I arrived in Washington, DC, on a flight from Israel very early in the morning on September 13, 1993, the day of the historic handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat that sealed the Oslo Agreement. That was the informal name commonly used for the Israel-PLO Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements—or the DOP, in short—that had been secretly negotiated in Norway. I was completely exhausted from constantly flying for the previous four months from Jerusalem to Oslo and from there to Washington, where I then lived (I negotiated the agreement for Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres as a volunteer, while still continuing at my day job at a Washington law firm).
I had been asked by Rabin and Peres to arrive in Washington before them to ensure that any remaining issues associated with the signing of the Oslo Agreement would be addressed. The main issues had already been resolved over the past four days, since Rabin and Arafat had exchanged their “Mutual Recognition” letters, which were signed by Arafat in Tunis on September 9, 1993, and by Rabin in Jerusalem the next day. In discussions with the Clinton Administration, it was agreed that the signing ceremony would take place in Washington and would be hosted by President Clinton himself to provide American auspices to the agreement. For good measure, the Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, was also invited to participate, necessitating the presence of Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Though the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Johan Jørgen Holst, also wanted to participate in the signing—after all, the agreement was negotiated in Norway—it was determined that the podium on which the signing ceremony would take place was too narrow to accommodate him. He was instead relegated to the status of a guest and was assigned a seat among distinguished company in the audience section arranged on the White House lawn. His consolation prize was that, even though the agreement would be signed in Washington, it would forever be known as the Oslo Agreement.
Who Will Sign the Oslo Agreement?
With the signing of the Israel-PLO Mutual Recognition letters three days earlier, the key question of who would sign the agreement for the Palestinian side had also been resolved—it would be a PLO representative. (The Oslo Agreement was negotiated secretly between Israel and the PLO, as an informal back-channel track in parallel to the formal, front-channel negotiations that took place in Washington between Israeli and non-PLO Palestinian delegates. The original thought was that, once completed, the DOP would be signed by the formal delegations of the two parties; that meant that, for the Palestinians, it would be a non-PLO Palestinian leader.)
A minor question remained, though: Which two specific individuals would sign the agreement on behalf of Israel and the PLO? Initially, the thought was that neither Israel nor the United States were yet ready to see Arafat himself travel to the United States and sign the agreement in front of the entire world media. Indeed, for decades U.S. officials had been prohibited by law from negotiating with the PLO, and Arafat specifically barred from entering the United States. To allow an official PLO representative other than Arafat to travel to Washington was already a quantum leap, and in Israel, needless to say, there was little appetite for anyone to be seen together with Arafat in a photo.
The initial Israeli decision was that Peres would sign the agreement on behalf of Israel, and Rabin and Peres expected the PLO to designate Mahmoud Abbas (commonly known by his nickname Abu Mazen), the PLO official who oversaw the Oslo negotiations, as its representative. Under this plan, neither Arafat nor Rabin would come to Washington. This would have allowed Rabin to project an image that closely tracked with his true personal feelings regarding Oslo, as someone who only grudgingly embraced the agreement. He wanted to be seen as a statesman who responsibly endorsed the agreement that he believed best served Israel’s interests but, both as a politician and a private person, he could not bring himself to stand close to anyone belonging to a notorious terrorist organization that had murdered hundreds of innocent Israelis. So even though President Clinton indicated to Prime Minister Rabin that Arafat wanted to come to Washington and sign the Oslo Agreement in person and further that President Clinton would want to see Prime Minister Rabin do the same, when Rabin responded that he did not intend to come, President Clinton, a bit reluctantly, accepted that neither Rabin nor Arafat would show up.
But then, just two days before the signing ceremony, Rabin had a critical change of heart. Two of Rabin’s aides convinced him that he could not afford to be absent from the historic event formalizing the culmination of the process that he had adopted, shepherded to a successful conclusion, and would continue to lead in the years to come. Once Rabin changed his mind and informed President Clinton that he was coming to Washington, it became impossible to exclude Arafat. The Rubicon had been crossed.
