WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- In the end, despite months of negotiations and days of American pressure, a series of seemingly minor details -- indeed, even a single word -- nearly derailed the historic Israeli-Palestinian agreement that will be signed today at the White House.
"You're making us slaves," Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat yelled at Israeli negotiators early Sunday morning, by which time there was reason to worry if an agreement would ever be reached.
The angry 11th-hour haggling over the fine print of an agreement totaling more than 400 pages testifies to the suspicions on both sides and the high stakes riding on the accord.
The agreement spells out the rules that are to govern uneasy neighbors whose relations for much of the last half-century have been ruled by force, terrorism and hatred.
"It lays a basis for creating a very different relationship between Israelis and Palestinians," Dennis Ross, the U.S. State Department's Middle East coordinator, said yesterday. "It means that the Israelis are no longer going to be ruling Palestinians."
Many of the toughest issues, including most security questions for the West Bank, had already been settled by the time Mr. Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres last week entered the final stages of negotiations, at the Egyptian resort of Taba on the Red Sea.
Even the charged subject of Hebron, the West Bank town containing a militant group of Jewish settlers as well as a tomb sacred to both Jews and Muslims, was resolved by early last week.
Pales-tinians would gain control of 90 percent of the city while Israel would police access to the shrine and protect the settlers.
But pressure built to complete a deal before Israel officially shut down for the Jewish High Holy Days -- a break that participants feared would sap their momentum -- and smaller issues began to assume overriding importance.
Mr. Ross, who has long experience as an Israeli-Palestinian intermediary, became worried enough last Thursday afternoon to seek the intervention of Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
Mr. Arafat had just been shown the maps of how the West Bank would look under the agreement. He was appalled at the size of areas still under Israeli control and he walked out of the talks.
Knowing when to close
According to aides, Mr. Christopher called the Palestine Liberation Organization leader with a warning: "A good negotiator has to know when to close a deal. The longer you drag it on, the more you put it at risk."
Americans also told Mr. Arafat that he could miss the chance for a high-profile signing ceremony at the White House and thus miss the international status associated with it, plus the chance to convert status into financial support.
Although the Israeli-Palestinian agreement specifies that Israel's government will continue to handle foreign policy for Palestinian territories, the presence of Mr. Arafat on the same stage with other world leaders gives him equal importance. And U.S. officials told the Palestinians that an agreement would be key to pressuring wealthy nations to speed up aid to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Mr. Christopher's call, and similar efforts from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, helped lure Mr. Arafat back into the talks, but not for long. Negotiators recessed for 24 hours beginning Friday night, and Mr. Arafat and Mr. Peres had reached another impasse -- this time over the relationship between Israeli and Palestinian security forces.
The dispute boiled down to one word: "approve."
The draft agreement spelled out separate zones to be controlled by Israeli and Palestinian security forces, and a third category where they would jointly patrol. But the language required Israel to "approve" the movement of Palestinian police in the areas of joint control.
Mr. Arafat objected to the word. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin later told President Clinton on Sunday that he agreed to change it to "coordinate and confirm." He referred to this as the "last issue" before the pact could be initialed.
In fact, others say, it was just one of the issues holding up a deal. Through Saturday night and into Sunday morning, Mr. Arafat objected to the size of territory ceded to Palestinians outside the city of Jericho, and once more he objected to the maps, complaining that there were not enough contiguous areas under Palestinian control.
Palestinians see this point as crucial, not just as a step toward a future Palestinian state but to their being able to link their villages economically. Another problem involved the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Deal is done
In a 3 a.m. phone call Sunday, Mr. Ross suggested that key negotiators go off by themselves to work out the final issues. A few hours later, Mr. Arafat and Mr. Peres initialed the pact. Together, they called Mr. Christopher to announce they had a deal.
Mr. Clinton put in congratulatory calls to Mr. Rabin and Mr. Arafat. Later, he called Mr. Mubarak, Jordan's King Hussein and Morocco's King Hassan II.
Even after the Israeli Cabinet approved the deal yesterday, however, Palestinians and Israelis were wrestling with a new problem: the timing for the deployment of Palestinian forces.
But Mr. Ross, briefing reporters at the White House, insisted: "There will be a signing tomorrow."
Before the signing ceremony begins at noon, Mr. Clinton is to meet separately with Mr. Arafat and Mr. Rabin, then bring them together in a session that will also include King Hussein and Mr. Mubarak.
The event will also be attended by Russia's foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, and other dignitaries from around the globe.
The degree to which the agreement is carried out will determine whether Palestinians and Israelis can coexist and whether they can move on to tackle the even bigger questions of Palestinian statehood and control of Jerusalem.
It also could determine the political fate both of Israel's Labor government and the Palestinian leadership headed by Mr. Arafat.
For Mr. Clinton and Mr. Christopher, the stakes are high as well. Their stewardship of foreign policy will be judged in part on how they handle what is always a top U.S. priority -- advancing Middle East peace.