Shalom! Salaam!

BEN WATTENBERG

September 16, 1993|By BEN WATTENBERG

Washington. -- Outside the White House, on the day of the signing, we pass a group of teen-age girls, Orthodox Jews, dressed in green plaid skirts and white blouses. They are from the Beth Rivkah school in Crown Heights, in Brooklyn, up since 3 a.m., to travel five hours, to demonstrate against the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

I ask: ''Why are you against it?'' The answers come: ''Arafat is a terrorist,'' ''there is blood on his hands,'' ''now Arafat and the Arabs can exterminate the Jews.''

I am entering the South Lawn. An Arab from Gaza comes up to me, smiling, and says, ''Shalom! It's wonderful.'' I shake his hand and say, ''Salaam.''

On the White House grounds, the crowd is coming in. Across the way I see a neatly stenciled sign that reads: ''Israel and Palestinian Delegations.'' I remember a time at a U.N. Conference in Mexico City, talking to a group of Arab officials, when an Israeli diplomat, an old friend, came up to say hello. I looked around and the Arabs had vanished.

The sky is blue, the weather balmy. We are soaked in sun. There are no planes overhead. There are many things the White House cannot control, but the flight pattern isn't one of them. A helicopter approaches, working a lazy perimeter over the White House grounds. A wise guy says: ''I hope it's one of ours.''

The first appearance of an official on the stage is a junior diplomat who sets down a pitcher of water and several glasses. I am wondering: Did someone test the water?

What an array of dignitaries, all so proud! And so many blacks! General Powell. Governor Wilder. Secretary Brown. The Reverend Mr. Jackson. How very different from when I worked at the then very white house, more than a quarter of a century ago. Things can change. Can they change in the Middle East? Perhaps.

There are no trumpets, no anthems, as the official party enters. And here they are. President Clinton. Prime Minister Rabin. And Yasser Arafat. Yasser Arafat? At the White House?

I am asking myself, ''Why is this happening in America?'' Because we are the only superpower around. Because we are the only universal nation. Because we are the only nation that can offer legitimacy. We should be proud.

President Clinton is giving a fine speech. There is much from the Bible in it. He has been talking a lot about religion lately. He credits those who went before, including Jimmy Carter, here in the audience. And Israel's late prime minister, Menachem Begin, the tough little hawk. His Likud party is now resisting the moment, at least momentarily.

I'm thinking that hawks can make things happen, remembering the late Sen. Henry M. Jackson, ''Scoop,'' who did as much as any American to make Israel strong enough to reach this moment.

And here is Yasser Arafat, on the platform. At the White House. No pistol, no holster, neatly attired in his dress khakis, a little man, almost pudgy, speaking in Arabic. His words hardly matter. He's up there, shaking hands with Israel's Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, the war hero.

Who grabs the moment. His deep voice rumbles: ''We the soldiers who have returned from battle stained with blood; we who have seen our relatives and friends killed before our eyes; we who have attended their funerals and cannot look in the eyes of their parents; we who have fought against you, the Palestinians -- we say to you today, in a loud and clear voice: Enough of blood and tears.'' Mr. Rabin pauses, and thunders: ''Enough!''

And he, too, turns to the Bible: ''To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to kill and a time to heal . . . a time of war and a time of peace.''

It is marvelous media, a phenomenal photo-op. That's all right. Media matters. The world moves on symbols, sometimes.

And then it's over. I am talking to a 14-year-old Palestinian boy from Nablus, present at the ceremony as part of a ''Seeds of Peace'' program, together with Israeli and Egyptian young people. I am shaking his hand. I wonder: When he grows up will that hand hold a grenade? We chat, and conclude. ''Salaam,'' I say. ''Shalom,'' he says.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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