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Opinion: Op-Eds

The Rabin-Arafat handshake, 20 years later

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Op-Eds,Israel,Syria,Analysis,Middle East

Sept. 13 marks the 20th anniversary of one of the more notorious handshakes in recent history: that between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, coaxed by President Clinton, and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat in the White House Rose Garden.

Editor then of Washington Jewish Week, I'd been invited to join a throng of witnesses to this eruption of Arab-Israeli comity. Arafat having as much civilian Jewish blood on his hands as any criminal since 1945, I sent a reporter instead.

Television carried the event and the rest of my staff gathered around the office set, speaking of peace. Finally I said, "Look, this isn't peace, it's diplomacy. We won't know for years if it's peace."

That evening, I did attend a celebratory reception at the Israeli embassy. Rabin and then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres both made short, positive speeches.

A few of us agnostics gathered in one corner. One veteran pro-Israel lobbyist groused that either everything the Israelis have been telling us for 20 years about the PLO and their supporters was wrong and what they were saying that night was right, or what they were now saying was wrong. But both couldn't be true.

A few weeks later, Harvard professor Ruth Wisse, Yiddish scholar and commentator on Jewish affairs, spoke to a small audience in Washington. She warned against "the epidemic of hope" sweeping the American Jewish community regarding the Israeli-Palestinian "peace process."

Epidemic was right. I issued a new guideline for the Jewish Week: “We don't write 'the peace process' or 'peace talks.' If someone says it, we quote them. But otherwise it's either 'diplomatic process' or 'negotiations.'"

Arafat and the PLO had spent decades murderously insisting on the illegitimacy of "the Zionist entity" and denying the existence of a Jewish people rooted in the land of Israel. The suddenly omnipresent assertion that they had changed their spots was untested, not to mention unlikely.

In an editorial about the negotiations, I urged caution. The piece argued that contrary to contradictory claims by supporters and opponents, Israel's decision to negotiate a "final status" agreement with the PLO regarding the West Bank and Gaza Strip meant neither peace nor Israel's demise was imminent. Only time would tell.

This drew an admonition from my publisher. He thought it unduly and unrepresentatively pessimistic.

A mutual acquaintance warned me that a senior embassy official was wondering aloud if I wasn't an 'enemy of peace.' With family living 15 miles from Lebanon and nephews who would one day serve in the Israeli military, doubting the wisdom of embracing Arafat somehow made me a war hawk.

Within months, buses started blowing up in Israel and the Palestinian leadership pursued, generally free of U.S. or other international pressure, a double-pronged talk-fight strategy.

When Benjamin Netanyahu insisted on "reciprocity" in his first term as prime minister — the Palestinian side living up to its commitments to nonviolence, an end to incitement and educating its public about coexistence — he was widely reviled as obstructing peace.

In Jerusalem, I interviewed David Bar-Illan, Netanyahu's senior policy and communications advisor.

"Why does Israel continue negotiating with the Palestinian side, given that it's in material violation of its major commitments?" I asked.

"That's a good question," he replied. Then, after a brief silence, the usually unflinching Bar-Illan resumed discussing the "what" of the talks, not answering the "why."

Twenty years later, the Palestinian side is still in violation of its major "peace process" commitments.

Meanwhile, much of the Arab world is in flames in a way unimaginable in 1993 and a potentially genocidal Iranian regime is on the verge of possessing nuclear weapons. Yet Secretary of State John Kerry insists that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is key to regional stability.

During the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon, a rocket exploded a quarter-mile from my sister's house. In violation of U.N. resolutions, Hezbollah now has tens of thousands more rockets.

As a "confidence-building measure" to restart talks with the Palestinian Authority, Netanyahu freed 26 murderers of Israelis and agreed to release 78 more if Abbas keeps talking. Call it a process, call it diplomacy, but don't call it peace.

Eric Rozenman is a Washington-based news media analyst and former managing editor of Washington Jewish Week.
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