When Peres heard that Rabin had decided to participate in the Oslo signing ceremony, he exploded with anger. For the past few months, Peres had seen himself as the father of the Oslo Agreement, and it came as a real blow to him to be informed, just as he had completed writing the speech he planned to make at the signing ceremony, that Rabin had decided to steal the glory he felt belonged to him. He told Rabin he was not traveling to the United States. This threat was not to be taken lightly. If Peres were to be absent and Rabin sat alone next to Arafat at the signing ceremony, it would be much more difficult for Rabin to continue presenting himself domestically as the leader who had been pulled by Peres into an agreement he really only half-heartedly accepted. To resolve the crisis, Rabin negotiated a compromise with Peres in which the agreement would be signed by Peres, but Rabin would give the main speech. That compromise also dictated that on the Palestinian side, Abu Mazen would sign the DOP but Arafat would deliver the main speech.
No Military Uniform, No Gun, No Kissing and Hugging
Meanwhile, Rabin sought assurances from Clinton that Arafat would not show up at the ceremony with the gun on his waist that had become, together with his checkered headdress and military uniform, part of his traditional costume. Everyone in Israel remembered how, in 1974, Arafat was first invited to speak before the United Nations, a supposed bastion of diplomacy and peacemaking. Yet, in a clear act of defiance, he had walked dramatically into the General Assembly hall wearing his military uniform as well as a leather holster around his waist, apparently concealing a pistol, even though carrying a gun inside the United Nations building was strictly forbidden. As the Prime Minister of Israel, Rabin was responsible not only for making strategic decisions such as the decision to talk with the PLO, but also for selling these decisions to the Israeli public. Rabin had a lot of selling to do in connection with the Oslo Agreement because he had broken so many taboos, all at the same time, which Israelis found difficult to swallow and digest so quickly. The most critical task for Rabin was to explain why he decided to violate his pledge never to talk with the PLO that he himself had repeatedly reconfirmed. The only possible explanation was to point out the commitments that Arafat had made just four days earlier in the Mutual Recognition letter he had sent to Rabin, where he undertook, among other things, to renounce “the use of terrorism and other acts of violence,” and to seek a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Based on these newly undertaken commitments, Rabin could have argued to the Israeli public that Arafat had changed. For Arafat to show up at the Oslo Agreement signing ceremony dressed up in his normal military uniform and carrying a gun, however, would be to send a visual message that, notwithstanding his commitments, with the ink with which they were typed barely dry, he was still committed to continue fighting. In other words, this would be the equivalent of giving Rabin the middle finger, except that the finger in this case would be Arafat’s whole body.
Of course, no visitor can get into the White House with a gun, not even Arafat. So Arafat could not have really brought a gun with him to the White House. But the concern was that he would nonetheless have a gun holster around his waist. No one would know that it was actually empty, so his message would still get across: “Peace or no peace, I am still fighting.”
Rabin’s concern about Arafat’s military uniform and gun was dwarfed in comparison, however, by his other concern, which was that Arafat might hug and kiss him during the signing ceremony. Unlike the West, where people preserve their personal space and avoid standing too close to one another, let alone touching, Middle Easterners, particularly males, like to hug and kiss. And there has never been a more enthusiastic hugger and kisser than Arafat. Every time the news showed Arafat disembarking a plane on one of his many visits to Arab countries, he would walk the red carpet toward the Arab leader waiting to receive him and then hug that leader forcefully and for a very long time, followed by kisses—always three—on the cheeks. In Rabin’s mind, nothing more terrible could have happened to him than to have Arafat jump on him during the signing ceremony and hug and kiss him. If that happened, all that the Israeli anti-Oslo opposition would need to do would be to widely publicize a photo of Arafat kissing Rabin with a short caption: “Rabin kisses the murderer. Case closed.” Indeed, shortly before Rabin was assassinated, a photomontage showing Rabin wearing an Arafat-like headdress was circulated widely in Israel and appeared during violent anti-Oslo demonstrations.
To assuage these fears, Rabin asked Clinton to ensure that there would be no hugging or kissing by Arafat during the ceremony. And, as best as Clinton could do, no handshakes. Clinton promised to do his best.
