In an unprecedented move toward ending the Middle East's most enduring conflict, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization agreed on mutual recognition Thursday, declaring their intent to begin living not as enemies but as neighbors.
The agreement, the most important breakthrough since Israel was fashioned out of the territory of Palestine in 1948, does not assure permanent peace but for the first time underscores both sides' readiness to coexist in a region convulsed by their conflict for most of this century.
PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, who won his campaign for legitimacy after nearly three decades of being branded an outlaw and a terrorist, called for "a new epoch of peaceful coexistence" with Israel. He reaffirmed, in the strongest terms he has ever used, the recognition of Israel's right to exist in peace and security and the PLO's renunciation of terrorism and other forms of violence.
And for the first time, the PLO said it would convene a session of the Palestine National Council to enshrine those pledges in the PLO covenant.
Arafat, described as solemn after a combative session with his top leadership, signed the recognition agreement shortly before midnight. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose inner Cabinet approved a recognition of the PLO earlier in the day, signed it this morning.
"I feel privileged to have been a part of making history, and I think this is a momentous event for the world, for the Middle East and for all of us," Norwegian Foreign Minister Johan Jorgen Holst said after obtaining Arafat's signature.
Holst had helped negotiate the agreement during several days of intensive negotiations in Paris between the PLO and Israeli officials.
The accord and the accompanying plan for Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho have been a bitter pill for the PLO, which is accepting the possibility of building a Palestinian state in the occupied territories at the expense of its historic claims to the land that is now Israel.
The PLO's de facto foreign minister, Farouk Kaddoumi, who has expressed grave reservations about any move to wind down the intifada --the Palestinian uprising in the Israeli occupied territories--before the Israeli occupation ends did not attend the signing ceremony.
Arafat mustered a 10-2 majority on the PLO Executive Committee, a spokesman said, to approve the recognition statement. Arafat argued that, for now, it is the best the Palestinians can hope for and could mean a new era of peace and nationhood for coming generations of Palestinians.
The committee postponed a final vote on the overall peace plan until this morning, but the plan was expected to gain approval without further delay.
In perhaps the most difficult step he has made since he embarked on his course toward peace with Israel, the former guerrilla leader--whose trademarks are combat fatigues and a pistol at his side--took a step toward turning the course of the 5-year-old intifada , urging Palestinians to work toward reconstruction of their homeland and to avoid violence.
"In light of the new era marked by the signing of the Declaration of Principles, the PLO encourages and calls upon the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to take part in the steps leading to the normalization of life, rejecting violence and terrorism, contributing to peace and stability and participating actively in shaping reconstruction, economic development and cooperation," Arafat said in a letter outlining the public statements he plans to make to accompany the recognition.
Equally important, the PLO also pledged that it will act to prevent violations of the new commitment to peace and discipline those who violate it.
But some PLO leaders emphasized that the intifada will never end as long as Israeli troops occupy Arab lands on the West Bank. "So long as there is an occupation, the right of the Palestinian people to fight against it, mainly peacefully, would continue," said PLO Executive Committee member Suleiman Najjab, who nonetheless endorsed the peace plan.
Israel's inner Cabinet had approved the agreement even before Arafat signed it and had authorized recognition of the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. It was a move that might have been unthinkable even earlier this year, when public peace talks in Washington were mired in mutual recriminations.
In Jerusalem, news of the agreement triggered a series of strong, emotional reactions. Those favoring the accord seemed gripped by a sense of excitement tempered by anxiety at the historic turn of events, which raised the prospect of altering permanently their nation's destiny.
"I will say openly--I had butterflies in my stomach," Rabin confessed to a meeting of his Labor Party colleagues when informed that the agreement was complete. "Here we are . . . a test case for the Palestinians and us, to test our capability to coexist."
Rabin is scheduled today to initial a letter extending Israeli recognition of the PLO as "the representative of the Palestinian people" and pledging to begin talks with the group as part of the Mideast peace process.
While some members of Rabin's Cabinet focused on the historic nature of the moment after giving their formal approval to the accord at an early evening meeting, others clearly struggled to grasp the enormity of what was unfolding.
