WASHINGTON — As the leading actors converged Sunday on Washington, the Clinton Administration put the finishing touches on an extravagant ceremony for today's historic signing of the Israel-PLO peace accord.
Thousands of guests are expected to attend the signing on the South Lawn of the White House, starting at 8 a.m. PDT. But the planned sequel--a dinner tonight at the White House--will be held without the two leading parties because the Israeli leaders plan to leave Washington to return home within hours after the ceremony.
Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat was the first to arrive in Washington, smiling and without his customary side arm, for his first meeting with his enemy of a lifetime, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
"We are very happy to come in this historic moment so we can make peace," Arafat said as he arrived at sun-drenched Andrews Air Force Base outside the capital. He was dressed in his trademark black-and-white kaffiyeh, but in place of his usual green combat fatigues he wore a military-style dress uniform. The pistol that was on his hip when he left Tunis, Tunisia, had vanished.
A senior Administration official said that Arafat would not be armed today because no one would be allowed to carry firearms into the White House.
Rabin left Jerusalem for Washington after asserting that his army could oust the planned Palestinian government "in a moment" if the peace plan went sour and the Palestinians threatened Israel's security.
As Rabin and Arafat prepared to make peace, violence flared in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, leaving eight dead, as militants opposed to the Israel-PLO accord staged a bloody effort to derail it.
Members of the Islamic fundamentalist movement Hamas ambushed an army jeep, which crashed into a mosque wall near Gaza City, killing three Israeli soldiers. In another attack, a Palestinian rammed a car loaded with gas cans into an Israeli prison-service bus, killing himself and injuring two Israelis. A terrorist with grenades strapped to his body boarded a bus and fatally stabbed the driver before being shot to death by a reserve soldier on the bus. Two other Palestinians also died, one when a grenade he was carrying exploded as he tried to escape Israeli soldiers.
More than 3,000 guests are expected for today's White House ceremony, including 10 foreign ministers, U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the president of the European Community, former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George Bush, congressional leaders and a host of former secretaries of state.
In a carefully crafted script, President Clinton will greet Rabin and Arafat inside the White House about an hour before the ceremony. This will also be the first face-to-face meeting between Rabin and Arafat.
Rabin and Arafat are clearly the stars of the show, but the accord, calling for Palestinian self-government in the Gaza Strip and Jericho, will be signed by aides--Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and one of Arafat's top advisers, Mahmoud Abbas. Peres and Abbas, better known as Abu Maazen, negotiated the agreement in secret talks in Oslo. Rabin and Secretary of State Warren Christopher insisted that it is customary for foreign ministers to sign such agreements and that Rabin and Arafat are as committed to its provisions as they would have been if they had signed the accord themselves.
The sheer size of the gathering and the security preparations that accompanied it lent an air of unreality to an event that already seemed astonishing. A senior White House official remarked that he had spent his entire adult life watching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and never expected to see it end.
The Israel-PLO signing is expected to be followed quickly, probably Tuesday, by the announcement that Israel and Jordan have completed a "framework agreement" for a peace treaty that would clear the way for economic, environmental and other forms of cooperation between them. The Israel-Jordan pact was completed months ago, but King Hussein refused to approve it until progress was shown in the Israel-PLO negotiations.
Just before he left Jerusalem, Rabin appealed for "several hundred million dollars" in increased aid from the United States or other wealthy countries to reimburse Israel for evacuating its forces from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and to pay other costs of implementing his government's side of the peace accord.
But he brushed aside suggestions that the United States or the United Nations might be asked to send troops to help ensure the peace.
"Forget about U.N. troops," Rabin said. "No U.N. troops, no foreign troops will be included in this agreement."