, pleaded with Mr Arafat to go back and sign the disputed document. But with a wave of his arm, Mr Arafat showed the world even now there was a price for peace he would not pay.

Someone here had been double-crossed. Had the Israelis planted their map of Jericho in the pile of documents, without Mr Arafat knowing? Was the arch-dealer of the PLO pulling off his finest bluff - seeking another kilometre of Palestine in this, the most public of Middle Eastern bazaars?

Like a podgy good fairy, Nabil Shaath, the Palestinians' chief negotiator, appeared from the wings. Papers were shuffled. Mr Mubarak, Mr Peres and Mr Christopher all conferred. Mr Rabin stared incredulously at a sullen-faced Mr Arafat, who was casting his eyes towards the exit. Could the deal evaporate into the mirage even now?

Mr Mubarak looked worried. Here at Nasr City, he had hoped to claim the day. Egypt, the only Arab country to sign a peace accord with Israel, was celebrating the arrival of another peace-maker into the fold. Outside the conference centre was a reminder of the price of conflict. There stood the tomb of Anwar Sadat, the former Egyptian president, assassinated in 1981, two years after he signed a deal with Israel.

'Would all guests please remain in their seats,' pleaded a voice, as the actors left the stage and the audience began to flood out. 'The ceremony will continue.'

As swiftly as they left, Mr Rabin and Mr Arafat returned. A deal, it seemed, had been struck and Mr Arafat was at the desk, writing away, as the audience whistled and applauded. Mr Rabin loosened his collar and it fell to Mr Peres to raise the tone again.

'We had a dream before we had the map,' he told the audience with a smile. 'Now we have the map and the dream together.'

(Photograph omitted)