TUNIS, Tunisia — 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."