I became aware of Rabin’s hypersensitivity to selling the Oslo Agreement a few days earlier. It took me a while to convince Rabin to accept my idea of exchanging Mutual Recognition letters between him and Arafat before the signing of the DOP. But once he accepted this idea, he approved the draft letters I presented to him before the start of the negotiations with the PLO without any changes, with only one exception. I included the standard opening salutation: “Dear Mr. Arafat” at the top of Rabin’s letter to Arafat and a similar opening salutation (“Dear Mr. Rabin”) at the top of Arafat’s letter to Rabin. Rabin ordered me to cross out the word “dear” in both places. Apparently, this word seemed to Rabin to project an undesired term of endearment.
The negotiations with the PLO over these letters were completed in a Paris hotel just a few days before the DOP signing took place in Washington. After tentative agreement was reached late at night, Uri Savir (the Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who was with me throughout the Oslo negotiations) and I sent the draft to Israel for final approval and went to sleep. After we arrived back in Israel, I heard that Rabin was furious at me. When I inquired as to why, the response was that Rabin was angry because the final text of the letters included the word “Sincerely” before his and Arafat’s signatures. I explained that this word was there all along, including in the draft I presented to Rabin, which Rabin approved. The answer was that, upon review of the agreed draft, Rabin spotted the word, which he had presumably missed when he had approved my original draft, and then sent instructions to our hotel through the Foreign Ministry to remove it from the draft. But I had not received any such instructions. Only then did Savir recall that after the conclusion of the negotiations, while we were fast asleep in our rooms, he had received a phone call from Israel that woke him early in the morning and conveyed Rabin’s order. However, he immediately fell back to sleep and forgot to tell me about it.
Cleaning the Text of the Oslo Agreement
Now that all the major issues had been resolved, Rabin and Peres asked me to fly to Washington to attend to any minor issues remaining to be addressed. I was picked up at the airport by an Israel Embassy diplomat who took me directly to the State Department for a meeting with Jonathan Schwartz, the Deputy Legal Adviser. I knew Schwartz well from my time as the Head of the International Law Department in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and had worked with him on other Israeli-Arab negotiations. Schwartz allowed me to shave quickly in the private bathroom of the Legal Adviser. He then took me to the State Department’s Protocol Office, where I was shown how they had re-formatted the text of the Oslo Agreement, which I had sent them before taking off from Israel. They had also corrected a few typos and grammatical errors, changes I gladly approved. I had spotted these issues when Rabin sent me to Oslo to attempt to fix the draft of the agreement, but I didn’t want to waste political capital on seeking Palestinian agreement to make grammar-based changes, preferring to focus only on the important revisions. After the modified text of the DOP was agreed upon, I provided the chief PLO negotiator, Ahmed Qurei (commonly known as Abu Ala) with a list of grammar changes and typos and suggested we make them. He responded that while he agreed with me, it was too late to make these changes, as the draft already had been approved by the PLO leadership and he was no longer authorized to change even a comma. I was, therefore, happy that these changes were made by the United States.
We then discussed the order of the signing, where I should stand (close to the elevated podium that had been erected on the White House lawn on which the leaders would stand), and when and how I should step up to the podium to help Peres sign the agreement. As the meeting drew close to its end, I quickly considered my list of areas of concern:
- The agreement has been reformatted and is ready to be signed—check.
- The agreement has been cleaned of grammatical errors and typos—check.
- The order of signing and related steps has been established—check.
Great. Everything has been addressed. The agreement is ready to be signed. Nothing can now go wrong, right? Wrong!
Just as I was about to step out of the meeting room, the Protocol person added, like Detective Columbo, as portrayed by Peter Falk, used to say in the 1970s television series bearing his name: “There’s just one more thing. The Palestinians have said that they would not show up at the signing ceremony if Israel does not agree to make four changes in the agreement.”