Economics Minister Shimon Shetreet, one of two ministers to abstain during a Cabinet vote last Monday approving the broad Declaration of Principles providing for Israel's withdrawal from the occupied territories, admitted that even though all the major points seemed to be covered, he found approval "psychologically difficult."
"We're all in a situation of adjusting to revolutionary changes," he explained. But he added: "We have to take the chance for peace."
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, one of the agreement's principal architects, declared that "the things Israel stood fast on were achieved."
Earlier in the day, he defended the rapprochement with the PLO during a heated debate in the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset.
"No more war, no more terror, no more violence, peace will rule," Peres said. "And we will help the Palestinians so that it will be good for our neighbor, so that we can have a good neighbor."
Peres at times was forced to speak above the taunts of those vigorously opposing the agreement, led by the opposition Likud Party.
"You did not get a mandate for this," shouted Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, his neck straining at his shirt collar. "Turn to the voter and let him decide."
Ariel Sharon, who as former Likud housing minister vigorously promoted Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, called the agreement a great victory for the Arabs. "They have today established a Palestinian state," Sharon said.
The anger in the Likud ranks reflected the larger frustration among opponents of the agreement as they were forced to confront their failure to turn the tide of events that had so quickly overwhelmed them. Outside Rabin's office, hundreds of Israelis opposed to the accord blew whistles and banged sheet metal in a third day of protest.
Peres earlier had told a meeting of Labor Party Parliament members that he and Rabin had worked through the night to resolve the final, delicate points on the issue of mutual recognition.
By early Thursday, negotiations reportedly had narrowed to the wording of the PLO's renunciation of violence and a formula for calling a halt to the intifada .
The historic breakthrough came after Israeli and PLO officials more than 10 months ago began a long series of face-to-face meetings, conducted secretly at secluded estates in Oslo, far from the limelight of Middle Eastern capitals. The talks geared up in April, even as official peace talks in Washington were flagging, and late last month produced a tentative agreement for Palestinian self-rule in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The plan's key provision is early Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho, where PLO fighters will take over as an internal police force, and the PLO will begin a new administrative government. The final status of the occupied territories is to be determined in later talks.
Opponents--some of them so angry that they boycotted the Executive Committee meeting--argued that Arafat was selling out the Palestinian struggle for a plan that provides no firm guarantees for the rest of the West Bank outside Jericho, nor for the crucial issues of Jerusalem and the Israeli settlements.
"We could have gotten a solution like this in 1948 without firing a single bullet," said a longtime friend of Arafat who was born in a refugee camp in Lebanon. "I'm witnessing the rape of my rights, but I'm also witnessing history."
Two of the PLO's major factions, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, refused to attend the Executive Committee meetings. The Democratic Front has warned that the peace plan is a device by the Israelis to create civil war among the Palestinians.
Arafat's own moderate faction within the PLO, Fatah, also had misgivings about the plan, though a majority backed it.
Holst, the Norwegian foreign minister, said that Arafat "has shown that he has a tremendous grasp of historical necessity and that what is necessary also has to be made possible."
PLO supporters of the peace plan have said they believe that Gaza and Jericho can be used as a base from which to build the beginnings of a Palestinian state on the West Bank, expanding as mutual confidence develops between Israelis and Palestinians and new economic institutions are fashioned.
Rabin's condition for PLO recognition was a change in the very nature of the PLO from a military organization bent on the destruction of Israel to a political organization forging a path toward co-existence.
The Israeli prime minister had demanded "a commitment by the PLO chairman . . . to turn to the residents of the territories and to tell them a new era has begun, an era of reconciliation, building and cooperation, and especially opposition to violence and terror."
Though the PLO has pledged to convene the Palestine National Council to incorporate its new commitments, PLO sources said it will likely not be called until after elections in the occupied territories. Those elections are envisioned under the peace plan to set up a new administrative council and presumably to fill vacant positions designated for the occupied territories on the 460-member national council.
Such a delay will almost certainly boost the receptivity of the council, which in its makeup now would very possibly respond with hostility to any changes in the Palestinian charter. The covenant declares that "armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine. Thus it is the overall strategy and not merely a tactical phase."
