JERUSALEM — In a press of flesh some doubted would ever take place, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held talks for the first time with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat yesterday at the Erez checkpoint between Israel and the self-ruled Gaza Strip.
The mood leading up to the long-awaited summit was starkly different from the last key Middle East peacemakers' 1993 handshake on the White House lawn, when Israelis and Palestinians reached their interim agreement that was to end a century of enmity between the two peoples.
In those days, Mr. Netanyahu was already leading the opposition to the peace accords. He said he would never shake Mr. Arafat's hand, deeming him a "terrorist and a murderer."
But during his successful campaign in May elections for prime minister, Netanyahu backpedalled on that hard-line stance. He said he would "consider" meeting Arafat if he thought it was vital to Israel's security.
Since his election Netanyahu claimed that such a meeting could not take place until the Palestinian Authority stopped violating the accords and closed offices in East Jerusalem.
A recent crisis in relations - and an embarrassing offer by Israel's president, Ezer Weizman, to meet with Arafat if Netanyahu refused - had forced the meeting to the forefront of an agenda to prevent the faltering peace process from collapsing altogether.
Netanyahu's three-month stall on meeting Arafat now makes him look as if he has done so grudgingly, say Middle East analysts.
Though the delay may win the Israeli premier some points with his right-wing constituency, it is read by some Palestinians as an insult and may have damaged the air of goodwill that underpinned the peace process up to the election.
Leading up to the meeting, US diplomats were pressuring for the summit to be held as soon as possible, Israel Radio said. Netanyahu will meet with President Clinton next week, and government sources say the US wanted to see an Arafat-Netanyahu summit before the Israeli premier's arrival.
Proof that the US-sponsored Mideast peace process is back on track could serve as an extra gold star on Clinton's foreign policy report card, adding to Americans' widespread support for his decision to attack Iraqi military targets.
Though the Americans might take some of the credit for brokering the meeting, it is actually the Norwegians who have once again played a quiet, pivotal role in getting the two parties to work out their differences.
When relations seemed to be plunging towards breakdown last week, the two sides entered into secret, informal negotiations at the urging of Terje Larsen, a Norwegian who serves as the United Nations coordinator to the self-rule areas, and his wife Mona Juul, a diplomat at the Norwegian Embassy in Tel Aviv.
Mr. Larsen has a special claim to the peace process because he brokered the first meeting between Israeli negotiator Yossi Beilin and Palestine Liberation Organization official Ahmad Qorei. That ice-breaker led to continuous meetings outside the Norwegian capital that eventually resulted in the Oslo accords.
Larsen also has a special degree of neutrality and legitimacy among the two sides. Just as the Norwegian foreign ministry had provided homes in places like obscure Sarpsborg, Norway, for discussions, Larsen and Ms. Juul offered a private apartment in Tel Aviv away from the media glare.
As the Washington talks launched by the 1991 Madrid Conference, this so-dubbed "dark channel" had been so clandestine that even some top Israeli and PLO officials were unaware of it.
Larsen's key mediating role highlighted the extent to which the two parties are seeking help from the Norwegians instead of the Americans when it comes to real progress in peacemaking. According to some accounts, Netanyahu avoided dealing with the Americans because the Norwegians, hardly power-brokers, would not exert the kind of pressure Washington's envoys would.
The Palestinians see Clinton as reluctant to pressure Israel while he faces an election campaign at home. "The Americans are not neutral, they never were," says Marwan Kanafani, a spokesman in Arafat's office in Gaza, when asked about the Norwegian role.
At press time, it was not clear whether Arafat and Netanyahu would announce a breakthrough on major points of disagreement, including the promised Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank town of Hebron.
In the days before yesterday's meeting, the two were trying to draft a joint communique for the summit but were having difficulties agreeing upon the wording of the paper. The disagreements concerned Netanyahu's reluctance to make a commitment to carry out the accords because he wants to renegotiate the redeployment.