JERUSALEM -- With officials of the United States, Egypt and Jordan at their sides, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat signed yesterday the latest agreement of the Middle East peace process and set off on a new path toward resolving the decades-old conflict that has divided their peoples.
The signing ceremony in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el Sheikh represents the resumption of a peace process that has been deadlocked for eight months. It signals a change in the relationship between the parties, from contentious adversaries to respectful negotiators. The shift can be attributed to the new Israeli prime minister's effort to instill confidence in a process that became suspect under his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.
After shaking hands, Barak and Arafat signed revisions in the Wye River Memorandum, an agreement that cedes additional West Bank land to the Palestinians, requires the release of 350 Palestinian political prisoners from Israeli jails and sets a September 2000 target to resolve the most troublesome issues of the peace process.
"We extend our hands anew to Mr. Barak, my new partner in the peace process,the peace of the brave," Arafat said.
Under the agreement, the Palestinians pledged to continue to fight terrorism, confiscate illegal weapons on the West Bank and reduce their police force, which has exceeded its permitted strength by about 10,000.
"Today we are paving the way to the end a century-old conflict between us and the Palestinians," said Barak, a former army chief of staff.
"Reaching within a year a permanent status agreement which resolves old outstanding issues is bound to present us with numerous problems, obstacles and crises. But together as partners, with trust, good will and consultation and above all determined leadership, we will prevail and achieve peace and security and prosperity for our people."
But Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said, "The road [to peace] is still a long one." He called on the parties to implement the agreement "promptly and without much contention."
An atmosphere of good will and optimism characterized the signing, which was witnessed by Mubarak, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who helped secure the deal during her visit to the region.
Two Middle East leaders who helped forge the historic arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians were recalled last night -- late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein of Jordan.
For Albright, helping deliver the revised Wye accord ensured a continuation of a peace process in which the Clinton administration has invested much.
The agreement "shows that when both sides are willing to work together, their fundamental requirements can be met, confidence can be built and the process can move forward," President Clinton said in a statement the White House issued. "This truly is a new beginning."
The signing of the 1993 Oslo accords that began this peace process took place at the White House with Clinton as its patron. If the Israelis and Palestinians can achieve a deal by September 2000, it would coincide with Clinton's last days in office and mark his presidency as the one that brought peace to the Middle East.
Toward the end of bringing peace, Albright met yesterday with Syrian President Hafez el Assad in Damascus and flew to Lebanon; it is the first visit to Beirut by a U.S. secretary of state since 1983.
Her meeting with Assad was aimed at a resumption of talks between Syria and Israel, which broke down three years ago. Since Barak's election in May, Assad has given encouraging signs that he wishes to return to negotiations.
The Syrians had hoped Albright would bring with her a message that the Israelis were ready to begin negotiations with a commitment to withdraw from the Golan Heights, Syrian territory occupied by Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
But Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said at a news conference with Albright that they did not receive "the good news" they had hoped to hear.
"But we are still hopeful that the good news will come later. The Syrian position is clear," he said, referring to the Golan Heights. "We think peace can be achieved within months if there is a good intention by both sides."
Albright gave no indication publicly of the substance of her conversation with Assad or whether she was delivering a message to Barak.
In her meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Selim al-Hoss, Albright was told that Lebanon wants to be a part of the negotiations that decide the fate of Palestinian refugees. As many as 1.9 million Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
Their fate represents one of the most problematic issues that will confront Israel and the Palestinians during their final status talks. Those talks also must determine the status of Jerusalem, the borders of Israel and a Palestinian state, and the fate of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Before Barak and Arafat signed the revised Wye accord the fallout was felt at home.
In Bethlehem and Hebron, two Palestinian-controlled cities on the West Bank, several dozen Palestinians demonstrated against the agreement. Some argued that the deal should have ensured the release of more than 350 prisoners.
On the Israeli side, five ultra-Orthodox members of Barak's government said they would resign from the coalition, in part because work related to the deal was done on the Jewish Sabbath.