THE Middle East's most bitter enemies, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), agreed yesterday to recognize each other, breaking down the last obstacle to their historic peace accord.
Mutual recognition, brokered in last-minute talks by Norwegian Foreign Minister Johan Joergen Holst, ends nearly three decades of attempts by each side to deny the other's legitimacy. The path now seems clear for Monday's planned ceremony in the White House to seal the Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty.
PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat was due to sign a letter that had been negotiated by close aides with Israeli officials in Paris, recognizing the Jewish state's right to exist, pledging not to use violence in pursuit of Palestinian goals, and urging his people to open a new and peaceful chapter in their relations with Israelis.
In return, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said he was ready to acknowledge the PLO's claim to represent the Palestinian people, after 30 years of denouncing it as nothing more than a terrorist gang.
Mr. Rabin admitted to ``butterflies in my stomach'' at the prospect, and told members of his Labor party faction in the Knesset (parliament) that he would not ``try to beautify the PLO. It was an enemy. It still is an enemy.''
News of the mutual recognition deal sounded alarm bells among Israel's right-wing opposition.
``It is becoming clear we are facing a PLO-led state in our immediate vicinity,'' said former Ambassador to Washington Zalman Shoval.
Peace activists welcomed the move. ``Now that we have recognized each other as peoples, I'm hopeful all the other details can be resolved,'' said Yael Tamir, a Peace Now movement leader.
The letter recognizing Israel was the trump card Mr. Arafat has been holding up his sleeve for 30 years, and marked the first time he has committed himself in writing to Israel's right to exist.
It is also the first time he has renounced violence in writing, offering Israel clearer assurances than his verbal denunciation of terrorism five years ago, which did not halt guerrilla attacks by PLO forces.
Rabin's reciprocal letter, expected to be sent to PLO headquarters Thursday night, likewise marked the end of Israel's drive to destroy the PLO, a campaign that has included the assassination of Palestinian leaders and efforts to undermine the organization's influence among Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Those efforts ultimately proved futile, as Rabin acknowledged Thursday. ``I reached the conclusion there is no Palestinian partner besides the PLO,'' he told Labor colleagues in the Knesset.
Haggling over the wording of Arafat's letter had been intense all week and continued Thursday morning, as Palestinian negotiators balked at Israel's demand that the PLO call a halt to the intifadah, the six-year-old uprising against Israeli occupation.
In the end, Palestinian sources said, the PLO committed itself not to use violence against Israel, a compromise Israel accepted.
The PLO's acknowledgement of Israel's ``right to live in peace'' also proved acceptable, sources close to the talks said, although Israel had initially demanded recognition of its ``right to exist.''
Although the Israelis had earlier said they would not recognize the PLO until the organization formally revoked the clauses in its charter that call for the destruction of the State of Israel, negotiators accepted that it would take too long to convene the Palestinian National Council (PNC), a parliament-in-exile, the only body with the constitutional authority to alter the charter.
Instead, Arafat has declared those clauses are no longer valid, and pledged that the PNC will revoke them when it meets next.
But most of the concessions appear to have come from the Palestinian side, in return for the fact of Israeli recognition.
Sources in Tunis said Arafat had been unable to win Israeli recognition of the PLO's historic description of itself as ``the sole legitimate'' representative of the Palestinian people, and had to make do with a looser formulation.
The PLO negotiators also failed to secure Israeli recognition of the Palestinians' ``national rights'' or ``right to self determination'' - phrases taken in the coded language of Middle East peace talks to mean the right to statehood.
Instead, Tunis won only recognition of the Palestinians' ``political rights,'' which does not close the door to statehood, but does not open it either.
Although the letter recognizing Israel was finalized with Arafat's blessing yesterday afternoon, the PLO chairman still had to win approval for it from the 18-man PLO Executive Committee, which was due to meet again in Tunis late last night to continue its debate on the peace accord that Israeli and PLO officials reached in secret talks in Norway.
Though the debate is likely to be stormy, Arafat is expected to get his way.