WASHINGTON -- Israeli and Palestinian leaders overcame a century of hatred and bloodshed yesterday to unite behind a vision of peace on land sacred to both.
Two old warriors, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, used the White House signing of an interim accord between their peoples to say it was time, finally, to "give peace a chance."
"Enough of blood and tears. Enough," Mr. Rabin exclaimed in a raspy voice that evoked decades of suffering.
Mr. Arafat, who had led an armed campaign to replace Israel with a Palestinian state, said "the land of peace yearns for a just and comprehensive peace."
With symbolic handshakes and muted nationalist rhetoric, the simple, graceful South Lawn ceremony, televised worldwide, marked a clear turning point in the bloody history of Israelis and Palestinians and a major step toward a comprehensive settlement of the conflict between the Jewish state and its neighbors.
President Clinton called it an occasion of "history and hope." Among the psychological breakthroughs toward reconciliation was a line of Arab ambassadors shaking hands with Israel's prime minister and foreign minister.
"That is a first in the history of the Middle East conflict," a senior Clinton aide said.
With Mr. Clinton between them, the leaders looked on as Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas of the PLO signed a declaration of principles on interim Palestinian self-government. It calls for withdrawal of Israeli occupation forces from much of the Gaza Strip and from Jericho on the West Bank and for the establishment of Palestinian authority there.
The pact also calls for a phased Israeli withdrawal from elsewhere in the West Bank, although Israel will retain the power to protect its citizens and external security.
It represents the first major step in ending a 100-year struggle between Jews and Arabs over the small strip of land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River that includes Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
Facilitated by Norway and negotiated in secrecy between Israel and an organization it earlier vowed never to recognize, the agreement is the first to emerge from the 22-month peace process launched in Madrid in late 1991. A late change before the signing made clear that the agreement was between Israel and the PLO, not just a "Palestinian team."
Pact with Jordan expected
Today, Israel and Jordan are expected to announce a detailed agenda for future negotiations over security, arms control, water, refugees and borders.
Jordan had waited to announce the agenda, nearly complete months ago, until a Palestinian accord had been reached.
A skeptical bystander to the Israeli-PLO breakthrough, the United States signaled as host of yesterday's ceremony that it will assume a leading role in seeing that the pact is implemented and supported financially by the world's wealthy nations.
"This Israeli-Palestinian agreement cannot be permitted to fail," Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher said.
After the signing, Mr. Clinton grabbed Mr. Arafat for an unscheduled five-to-10-minute meeting in the White House map room, urging him to move quickly on putting the accord into effect.
The president later relayed a brief dialogue between Mr. Rabin and Mr. Arafat, according to NBC News:
L Mr. Rabin: "You know we're going to have to work very hard."
Mr. Arafat: "I know, and I'm prepared to do my part."
Indeed, the economic and political challenges ahead were clearly evident during yesterday's ceremony, overshadowing the political risks required to come this far and the long-term promise peace could bring.
A final agreement will have to tackle the burning issues of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, refugees and whether Palestinians will be able to call their homeland a state.
The pact has come under attack by some Israelis and Arabs, with Israel's leaders accused of selling out their country's security and the PLO of abandoning cherished aspirations.
"The difficult decision we reached together was one that required great and exceptional courage," Mr. Arafat said to applause. "We will need more courage and determination to continue the course of building coexistence and peace between us."
There was no pretense of a sudden friendship between two leaders who had spent years trying to destroy what each represented. Neither Mr. Rabin nor Mr. Arafat addressed the other by name in opening his remarks.
The prime minister, who has grimly noted that peace is made with enemies, never smiled during the ceremony. And he made it clear he would neither forget nor totally forgive.
He said he had come from "an anguished and grieving land" that has not known a single month in which mothers have not wept for their sons, and he paid tribute to Israelis who had "sacrificed their lives for our own."
But both leaders expressed the hope of reconciliation between their peoples and acknowledged each other as essential partners in the effort.
"Let me say to you, the Palestinians, we are destined to live together on the same soil in the same land," Mr. Rabin said. "We wish to open a new chapter in the sad book of our lives together, a chapter of mutual recognition, of good neighborliness, of mutual respect, of understanding. We hope to embark on a new era in the history of the Middle East.
"We have no desire for revenge. We harbor no hatred towards you. We, like you, are people . . . who want to . . . live side by side with you in dignity."
Mr. Arafat, addressing Israelis, said, "Our people do not consider that exercising the right to self-determination could violate the rights of their neighbors or infringe on their security. Rather, putting an end to their feelings of being wronged and of having suffered a historic injustice is the strongest guarantee to achieve coexistence and openness between our two peoples and future generations.
"Our two peoples are awaiting today this historic hope, and they want to give peace a real chance," he added.
Of the two, Mr. Arafat was the more conciliatory. Buoyant and smiling in contrast to Mr. Rabin's dour demeanor, the PLO chairman was clearly determined to make over his threatening image. He avoided explicit mention of a Palestinian state, relying instead on the coded "self-determination."
And instead of claiming East Jerusalem as the eventual capital of Palestine, both he and Mr. Abbas cited the holy city as among issues that remain to be negotiated in final-status talks starting two years from now. Mr. Rabin called Jerusalem Israel's eternal capital.
But Mr. Arafat, who had made stunning political strides just to appear on the same dais with an American president and Israeli prime minister, also avoided issuing a new condemnation of Palestinians determined to abort the agreement by violence.
Mr. Rabin, in remarks later yesterday, spoke with vehemence of the fundamentalist Hamas movement, which he blamed for the deaths of four Israelis on Sunday, as the "enemy of peace."
Beyond immediate threats to the agreement from within Israel and the territories, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev cited the political and religious extremism that threatens the stability of the whole region.
Mr. Kozyrev, who signed the pact as a witness and whose country co-sponsors the peace process, said, "I know that in other parts of this region, there are also signs of this new danger, and I hope that we will not limit our joint effort only to the peace between Israel and its neighbors, not only for the cause of Palestinians to gain their legitimate rights, but also to see [to] stability in the whole region."
'Lower our barriers'
Despite local and regional threats to peace, Israel's foreigminister offered a vision of a peaceful and productive partnership among Israel, Palestinians and Jordan that offset Mr. Rabin's dour caution.
"We shall convert the bitter triangle of Jordanians, Palestinians and Israelis into a triangle of political triumph and economic prosperity. We shall lower our barriers and widen our roads so goods and guests will be able to move freely all over . . . holy and other places. . . . Let us become a civic community," he said, "a region with a common market, a Near East with a long-range agenda."
In the same spirit, Mr. Clinton urged Israelis and Palestinians to imagine what could happen if the energy and ability diverted to their struggle could be channelled into "cultivating the land and freshening the waters, into ending the boycotts and creating new industry, into a building a land as bountiful and peaceful as it is holy."
But this promise seemed distant. Mr. Christopher said that "much more remains to be done if this newly planted tree is to bear fruit."
Attendance at the gathering showed ambivalence within the Arab world toward the pact. Of the 10 foreign ministers present, only three were from Arab states -- Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. The gulf states, bitter about Mr. Arafat's support for Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf war, sent ambassadors, as did Syria and Lebanon.