Had it been up to me, I would have said calmly: “Fine. Let them not show up. Let’s see who blinks first.” I had already witnessed a similar situation three weeks earlier in Oslo where, after the agreement had been fully agreed and just a few hours before it was to be initialed, Abu Ala told us that he would not add his initials to the agreement unless several additional changes were made. As we were discussing what to do, Terje Rød-Larsen, the Norwegian who, together with his wife Mona Juul, was instrumental in facilitating the Oslo negotiations, whispered in my ear that we shouldn’t worry about Abu Ala’s threat. He explained that Abu Ala had just asked him to assist in finding a typist to help him type the speech he planned to make during the initialing ceremony, so he clearly did not intend to carry out his threat. I responded that, in any event, I didn’t intend to budge, but it was good to know that even Abu Ala didn’t seriously intend to avoid adding his initials to the agreed text. But that was three weeks ago, when no one knew about the Oslo negotiations, so no one would have known if the agreement was not initialed. Here, the entire world would be watching and hundreds of people were already sitting on the White House lawn waiting for the signing ceremony to begin, so I could not begin playing a game of chicken on my own authority.
“I need to talk with Rabin,” I said. “Do it quickly,” the Protocol guy replied, pearls of sweat becoming visible on his forehead, “and look for me at the White House lawn when you get back. I will be standing next to the signing podium. Meanwhile, I am holding open the final version of the agreement to be signed.” We did not discuss the possibility that, to save time, the Protocol Office would prepare several versions of the agreement to fit each of the various possible outcomes of the conclusion of this last-minute re-negotiation regarding the four Palestinian requested changes and would present for signing that version which the parties ultimately agreed on. I actually thought about that possibility but did not raise it with my State Department colleagues. A quick calculation told me that they would have had to prepare no fewer than 18 different versions of the DOP and, even if they had the time to do so, which they didn’t, there was no guarantee that they would be able to insert the correct version of the DOP in the four folders prepared for the signing ceremony. Nor was there a guarantee that they would even manage to select four identical copies of the agreed DOP version for inclusion in these folders. (The DOP was to be signed four times in four original sets: one for Israel, one for the Palestinians, one for the United States, and one for the Russian Federation.) “I’ll arrive at the White House as soon as I’ve discussed this matter with Rabin and will look for you there,” I said.
A Shirt, a Shirt, My Kingdom for a Shirt!
The Embassy car that was waiting for me outside the State Department building rushed me to the Mayflower Hotel, where the Israeli delegation was staying. As is usual in such situations, the Embassy had booked dozens of rooms in this hotel for the delegation. The Israeli Ambassador, Itamar Rabinovich, as well as other key Israeli diplomats, had relocated to the hotel and opened a temporary office there for the use of the Israeli delegation. My wife Neomi, who was then the chief administrative assistant to the Ambassador, was running the office. Over the previous few weeks, my work had been so intense that I had no time to stop at home in Washington for even a short break, so I had run out of shirts and didn’t even have the time to send one to the cleaners. I had therefore called my wife ahead of flying to Washington and asked her to bring a clean shirt to the hotel so that I could change before the ceremony. My fear was that, as I would be standing on the podium next to Peres with Clinton behind me, Clinton would suddenly frown and say: “Hold it. Don’t sign. I smell a rat!” I would then have to confess: “No, Mr. President. It’s just me. I haven’t changed my shirt over the last five days. Sorry.”
After changing my shirt, I was taken to Rabin’s room.
Good News and Bad News
At that time, Peres and all the other members of the Israeli delegation had already left for the White House. Because of the tight security measures, all guests had to arrive there at least an hour before the ceremony began. Rabin and I were the only exceptions. Rabin was already all dressed and practicing his speech. “I have good news and bad news,” I said. “The good news is that the agreement is ready to be signed. The bad news is that the Palestinians are not going to sign unless we agree to four changes.” Unexpectedly, Rabin kept his composure and simply asked me to explain what these requested changes were. I did not know it at the time, but from very early in the morning onwards, various Palestinians who had arrived in Washington the day before us were frantically calling various American and Israeli Embassy officials, telling them about their demands and threatening not to be at the White House if these changes were not made. Apparently, Rabin had already heard about these demands and threats, but waited to talk with me before deciding what to do.
