WASHINGTON -- After decades of occupation and bloodshed, leaders of Israel and the Palestinians signed an agreement yesterday that extends Arab rule on the West Bank and creates a partial framework for a future Palestinian state.
With President Clinton presiding, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Authority, affixed their signatures to the accord at a White House ceremony that triggered an outpouring of international goodwill.
"We are sharing this good earth today with the Palestinian people -- in order to choose life," Mr. Rabin said. "We are not retreating. We are not leaving. We are yielding."
Addressing Palestinians, he said: "We who have seen you in your misery and poverty for generations, we who have killed and have been killed want you as good neighbors."
Mr. Arafat said Palestinians and Israelis together must strive to be "more credible and committed," and vowed, "For our part, we will honor our commitments."
The noontime ceremony, in an East Room decked with greenery, was followed by promises of speedier financial aid for the expanding Palestinian Authority. The United States, Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinians also issued a joint statement urging Syria to display a greater commitment to regional peace. The statement called on Arab states to end their boycott of Israel.
The proceedings conveyed a message: that the peoples of the Middle East, with coaxing and support from outside the region, are turning away from war and toward cooperation.
Jordan's King Hussein and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the heads of state of the two Arab nations officially at peace with Israel, witnessed the signing of the accord, placed before Mr. Rabin and Mr. Arafat in two thick, black binders.
In all, there were seven Arab foreign ministers present, and the prime minister of Morocco, signaling the growing acknowledgement of Israel as a permanent part of the Middle East. But Syria and Lebanon, which is largely controlled by Syria, were represented only by midlevel officials.
Amid words of hope, however, Mr. Rabin and Mr. Arafat warned that the shift to ward peace is still threatened.
"The enemies of yesterday share a common enemy today and in the future: the terrorism that sows death in our homes and on the buses that ply the streets," said Mr. Rabin.
Like Mr. Clinton and others, he noted that Syria and Lebanon has failed to join Israel's other immediate neighbors in making peace.
"In order for this peace to be complete and for the Middle East to become a jewel in the world's crown, it still lacks two people: the president of Syria and the president of Lebanon," said Mr. Rabin.
Mr. Arafat, whose Palestine Liberation Organization once waged war against Israel, now finds his political position threatened by violence fomented by radical Islamic fundamentalists, especially
the group Hamas.
In his speech, he called violence "morally reprehensible," saying "it undermines Palestinian aspirations to the realization of peace." He gently prodded Syria and Lebanon to help "complete all aspects of the process."
The agreement comes two years after Israel ceded control of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho to the Palestinians, ending 45 years of conflict.
The new pact goes much further than the Declaration of Principles signed in 1993 by the same parties at another White House ceremony. It calls for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from 30 percent of the West Bank, gives Palestinians control over some 40 areas of government affairs and outlines a process for Palestinians to elect a government.
The West Bank -- along the western bank of the Jordan River -- includes major Palestinian cities but also is the area described by the Old Testament as having been promised by God to Abraham and his descendants. Jordan controlled the West Bank from 1948 to 1967, when Israel captured it in the Six Day War and imposed a military government, one that began to be dismantled in 1993.
The new, 400-page document took about a year and a half to hammer out, and Israelis and Palestinians still were haggling over one issue yesterday, forcing a delay in the East Room ceremony.
Dennis Ross, the administration's Middle East go-between, interrupted an Oval Office discussion of Bosnia among the assembled leaders with word that the two sides were at odds over the redeployment of Israeli forces around the tinderbox town of Hebron, where several hundred militant Israeli settlers live amid tens of thousands of Palestinians.
As dignitaries waited, Mr. Clinton took Mr. Arafat and Mr. Rabin to his private dining room and beseeched them to fix the problem. They emerged seemingly satisfied eight minutes later and went to the Cabinet Room to initial 26 maps that accompany the pact.
The agreement falls well short of establishing a Palestinian state, a goal Mr. Arafat reaffirmed to reporters yesterday before an Oval Office meeting with Mr. Clinton.
But the signing ceremony enhanced Mr. Arafat's international stature, affording him the opportunity to stand side by side with two presidents, a king and two prime ministers. King Hussein addressed him as President Arafat.
Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev referred in his speech to "Israel and Palestine," as if the Palestinian state were an established fact.
In a bow to harmony, Mr. Arafat softened his frequently stated ambition to make mostly Arab East Jerusalem a Palestinian capital.
"I would say that the sanctity of Jerusalem for us all dictates that we make it the joint cornerstone and the capital of peace between the Palestinian and the Israeli peoples," he said, "inasmuch as it is a beacon for believers all over the world."
The status of Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its capital, is to be decided in negotiations beginning next year.