Palestinians, during the weeks of negotiations, have said they have already made their most important pronouncements toward peace in earlier declarations calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state on any land from which Israeli troops withdraw; recognizing the right of all nations of the Middle East to exist in peace and security, and renouncing terrorism.
They have embraced United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338 calling for Israel to withdraw from territories occupied during the 1967 war and for an end to hostilities: land for peace.
But Israelis have demanded that the official recognition go further than the equivocal statements that Arafat made in a 1988 address to the U.N. General Assembly and a subsequent press conference that preceded the PLO's short-lived official dialogue with the United States.
During that famous declaration in Geneva, Arafat stated that the PLO had ceased all terrorist activity but would continue the intifada until a Palestinian state was established. For years, Israel went on complaining that the PLO was continuing military activity against Israel that could be construed as terrorism and said the PLO was still bent on wiping out the Jewish state.
The PLO, for its turn, complained that Israel was attempting, by refusing to negotiate with it, to blind the world to the fact that it was the PLO that represented the Palestinian people.
Times staff writer Tyler Marshall, in Jerusalem, contributed to this report.
From Conflict to Peace
Key dates in Israel's relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
* 1964: Founding of the PLO as an umbrella organization that sets as its main goal destroying Israel and gaining control over all of Palestine. * 1965: Founding of Fatah, a major component of the PLO that advocates armed struggle against Israel. Yasser Arafat becomes Fatah leader and eventually PLO chairman. * October, 1974: Arab summit recognizes the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of Palestinians. * June, 1982: Israel invades Lebanon, pushing PLO guerrillas north. In an Israeli siege of Beirut in the fall, 15,000 PLO guerrillas are forced out and scattered throughout the Arab world. * August, 1986: Israel bars Israelis from meeting PLO members. * December, 1987: A revolt against Israeli occupation erupts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. * November, 1988: The PLO declares statehood in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. * December, 1988: Arafat recognizes Israel's right to exist and renounces terror. * October, 1991: Start of U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace talks. PLO remains outside, but openly advises the Palestinian delegation. * Jan. 19, 1993: Parliament abolishes the law barring Israelis from meeting PLO members. * Aug. 29, 1993: Foreign Minister Shimon Peres tells Cabinet he has reached agreement with the PLO on Palestinian self-rule in the occupied lands.
Source: Times wire services
Here is the text of letters exchanged between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat that detail their mutual recognition. Arafat also sent a letter to Norwegian Foreign Minister Johan Jorgen Holst, the mediator in the agreement, outlining a statement Arafat plans to make calling for an end to violence.
Mr. Prime Minister,
The signing of the Declaration of Principles marks a new era in the history of the Middle East. In firm conviction thereof, I would like to confirm the following PLO commitments:
The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.
The PLO accepts United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.
The PLO commits itself to the Middle East peace process, and to a peaceful resolution of the conflict between the two sides and declares that all outstanding issues relating to permanent status will be resolved through negotiations.
The PLO considers that the signing of the Declaration of Principles constitutes a historic event, inaugurating a new epoch of peaceful coexistence, free from violence and all other acts which endanger peace and stability. Accordingly, the PLO renounces the use of terrorism and other acts of violence and will assume responsibility over all PLO elements and personnel in order to assure their compliance, prevent violations and discipline violators.
In view of the promise of a new era and the signing of the Declaration of Principles and based on Palestinian acceptance of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, the PLO affirms that those articles of the Palestinian Covenant which deny Israel's right to exist, and the provisions of the Covenant which are inconsistent with the commitments of this letter are now inoperative and no longer valid. Consequently, the PLO undertakes to submit to the Palestinian National Council for formal approval the necessary changes in regard to the Palestinian Covenant.
The Palestine Liberation Organization
In response to your letter of September 9, 1993, I wish to confirm to you that, in light of the PLO commitments included in your letter, the Government of Israel has decided to recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and commence negotiations with the PLO within the Middle East peace process.
Prime Minister of Israel
* RELATED STORIES: A12, A15