Pain of past yields to promise of future A DAY OF "HISTORY AND HOPE"

September 14, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- To be a witness to history yesterday was to share a moment of tremendous emotion and hope, a moment that brought a hush like no other to the South Lawn of the White House, a hush so still that you could almost hear the signatures being penned to the new Middle East peace agreement.

It was, said President Clinton, "one of history's defining dramas."

That drama, at its simplest, was a handshake between two foes grown old in the blood and bitterness of war. Hands that once took up arms against each other were now clasped in a sign of peace between Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, sign of reconciliation between Arab and Jew that all the world was waiting to see.

Sharing the experience at the White House were two former presidents, eight former secretaries of state and an assembled cast of international and national dignitaries, some reduced to tears by the poignancy and promise of it all.

At its loftiest, it was a day of vision, an occasion for turning to the Bible, the Torah, the Koran for words of sufficient wisdom.

From the Bible came this invocation: " 'Peace, peace to him that is far off and to him that is near,' sayeth the Lord. 'And I will hear.' "

The Koran offered this advice: "If the enemy inclines toward peace, do thou also incline toward peace."

And from Isaiah, this prophecy: "The cry of violence shall no more be heard in your land, nor rack nor ruin within your borders."

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres talked of "another genesis." Mr. Clinton even heard the trumpets sounding once more outside the walls of Jericho -- the "walls of anger and suspicion between Israeli and Palestinian, between Arab and Jew."

"This time," he said, "the trumpets herald not the destruction of that city but its new beginning."

There was, indeed, an epic sweep to the ceremony as "the children of Abraham, the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael" committed themselves to a new journey together, urged on by a protective United States and an anxious world.

An era of enmity gave way to hopes of a shared future as neighbors in an ancient land to which both peoples claim holy right, a land, as Mr. Clinton put it, "so drenched in warfare and hatred . . . that many believe the past would always have the upper hand."

Yesterday, the past finally was pushed aside for the future, represented at the ceremony by a group of Arab and Israeli children, the first in many generations who can, perhaps, look forward to secure and peaceful lives. Sitting with them was Chelsea Clinton, taking a day off from school for a living history lesson.

The group gave Mr. Clinton, Mr. Rabin and Mr. Arafat T-shirts from their summer camp, "Seeds for Peace," and the three leaders held them up for the assembled photographers.

"Let us dedicate ourselves today to your region's next generation," Mr. Clinton told the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians.

"We must not leave them prey to the politics of extremism and despair, to those who would derail this process because they cannot overcome the fears and hatreds of the past. We must not betray their future. For too long, the young of the Middle East have been caught in a web of hatred not of their own making. For too long, they have been taught from the chronicles of war. Now, we can give them the chance to know the season of peace."

But for all the cooperation on display, there was no masking the difficulties ahead, either in implementing the Israeli-Palestinian agreement or in extending it into a comprehensive peace between Arabs and Jews. But in the peaceful setting of the White House backyard, on a bright and sunny day, the mood was one of hope and determination.

If there was any hesitation in the handshake that symbolized what Mr. Clinton termed "this bold, new venture," it was understandable after the two leaders had spoken of the pain each people had inflicted on the other over the years.

Mr. Rabin was blunt: "This signing of the Israeli-Palestinian declaration of principles is not so easy, neither for myself as a soldier in Israel's war, nor for the people of Israel, nor for the Jewish people in the Diaspora who are watching us now with great hope mixed with apprehension.

"It is certainly not easy for the families of the victims of the wars, violence, terror, whose pain will never heal; for the thousands . . . who have even sacrificed their lives for our own. For them this ceremony came too late."

From Mr. Arafat, too, the agreement was cast against "a chapter of pain and suffering which has lasted throughout this century," the experiences of a people "wronged" and having suffered "an historic injustice."

Such was the pain at play on both sides, setting the parameters of the chasm of hatred and mistrust that the agreement bridged.

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