Yitzhak, Yasir—and Yair?

updated 09/27/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/27/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

DOLLY LEVI WAS GOOD, BUT, HEY, SHE'S no Yair Hirschfeld. Levi—the marital matchmaker immortalized by Barbra Streisand in the film Hello, Dolly!—only managed to do the improbable, which was to get herself married. Hirschfeld, a rumpled, mild-mannered history professor at Israel's Haifa University, did the impossible: After a year of clandestine meetings, he helped bring together Palestine Liberation Organization President Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to exchange vows before a worldwide audience of millions, in Washington. "I felt quite excited and elevated sitting on the White House lawn," says Hirschfeld, who attended the historic ceremony.

It had been a very slow courtship. In 1982, Hirschfeld, at the request of his friend Yossi Beilin, a Labor Party politician, began an informal dialogue with the Palestinians. Last year, Beilin, by this time Israel's deputy foreign minister, tapped Hirschfeld as an unofficial go-between. The professor asked friendly diplomats in neutral Norway to provide a safe meeting ground for the talks.

After an initial encounter in a London hotel coffee shop with PLO Finance Minister Abu Ala in December 1992, Hirschfeld began meetings the following month in several locations in Norway. Beyond the handful of Israelis and Palestinians who were there, "less than a dozen people throughout the world knew what was going on," he says. The Israelis forged a trusting relationship with the Palestinians, dining, drinking wine and going for long walks in the woods together, where they would trade Middle Eastern jokes that their Norwcgian hosts could not understand. In the process, the already-portly Hirschfeld gained weight. "All that Norwegian food," he sighs. "I'm a nosher."

Eventually the group hammered out their agreement to phase in Palestinian self-rule in some Israeli occupied territories.

Born in New Zealand to Austrian Jewish parents who had fled there to escape Hitler, Hirschfeld always felt a responsibility to help shape Israel's future. His family returned to Vienna after World War II, and there he met his wife, Ruth Merdinger, now an occupational therapist. In 1967 the couple settled in Israel, where they have raised four children. Although she has seen little of him during the past year, Ruth isn't complaining. "It was worth it," she says.

Back home now, Hirschfeld is optimistic about the future he helped make possible. "The last 100 years were full of conflict for Israel," he says. "The next 100 years can now be about peace, prosperity and understanding."

DAVID ELLIS
SANDRA McELWAINE in Washington

From Our Partners