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From the Archives: Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Yasser Arafat accept Nobel Peace Prize for Israeli-Palestinian accord

Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, left, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, right, receive the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo's City hall on Dec. 10, 1994.
Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, left, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, right, receive the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo’s City hall on Dec. 10, 1994.
(Jerome Delay / Associated Press)

They had fought as soldiers and negotiated as politicians, but when they received the Nobel Peace Prize here Saturday the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians spoke as the prophets and even the poets of the peace they seek for the Middle East.

“We wake up every morning now as different people,” Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said. “Suddenly, peace is possible. We see the hope in our children’s eyes. We see the light in our soldiers’ faces, in the streets, in the buses, in the fields. We must not let them down. We will not let them down.”

Together with his co-winners, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Rabin renewed his commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian problem and with it the broader, decades-old Middle East conflict.

The Nobel Prize was not awarded to the three, Arafat said, “to crown an endeavor that we have completed but rather to encourage us to continue on a road that we have started, to continue it with broader strides and with a genuine determination to convert the option of peace--this peace of the brave--from words to reality.”

Rabin and Arafat met later Saturday night to discuss the Palestinian elections that are to be accompanied by Israel’s pullback of troops in the occupied West Bank and the transfer of governmental powers there to the Palestinian Authority that Arafat heads.

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Addressing the awards ceremony in Oslo’s City Hall, Arafat called upon Rabin and Peres to “accelerate the peace process, giving it a more comprehensive and strategic vision” in the current negotiations on Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank.

The core of the negotiations is a political equation that will extend Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank but preserve Israeli security, both for the Jewish settlements there and in Israel itself.

Both Arafat and Rabin, conscious of the balance that must be struck, warned against “mistakes (that) could topple the whole structure and bring disaster down upon us,” as the Israeli leader put it.

The award, among the world’s most prestigious, recognized the boldness and courage of the three men 15 months ago in fashioning the basic accord on Palestinian self-government as a step toward ending a long-term conflict.

That agreement, the product of months of secret negotiations in Oslo and in guest houses in the Norwegian countryside, brought a fundamental shift in Middle East politics.

Where the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1979, marked acceptance of the Jewish state in the Middle East by the biggest and most powerful Arab nation, the deal struck by Arafat and Rabin reflected the acceptance by Palestinians and Israelis of each other as neighbors in a land both have claimed as their own.

“The accord opened up a possible way out of the vicious circle of violence breeding violence and toward peaceful coexistence,” said Francis Sejersted, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, holding it out as a possible example for resolving intractable conflicts in other regions.

“In a situation marked by war and hatred, (the three leaders) had to take the risk of showing their opposite numbers at least a minimum of trust, trust that the peace feelers were genuine, confidence that if they offered an outstretched hand, there would be someone there to take it,” he added.

“On that bet, they staked their political lives. That takes great courage.”

In presenting the prizes, Sejersted rejected criticism that the award was premature because the region is far from peace and that Arafat as PLO chairman was undeserving because of past terrorism, saying the intent was “not to judge or hand out certificates of good conduct but simply to reward practical work for peace.”

Peres, however, said that it is “fitting that the prize has been awarded to Yasser Arafat. His abandonment of the path of confrontation in favor of the path of dialogue has opened the way to peace.”

About 200 demonstrators, mostly from right-wing Israeli and American Jewish groups opposed to the agreement with the PLO, protested outside the ceremony, shouting “Shame! Shame!” and jeering Rabin and Peres as well as Arafat as they came out.

Central Oslo was turned into a fortress over the weekend to contain the protests and to prevent attacks by militants of any stripe. Bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled the streets, and the prizewinners were protected by police sharpshooters.

But in the Grand Hotel where both delegations were housed, Palestinian and Israeli officials enjoyed meals together, talked over coffee and greeted each other with hugs and slaps on the back, all evidence of the new relationship.

In their speeches of acceptance, the three leaders reflected on the pain of all the years of conflict, the difficulties of peacemaking, the terrifying uncertainty of whether it will work and the hopes for the future.

Although still the crusty general, Rabin grew sentimental as he recalled how he had wanted to be a water engineer but spent decades in the military, defending his young country and, as a commander, giving the orders that sent thousands into battles from which they would not return.

“Of all the memories I have stored up in my 72 years, what I shall remember the most, to my last days, are the silences--the heavy silence after (ordering an attack) and the terrifying silence of the moment before (it occurs),” Rabin said.

Similar, he said, was “that moment of great tension just before the finger pulls the trigger, just before the fuse begins to burn. In the terrible quiet of that moment, there is still time to wonder, to wonder alone: Is it really imperative to act? Is there no other choice? No other way?”

For Rabin, the answer is peace. A real peace with its neighbors, Rabin continued, will protect Israel in a way that its armed forces have not been able to, and only a real peace will permit Israel to obey fully the biblical injunction to preserve “the sanctity of life.”

“There is only radical means of sanctifying human lives,” he said. “That one radical solution is peace, a real peace.”

Peres, 71, who for more than 20 years has sought peace for Israel with its Arab neighbors, said: “There was a time when war was fought for lack of choice. Today, it is peace that is the ‘no-choice’ option for all of us.

“Countries used to divide the world into their friends and foes. No longer. The foes are now universal--poverty, famine, religious radicalization, desertification, drugs, proliferation of nuclear weapons, ecological devastation. They threaten all nations, just as science and information are the potential friends of all nations.”

Arafat, 65, praised the steps that Israel and the PLO have taken toward peace as vital moves toward full Palestinian self-determination--and toward full Arab acceptance of Israel in the Middle East.

“Peace will enable the Palestinian people in a just and tranquil atmosphere to realize their legitimate goals for independence and sovereignty and achieve their national and cultural presence in neighborly relations, mutual respect and cooperation with the Israeli people,” Arafat said.

“They in turn would be enabled by peace to articulate their Middle East identity, to open economically and culturally to their Arab neighbors. The Arabs, on their part, look forward to the development of their region, which has been prevented by long wars from finding its real place in today’s world with prosperous, democratic and pluralistic systems.”

The Nobel prizes are awarded annually in the sciences, literature and economics as well as in recognition of peace efforts. Established by Alfred Nobel, the Swedish entrepreneur who invented dynamite, the prizes are awarded each year on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death. The peace prize is presented in Oslo, the others in Stockholm.

The three men shared a cash award of about $950,000.


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