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Giving Peace A Chance

September 14, 1993|Michael Parks | Times Staff Writer

"To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven."

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's gravelly voice filled with emotion as he recited on the White House lawn from the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes.

"A time to be born and a time to die, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to love and a time to hate, a time of war and a time of peace."

In the Middle East, after more than a hundred years of conflict between Arabs and Jews, "The time for peace has come," Rabin said.

Rarely in the history of the strife-torn Middle East has there been such hope, and it has come with amazing speed, stunning the people of the region and confounding those who had seen the Arab-Israeli conflict as unending.

The vision is one of a Middle East where the threat of war is no longer the constant of politics, where conflicts no longer spill beyond the region to endanger international stability, where economies produce for their people to prosper, not to finance armies and weapons.

The vision is one of normal lives, a chance to grow up, to get an education, to build a career and to raise a family without the fear that all could be at risk without notice.

And it is a vision not just for Israelis and Palestinians but for the region as a whole, for the intractable Palestinian-Israeli dispute has been at the core of the Middle East conflict.

Although Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat stressed the difficulties in resolving a conflict that has defied peacemaking efforts for nearly 50 years, there was a mutual resolve, itself historic, to "give peace a real chance," Arafat said.

To others, however, these are false hopes, and they view the accord on Palestinian self-government signed on Monday not as a promise of peace but as an invitation to the greatest war the region has ever seen. The men who drafted it, the opponents say, will go down in history as traitors to their people and dangerous fools.

But for Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the time had come, as Rabin declared, to risk peace. "We who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today in a loud and clear voice: 'Enough of blood and tears. Enough!"'

Turning that conviction, felt by Palestinians and Israelis alike, into the complex agreement signed in Washington was itself a dramatic demonstration of the two sides' commitment to peace. On its way to the South Lawn of the White House, their journey wound from the deserts of the Middle East through the forests of Norway.

Part 1: THE OSLO CONNECTION

"To find solutions we had to break away."

*

Dinner was over, it was past 11 and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, visiting Oslo on a trip through Scandinavia, indicated that he wanted a final word with his host, Norwegian Foreign Minister Johan Jorgen Holst, before he retired for the night.

As other members of the Israeli delegation went to their rooms in the Foreign Ministry's Park Street guest house and their Norwegian counterparts left for home, Peres and Holst began quietly, almost on tiptoes, rearranging the furniture in the main hall.

What then unfolded in the early hours of Friday, Aug. 20, put the Middle East on a dramatic new course.

Holst and Peres, who had celebrated his 70th birthday that evening, set up three tables with chairs and put a few other chairs off to the side. The Norwegian foreign minister laid a gold pen on each table. Five Israeli officials, who had been working in another building, came in with their Norwegian colleagues. Champagne was brought in and opened.

The small group was then joined by Ahmed Suleiman Khoury, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization's financial organization, and three other senior PLO officials, arriving one at a time so they would not attract attention.

After short but emotional speeches, the Israeli and PLO representatives initialed a complex set of documents on Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

"We had been waiting to take this step toward peace for generations," Peres said later. "This was the first time, after a century of hostility and bloodshed, we and the Palestinians had signed an agreement. . . . One could see the outline of peace in the Middle East."

A Fateful Step

Uri Savir, 40, the director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who helped negotiate the documents and initialed them on behalf of Israel, said: "There was the weight of taking a very, very fateful step, but also the joy in anticipating the peace we believe that it will bring our peoples. For me, historic and dramatic don't begin to describe that moment."

But secret does describe what came to be called the Oslo Channel.

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