Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Peace is Something You Make with Your Enemies

On September 13, 1993, the Declaration of Principles was signed by President Clinton, Yasir Arafat, and Yitzak [Rabin] on the White House lawn. The declaration stated the end of the “confrontation and conflict” between the state of Israel and the Palestinian people and laid the framework to achieve genuine reconciliation and a “comprehensive peace settlement” by setting forth the step-by-step process by which the Palestinians would be granted autonomy.

After the actual signatures were in place, Yitzak said to President Clinton and Yasir Arafat that this was a very important moment in their lives. “This is a truly important moment,” Yasir responded with emphasis. Then he turned to President Clinton and said, “Mr. President, it is now your role to support this peace process, and it will be up to you to make it work.”

Did Yitzak intend to shake Yasir Arafat’s hand? Surely, he had mixed feelings—after all, this was the leader of an organization that had, over the years, taken the lives of countless Israeli civilians and soldiers. But peace is something you make with your enemies, not with your friends. And making peace means moving past bloodshed, beyond anguished memories. The look of discomfort on Yitzak’s face was unmistakable; he looked as if he’d swallowed something large and painful. He was shaking the hand of a man he said he would never dignify with direct contact. He was breaking a vow. How could he forget the victims of terror, even at this historic moment? Had it not been before the eyes of the world, he might not have felt so deeply conflicted. I imagine he was thinking, The whole world has heard me say never, and now I am…

After the handshakes, Yitzak addressed the crowd on the lawn, his people, the Palestinian people, and the television cameras of the worlds:

Today here in Washington at the White House, we will begin a new reckoning in the relations between peoples, between parents tired of war, between children who will not know war…

We have no desire for revenge. We harbor no hatred toward you. We, like you, are people—people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, to live side by side with you in dignity, in affinity, as human beings, as free men. We are today giving peace a chance and saying again to you, ‘Enough…’

Let us pray that a day will come when we all will say farewell to arms.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, Yasir Arafat and Yitzak went down the first row of attendees, shaking hands with everyone. I was sitting in the center of the row. I turned left and shook the hands of the people on my left and then turned to the row behind me. I shook the hand of the Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, who had played an important role in keeping the Palestinian-Israeli dialogue alive in 1991-1992—her joy was palpable.

At the end of the day, Yitzak was absolutely convinced he had done the right thing. Surely there were risks involved, but he realized they were risks we had to take. The signing had such a profound impact on the way Israel was perceived internationally, not even Yitzak could anticipate the dramatic extent to which this was to happen.

Leah Rabin, Rabin: Our Life, His Legacy (New York: G P Putnam’s Sons, 1997), 254-255.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: “Did Yitzak intend to shake Yasir Arafat’s hand?”