Oslo Faces Belied Handshake
Courtesy of Avi Ohayon, Israel GPO, September 13, 1993

Michael Jacobs

September 15, 2023

“Hopes for Peace Hang on Handshake.”

That was the headline I wrote for the Sept. 14, 1993, front page of The Washington Times about what happened when Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Oslo Accords on the White House South Lawn a day earlier. 

That day 30 years ago was all about the hope for peace, the hope for coexistence, the hope for two peoples living side by side without violence or military occupation.

The embodiment of those hopes was the famous handshake: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat on either side of U.S. President Bill Clinton. That image appeared on newspaper front pages around the world, including The Washington Times, where I worked as a copyeditor.

Among the headlines that accompanied that photo:

• “Israel and PLO Sign Peace Pact” (some replaced “peace” with “historic”).

• “Rabin and Arafat Seal Their Accord as Clinton Applauds ‘Brave Gamble.’” 

• “Israel, PLO Break Cycle, Sign Accord.”

• “Shalom, Salaam, Peace” and the less optimistic “Shalom, Salaam, Peace (?).”

• The historic moment themes of “‘The Season of Peace,’” “A Day of ‘History and Hope’” and “Peace Blooms on the South Lawn.”

• “‘Enough of Blood and Tears,’” sometimes adding a second “enough” at the end, using a Rabin quotation.

• “‘Let Us Bid, Once and for All, Farewell to War,’” quoting Shimon Peres instead.

• Such handshake variations as “Israel, PLO Shake on Peace,” “Arafat, Rabin Shake on It,” “Firm Grip on Plan for Peace,” “Old Enemies Join Hands,” “Peace in Their Grasp” and the stunningly vague “Arab and Jew Shake Hands.”

Newsrooms are full of cynics, an occupational hazard for anyone who covers democracy in action, from school boards and city councils to state legislatures and Congress. But we hardboiled members of the press saw what we wanted to see Sept. 13, 1993: two bitter enemies following the path Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin had walked on the same lawn 14½ years earlier to reach an agreement signed on the same desk. 

The devil, as usual, was in the details, but we had our heads in the clouds, looking for the angels of the better nature of Palestinian and Israeli leaders. The pomp and circumstance of the day dominated the reporting; only dedicated readers learned what Israeli Foreign Minister Peres and PLO official Mahmoud Abbas, the Holocaust denier and future Palestinian Authority president, signed that morning.

The Washington Times’ article waited until the 26th paragraph to dive into the text of Oslo’s Declaration of Principles, and it wasn’t a deep dive: limited self-rule for Palestinians, including an elected council; an Israeli military withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho; and rapid negotiations on the many unresolved details.

You wouldn’t have known from reading the news of the day that the document didn’t mention Palestinian statehood or a two-state solution, only some kind of “permanent status” after a five-year transition that should have concluded in 1998.

You had to read 1,200 words to learn that Arafat, despite renouncing terrorism in a letter to Rabin on Sept. 9, barely criticized a terrorist attack that killed four Israelis on Sept. 12, and then only because reporters pressed him. “We are sorry with what is going on there,” he said. “All this will be stopped.”

It’s long been clear that the true story wasn’t in the words spoken or written that day, but in that famous photo, and not in the embrace of two hands but in the expressions on two faces.

For Arafat, elation.  For Rabin, dismay

Arafat’s ecstasy revealed a man who had achieved more than he had ever hoped for: a ceremony that put him on equal footing with the Israeli prime minister and the U.S. president and a promise of a safe ascension to the West Bank with the financial support of countries worldwide. He had no interest in being Sadat and putting his life in jeopardy for the good of his people.

Rabin’s revulsion revealed recognition not only of who Arafat was, but also of who he always would be. But while Rabin could see that Arafat would never be Sadat, few of us could have imagined that Rabin himself shared Sadat’s fate of assassination by his own people less than three years after grasping the hope for peace. 

“He and his PLO represent the last vestige of secular Palestinian nationalism,” Rabin said of Arafat shortly before being slain. “We have nobody else to deal with. It is either the PLO or nothing.”

Thirty years later, nothing is almost all that’s left of Oslo.

Michael Jacobs, CIE’s communications consultant, is a former newspaper editor who worked in Washington journalism for eight years.