Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat signed a breakthrough land-for-security agreement Saturday designed to put in force accords reached in the United States last year.
Barak and Arafat shook hands enthusiastically before and after signing the documents. Both men kissed U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, one of three witnesses who signed the accords.
The ceremony was the highlight of a Middle East tour by Ms. Albright, which included visits Saturday to Syria and Lebanon before coming to Sharm el-Sheikh.
In Damascus, she heard optimistic words from Syrian President Hafez Assad about wanting to return to the peace table with Israel but with a caveat that Israel must be prepared to return all of the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for peace.
In a surprise trip to Lebanon, she became the first secretary of state to land at Beirut International Airport since George Shultz in 1983.
During the signing ceremony, Ms. Albright, who had nudged Barak and Arafat into an agreement Friday, said she has found in the Mideast an improved climate for peace that must be nourished through creativity and flexibility on all sides.
"Negotiations can produce gains that alternatives cannot," she said at this Red Sea resort. "The fact that Israelis and Palestinians negotiated this pact directly is a rich source of hope for the future."
She repeated that idea in her talk after the signing, then warned: "A great task has been completed. An even larger one remains."
Key to achieving it, she said, is to implement what has been signed. "If you ask the average Palestinian or the average Israeli, he will tell you, 'Implementation is what counts.' "
Lack of the political will to implement earlier accords had led to a three-year stalemate in Middle East peacemaking.
Barak, who became prime minister in July after winning last spring's elections, emphasized that the accords are meant to end violence and suffering in the region. "There has been too much bitter conflict," he said.
Arafat, whose acquiescence to the strongly contested accords has met with anger among a large number of Palestinians, was likewise conciliatory. He called Barak "my new partner in the peace process."
But he repeated that Palestinians are determined "to build our independent Palestinian state, with our capital in holy Jerusalem."
Israel insists that Jerusalem is and always will be its capital.
Arafat demanded an end to all Jewish settlement activity on the West Bank and to Israeli confiscation of
Arab property and demolition of homes.
President Clinton at the Camp David, Md., mountain retreat said the breakthrough "represents a wonderful opportunity to move the peace process forward."
Before the principals signed the leather-bound documents, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, an active participant in the peace process and host of the signing ceremony, warned that the process is a long one.
But, he said, "with vision and determination, the success which has been achieved in the last few days can be built on."
The accord, to implement last year's U.S.-brokered agreement reached at Wye River, Md., takes effect today when Barak submits it to his Cabinet. He forwards the agreement later in the week to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, which is being recalled from summer recess for a special session.
Under the agreement, Israel will begin this month to relinquish in three stages another 11 percent of land it holds in the West Bank, completing the withdrawal by Jan. 20.
A final peace agreement would be reached by September 2000, settling the most difficult questions of control of Jerusalem and possible Palestinian statehood.
Ms. Albright said she was encouraged by her talks in Damascus with Assad and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa. But she was unable to set a target date for resumption of negotiations between Syria and Israel after a three-year lapse.
"We must help find the right way for Israel to resume negotiations with Syria and Lebanon," she said.
A senior U.S. official close to the talks said Ms. Albright or other American mediators may have to undertake shuttle diplomacy in the weeks ahead to find a common ground for negotiations.
At his meeting with Ms. Albright, Assad praised Barak as an honorable leader and said he recognized that Israel's needs had to be accommodated in a settlement.
Ms. Albright said, "The light that came from (the) agreement should illuminate the whole region."
During her stop in Beirut, she added, "The question is whether regional leaders can develop concrete proposals that are flexible and creative and that will make it possible for the process to go forward."
Israel backs the diplomatic initiative with Syria. Foreign Minister David Levy said Friday in Jerusalem, "We would wish this path with Syria would be reopened. This is a time of good will. We should seize it."
Syrian Foreign Minister al-Sharaa said his country was prepared to talk peace on the basis of its recovery of the strategic Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.
He said he expects Barak to accept the condition, which Syria claims would fulfill a commitment made by the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
"We believe Prime Minister Barak belongs to the school of Rabin, and he considers Rabin his mentor, and he is going to follow his steps," he said. "We feel he is going to endorse what Rabin did."
Ms. Albright agreed that negotiations with Syria should be based on the principle of "land-for-peace" but would not say whether she agreed with al-Sharaa's comment that "we would like to resume where we left off." That implies the Golan commitment, which the United States has not confirmed.
In Beirut, Ms. Albright described her Mideast trip -- the first since Barak was elected in May -- as a way "to explore the possibilities for resuming progress toward a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including Lebanon."