The historic Palestinian-Israeli signing here was almost the deal that wasn’t.
The drama unfolded on the stage of the cavernous International Conference Center when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin started to sign the six maps of Gaza and Jericho in a separate light blue folder but noticed that Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat’s signature was missing from the papers.
So Rabin didn’t sign them either.
For the next 45 minutes--as the whole world watched--the pact looked almost as if it would fall apart with the eight men on stage bickering, debating and huddling.
Mahmoud Abbas, the chief Palestinian mediator who is also known as Abu Maazen, and Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev continued their congratulatory speeches to the audience of 2,500.
But most eyes were fixed center-stage, where Arafat gesticulated angrily, his hand cutting through the air indicating he would not budge, as Rabin turned brighter and brighter shades of red.
Aides were summoned on stage. Documents were checked and consulted, pages taken to the signatories. But Arafat only grew more adamant and Rabin redder.
The problem turned out to be the six maps.
The Israeli-PLO negotiations had concluded at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday--little more than eight hours before the signing ceremony began. And while the agreement was reached in the wee hours, the final documents for Wednesday’s ceremonies were not finished by an American drafting team until after 8 a.m.
The early morning talks had ended with an agreement that the final size of Jericho would be left open for discussion, along with the issues of the Palestinian role at the Allenby Bridge to Jordan and the Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.
Arafat didn’t want to sign maps that he thought were final. Because of their production schedules, he also had not seen the color-coded maps of various zones in the two areas. “Since he hadn’t had a chance to see the maps, he feared that if he signed, he would preempt” discussion of them, explained a senior U.S. official involved in the last-minute crisis.
Marwan Kanafani, Arafat’s press adviser, explained: “He didn’t like the idea of signing a map without knowing and discussing it. . . . We know the area, we think it’s known, but signing the maps is a very complicated issue. It has to be discussed and measured.”
The Israelis said they had pledged to have continuing discussions; they said that Arafat was just posturing to reopen negotiations. Arafat countered that he did not need to sign something that was not in final form. “There was a very good chance that you would not have concluded” the accord on the day it was scheduled to be signed, the American official said.
The Israelis were so close to leaving the conference hall, American officials said, that their motorcade was brought around to the entrance.
Then, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, after consulting with his chief Mideast mediator, Dennis Ross, suggested a recess. The men walked off stage. In the end, the crisis was resolved in less than five minutes. Offstage, Rabin offered to write a letter guaranteeing that the maps would still be open for discussion. Arafat agreed.
The dignitaries then piled back on stage and watched what quickly became known as the “second signing.”
Even then, Arafat did more than just put his name on the disputed papers, Kanafani said. He said the PLO chairman wrote in: “Approval of these maps are pending, to be negotiated.”
That prompted a second series of scowls from Rabin. He insisted on having Arafat’s scrawl translated and read to him. But he still signed the maps.
“The whole world got to watch what has often gone on in the negotiations themselves. It’s been the most incredible negotiation anyone has ever been involved in,” said the American official, who has been a key player in the talks.
Rabin, at a news conference after the ceremony, said he had insisted all along that the 25-square-mile area of Jericho reflected in the agreement, although subject to further discussions, was what was being agreed to, including in the maps. “I made it clear that unless the maps will be signed, there will be no agreement,” he said.
But he said he agreed to send a letter affirming that there will be continuing discussions on the Jericho issue, as well as the question of a Palestinian border guard on the bridge between Jordan and the West Bank.
Wednesday’s accord totals 186 pages, which, he said, “demonstrates the level of detail that has gone into that process. It has been a difficult one. If there hadn’t been a deadline, you would have seen the discussion go on and on as more details emerged.”
Although negotiators were down to just seven unresolved issues a few days before the signing, the list had grown to 24 items on the eve of the signing.
American mediators, who had drawn up the negotiating agenda based on Christopher’s trip here last week, said that early Wednesday mediators were even debating whether to refer to driver’s license or driving license for documents in the new Palestinian entity.
“What happened at the end is symptomatic of what has been going on in an unbelievably complex discussion” on political, economic and security issues, the American official said.
Although all involved were concerned, the American official said there was little doubt that the deal would have eventually been signed.
“When you have negotiated (186) pages of a very complex text, the maps were an issue that would be settled,” he said.
But the tension was really broken when Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres took to the microphone to give his speech. “Once we had a dream before we had a map,” he said. “Now we have a map and a dream together.”