Getting a grip on the evolution of The Handshake

MIKE LITTWIN

September 15, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

If there's anything we can be sure of in the afterglow of the Mideast accord, it is that we haven't seen the last of The Handshake. This particular handshake has, as they say, legs.

We'll see it on T-shirts and on buttons and on postcards -- Arafat and Rabin, lifelong enemies, hand laid upon hand, flesh laid upon flesh, joined for eternity.

And available forevermore at your neighborhood novelty store, right next to the Burt-loves-Loni refrigerator magnets.

Some may see irony in this.

But I see a handshake. No, I see The Handshake -- the ne plus ultra of handshakes. And I wonder at its power.

Let's face it. The shaking of hands, though a long and noble tradition that dates back to at least Cain and Abel (come on boys, I want you to shake hands and make up this instant), is not what you'd call inherently dramatic.

In any other context, there's no drama whatsoever. What is more standard than a handshake? You meet someone -- Yitzhak, this is Yasser; Yasser, Yitzhak -- you extend a hand and the only possible point of conflict is the chance you'll get one of those clammy, fishlike paws in return.

Try to think of a similarly famous handshake. All I could come up with was Elvis and Nixon. The Carter-Sadat-Begin joining of hands was more like a rugby scrum than an actual handshake.

The basic concept, one hand clasping another, is pretty much out of fashion anyway. I mean, do people "shake" on anything anymore? These days, you don't shake hands, you high-five. Little kids do it at soccer games. Clinton and Gore do it at budget meetings.

And even that is losing currency. Hip basketball players have replaced the high-five with that belly or chest bump (kids, don't try this at home; these are trained professionals). In football, the proper form of congratulation is a head butt or one of those wobbly-legged, end zone celebrations. Wouldn't you have paid to see Rabin and Arafat do the Ickey Shuffle?

In Hollywood, they kiss. Arafat, of course, is a serious cheek kisser. Rabin understandably said he would never kiss anyone who looked that much like Ringo.

So, a handshake.

It was perfect. An embrace would have suggested that bygones could be bygones and, of course, they could never be. You build on history; you don't erase it.

The Handshake wasn't too little. It wasn't too much. It was a moment to keep forever in freeze-frame. Hardened politicians openly wept, although Jerry Ford and Ronald Reagan couldn't make it, saying they had prior commitments. How often can you play golf with Bob Hope anyway?

It was perfect. And it nearly didn't happen.

The ceremony looked choreographed. That's what I thought, too. Clinton shakes hands with one leader, then the other. Arafat turns to Rabin with his hand extended, and Rabin, after a slight hesitation -- a momentary delay that addresses all the ambivalence the Israelis must hold -- takes the hand.

Arafat smiles. Rabin remains stone-faced.

Arafat has to smile. He has to persuade his people that this agreement is a victory. Rabin must remain stone-faced. He has to persuade his people that they have made an unemotional, rational step toward peace.

You'd have guessed they'd been practicing for that moment all their lives. And all the symbolism couldn't have rung more true. The TV boys sure ate it up.

But that, according to the accounts I read later, isn't what happened at all.

In the moments before they left the White House to witness the signing, the two camps were barely speaking. After years of enmity, they didn't suddenly turn into pals.

Finally, though, there came a moment of truth.

Arafat boldly stuck out his hand, and Clinton -- you could see it on the slo-mo instant replay -- nudged Rabin toward the hand.

What else could Rabin do?

He had said earlier, he would shake hands with Arafat only "if it will be needed." It was.

Miss Manners could have told him that much. You don't leave an outstretched hand sitting there like a piece of frozen cod.

Of course, he took the hand. Arafat grabbed it like he had won the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, and perhaps he had. The rest is history. All that's left is for you to get the picture framed.

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