"HONOURABLE guests. The signing of the historic Gaza Jericho agreement will now begin," announced a lilting voice, as a polystyrene sphinx looked on.
The pristine documents drawn up during seven months of negotiations were positioned, stage right, on a gold- leaf table.
Standing on the platform were the "heroes and brave men of peace", as Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian President and host of the party, described the principal actors - Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, and Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. A mirage of electric stars twinkled happily, and the scene seemed set for the march of Middle East history.
All, however, was not well. Neither peace-maker seemed ready to sign. Then Mr Arafat moved forward. Some documents he signed, but others he pushed away. Israeli aides in the chamber froze. Mr Rabin took his turn at the desk, but after a flourish or two of the pen he was back in line, his jowls as red as the handkerchief in Mr Mubarak's top pocket. "Crisis. This is a crisis," the Israeli aides murmured.
At the podium, Warren Christopher, US Secretary of State, performed his part. "This agreement has tested our faith in the power of reasoned compromise," he intoned, oblivious to the drama.
The 2,000 dignitaries in the audience dutifully clapped. But the men standing in the wings broke ranks. "Negotiations are still going on after the agreement has been signed," said Bill Delaney, the CNN correspondent.
Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, pleaded with Mr Arafat to go back and sign the disputed document. But with a wave of his arm, Mr Arafat showed the world even now …