The handshake seen around the world

Sandy Grady

September 15, 1993|By Sandy Grady

IT WAS a three-handkerchief show. I've never seen so many grown men cry.

Forget that old shibboleth that politicians, male or female, must never cut loose emotions. And never, never weep in public.

On this sparkling blue day on the White House lawn, men who had run nations and fought wars wept like schoolgirls at a Bette Davis movie.

There were tears of joy, relief and incredulity.

What ignited the emotional waterworks was The Handshake Seen Around The World.

But the handshake between the Old Soldier and the Terrorist almost didn't happen.

It took a nudge from a friend.

Fifteen minutes before they marched onstage before a world-wide TV audience to sign a history-busting peace agreement, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel and Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization were in a deep-freeze funk.

Only 15 feet apart in the Oval Office, they wouldn't look at each other, touch or speak. One hundred years of Arab-Jewish hate and killing was an invisible wall.

"I am uneasy about this," Mr. Rabin confided about meeting Mr. Arafat. "I cannot forget deaths of innocent civilians. How will I explain to those who were killed and wounded, those I commanded against PLO terror groups?"

Mr. Rabin, 71, hero of Israel's 1967 Six-Day War, was trapped in the same room with his detested enemy, Mr. Arafat, 64. Mr. Rabin was coldly sullen. Mr. Arafat, behind his stubbly beard, wore a cocky smile.

You sensed a big gap. The Israelis had been chilly, restrained, worried -- by opening Jericho and Gaza to PLO rule, they were taking a leap into the dark. Mr. Arafat and his PLO followers had the loose swagger of a poker player with four aces.

There was an odd mix of danger and festivity.

The 3,000 glitterati at the White House lawn fidgeted like grownups at a high school graduation. Jimmy Carter and George Bush on the front row, then behind them Henry Kissinger, James Baker III, Cyrus Vance, all the Middle East Haggling Alumni.

There was enough security to refight the Persian Gulf war -- helicopters flapping, sharpshooters on roofs, metal detectors, double row of police vehicles cordoning the White House.

"I hear this guy [Mr. Arafat] had 50 assassination attempts," said a cop. "Waitin' for No. 51 makes you nervous."

From across Pennsylvania Avenue drifted chants, "Arrest Arafat!" and "Arafat's a Murderer!" Ultra-orthodox Jews in black from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, lofted signs, "Not One Inch!" and "Rabin's a Traitor!!" Cops separated them from flag-waving PLO zealots.

At 11:16 a.m. there was a hush on the lawn. Out the door came Bill Clinton, a stony-faced Mr. Rabin and Mr. Arafat, wearing his black-and-white headscarf, baggy khaki uniform and a hello-world grin.

In deference to peace, Mr. Arafat stashed his trademark holstered pistol.

Mr. Clinton, poised, towering, for once looked like a world leader. "The peace of the brave is in reach," he said. "There is a yearning in the Middle East for the quiet miracle of normal life."

But long after this day, anyone who heard him will remember Yitzhak Rabin. His face was furrowed with Israel's history. His Old Testament baritone rumbled with Israel's anguish.

"It's not so easy," Mr. Rabin began, peering over his glasses.

Clearly pitching to an Israeli TV audience, he talked of the victims of violence and terror -- "for them this ceremony comes too late." He quoted the sorrowful music of Ecclesiastes, "A time to love and a time to hate, a time for peace, a time for war."

Not once looking at Mr. Arafat, Mr. Rabin boomed: "We who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today, enough of blood and tears. Enough!"

On the ancient walnut table where Mr. Carter, Begin and Sadat finalized the Camp David accords, they signed the blue ledgers of a 1993 peace.

Now for the Great Handshake maybe.

There was a clumsy, comic moment much like the 1980 Democratic convention when Teddy Kennedy fled from Jimmy Carter's grasp.

A grinning Mr. Arafat reached to grip Mr. Rabin's hand. Mr. Rabin stiffened as if in a nightmare. Mr. Clinton pressed gently on Mr. Rabin's back as though hustling a reluctant groom to the altar. Then the two enemies were pumping hands. The crowd exhaled, then rose applauding.

I saw tears coursing down Jesse Jackson's face. Jimmy Carter grimaced, unbelieving, his eyes watering. Gruff, tough Henry Kissinger brushed back tears. People were standing and clapping and smiling and crying.

"A picture was worth a million words," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. "Momentous, a new era."

Sure, trouble's ahead. Alone with the PLO leader later, Mr. Clinton sternly lectured him to lay off the violence.

When Mr. Arafat talked glibly of a Palestine state, Mr. Rabin thundered, "Tell him to forget about it."

L But they can't wipe out The Handshake Seen Around the World.

They can't forget the day when grown men cried in broad sunlight.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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