Handshake crosses chasm of history

September 14, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Manners have always acknowledged the fine line between amity and enmity, and so the world waited anxiously to see if the two sworn foes, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, would actually shake hands.

"If the extended hand is refused," the old wisdom goes, "the mere closing of the fingers changes it into a fist."

Asked Sunday by a television reporter if he would shake, Mr. Rabin seemed to flinch from the idea. "If it will be needed," he said.

When the moment finally came, Mr. Arafat stepped forward and reached past President Clinton, extending his hand to Mr. Rabin. Mr. Clinton touched Mr. Rabin, almost seeming to nudge him to accept the proffered hand.

The old enemies' eyes met.

They shook hands.

Letitia Baldrige, a leading authority on manners who has taught the art of the handshake, heartily approved of the gesture that sealed the peace treaty.

"We need that warm, human contact," she said. Not just the touch, but the eyes at the same time, expressing "a givingness, not a withholdingness."

"Whoever gets the hand out first is the hero," she said. "I think it was great when Arafat crossed over."

Along with everybody else, Bruce Knauft, an anthropologist at Emory University in Atlanta, watched and wondered.

"Touching and eye contact are important markers of reconciliation," says Mr. Knauft. "In a situation of extreme possible risk for both parties, it's a physical demonstration that touch is not harmful."

When Mr. Arafat and Mr. Rabin touched, they reached across a long, bloody history. Never far away was the memory of Egyptian Prime Minister Anwar Sadat, slain three years after signing a similar peace accord.

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