JERUSALEM -- Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization formally ended three decades of bitter conflict yesterday and set the Middle East on a hopeful course for peace.
They agreed to mutual recognition and pledged an end to the hostilities that led to five wars, made enemies of neighbors and left thousands dead. The movement toward reconciliation between the two sides was unthinkable only months ago.
The events of the last several weeks are "inaugurating a new epoch of peaceful coexistence, free from violence and all other acts which endanger peace and stability," PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat declared in a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Letters whisked by a Norwegian diplomat from Paris to Tunis, Tunisia, were to be signed today by two old and suspicious foes who spent the better part of their lives trying to destroy each other.
Mr. Rabin, who once ordered soldiers to break the bones of Palestinians and had declared that "the PLO without terrorism is not the PLO," acknowledged yesterday that he had been forced to change his mind.
"I have reached the conclusion that there is no other Palestinian partner than the PLO," he said. "You don't make peace with friends. You make peace with very unsympathetic enemies."
The letters, which were released last night, end an era in which both sides refused to admit the legitimacy of the other. The PLO, long committed to elimination of the Jewish state, formally recognized the right of Israel to exist "in peace and security."
Israel for the first time recognized the Palestinians as a national people with political rights, and it acknowledged the PLO as "the representative of the Palestinian people."
The PLO also said it "renounces the use of terrorism and other acts of violence" and promised to control PLO members "to assure their compliance . . . and discipline violators."
Israel considers that a declaration of the end of the intifada, six years of turbulent confrontation in which Israelis killed 1,100 Palestinians, and Palestinians killed 150 Israelis.
"With the signing of the documents, an appeal will be made to all inhabitants of the territories that they refrain from all acts of violence against Israelis," said Israel's police minister, Moshe Shahal.
"The Palestinians will have to deal with this issue. They will do it with their own police force, their own public."
The exchange of letters yesterday was the first in a line of diplomatic steps that could lead to the rarest of events here: peace.
The United States announced yesterday that after the letters were signed, it would resume formal discussions with the PLO, which were broken off in 1990.
A second agreement may be signed Monday to turn over Jericho and the Gaza Strip, areas occupied by Israel since 1967, to Palestinians. It also would start a five-year process to give autonomy over their homeland to 2 million Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
It also may clear the way for Israeli agreements with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, and eventually for diplomatic recognition by other Arab nations.
The Israeli letter was to be signed in Jerusalem this morning at a ceremony at 9 a.m. (3 a.m. EDT). The Israeli Cabinet approved the documents and gave Mr. Rabin authority to sign them yesterday. In Tunis, the executive committee of the PLO debated long into the night before authorizing Mr. Arafat's signatures on the letters. Reuters reported that Mr. Arafat signed his letter last night.
In the letters, the PLO said the provisions of its covenant "which deny Israel's right to exist . . . are now inoperative." It promised to convene the full Palestinian National Council for "formal approval" of the changes -- a requirement of the charter.
Israeli officials hoped to complete the signing last night, but time ran out on the globe-trotting efforts of Norwegian Foreign Minister Johan Jorgen Holst.
Final details in Paris
The Norwegian diplomat, who played host to secret negotiations in Oslo leading to the breakthrough, oversaw agreement on the final details at the Bristol Hotel in Paris yesterday morning before jetting to Tunis, intending to proceed from there to Tel Aviv.
But the PLO executive committee did not finish its deliberations until nearly midnight, finally giving Mr. Arafat the authority to sign the documents.
Mr. Holst was reported early this morning to be en route to Israel with the papers.
The historic agreements promised to shake up the Middle East, and their tremors already overtook other events here yesterday.
About half the Palestinian deportees sent by Israel to southern Lebanon in December were returned to Israel yesterday.
The deportations had caused an international crisis that helped paralyze the public Mideast negotiations, but their return yesterday was greeted only by a few Israeli demonstrators on the road from southern Lebanon.