In response to Rabin’s question, I explained that there were four requested changes and that they all related to adding references to the PLO throughout the text of the DOP. Two of these changes, I said, would result in a substantive impact on the agreement. The other two related to the identity of the Palestinian party signing the agreement. The draft of the declaration that was finalized and initialed in Oslo referred to this party as “the Palestinian team within the joint Jordanian-Palestinian Delegation.” That was the format agreed to in the 1991 Madrid Conference that had been convened by the United States and the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the first Gulf War in an attempt to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Representatives of Israel and several Arab countries participated, including a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation that included non-PLO Palestinians. This wording was a compromise formula closely negotiated by Secretary of State Jim Baker between the Arab position that a separate Palestinian delegation should be invited to participate in the Madrid Conference and the Israeli Likud Government position that any Palestinian participation should be limited to non-PLO members and be included in the Jordanian delegation. When these negotiations ultimately relocated from Madrid to Washington, the same format was kept for the Palestinian team. Since the DOP that was drafted in Oslo was originally supposed to be signed by the official front-channel Palestinian team in Washington, the DOP referred to that Palestinian party as “the Palestinian team within the joint Jordanian-Palestinian Delegation.” However, once Israel and the PLO had signed the Mutual Recognition letters, there was no logical reason to continue to avoid referring to that party as the PLO, except that the DOP was already finalized and initialed and ready to be signed in less than an hour.
“What do you suggest we do?” Rabin asked. “If you are ready to compromise,” I responded, “I suggest our position be that we agree to the two requests related to the identity of the Palestinian party signing the DOP and reject the two others and, if they still refuse to sign, so be it.” “OK,” Rabin said. “I have to leave for the White House. When you are done talking with them, come back to report to me.” “I’ll find you,” I said, not focusing in that moment on the question of how I would find him, given that I would be on the White House lawn and he would be inside the White House.
Déjà Vu in the White House
I then rushed to the White House in my separate car and, as I entered the South Lawn, I saw for the first time the set up for the signing ceremony. Hundreds of guests were already seated on folding chairs and behind them there were dozens of cameras with television crews from all over the world facing the podium on which the signing ceremony would soon take place. On top of the podium stood a table which, as the State Department people had told me earlier that day, had been used for the White House signing of the Israeli-Egyptian Treaty of Peace 14 years earlier. This gave me a strong feeling of déjà vu. In 1979, as the Head of the International Law Department in the IDF, I was one of three representatives of the Israeli Ministry of Defense in the Israeli delegation to the peace talks with Egypt (the others were Minister of Defense Ezer Weizmann and the IDF’s Chief of Planning, Lieutenant General Avraham Tamir). I spent several months in Washington negotiating all the military portions of the Treaty of Peace and, when it was concluded, witnessed its signing on this very same table by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
At that time, I was the youngest member of the Israeli delegation to the peace talks with Egypt. I recall that, during the formal meetings that were held among the Egyptian, American, and Israeli delegations in Blair House, just across the street from the White House, the Israeli delegation occupied three rows at the round negotiating table. In the first row sat Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, Minister of Defense, Weizmann, and the Foreign Ministry’s Legal Adviser. In the second row sat all the other members of the Israeli delegation, while I sat alone in the third row.
In the intervening years, I progressively accumulated more experience in international negotiations as a member of various Israeli delegations that negotiated agreements with Israel’s Arab neighbors. For instance, for four years, I negotiated autonomy arrangements for the West Bank and Gaza with the United States and Egypt under the Begin government. I also negotiated a peace treaty with Lebanon following the 1982 Lebanon War (which unfortunately never took effect). When Arafat and the PLO leadership were forced out of Lebanon at the end of this war, I negotiated the formation of a temporary multinational force to deploy in Beirut to guarantee their safe passage to Tunis, where they established their new headquarters, far away from Israel.
And here I was again at the White House, about to witness yet another historic agreement being signed, except that this time my responsibility was much greater. But there was no time to waste on nostalgia. I had a mission to perform—to re-negotiate a portion of the agreement at the eleventh hour.
Eleventh-Hour Negotiations at the Foot of the Signing Podium
I headed toward the podium, where I spotted the State Department Protocol guy standing at the foot of that platform. I expected to meet one of the Palestinians with whom I had negotiated the DOP in Oslo, Abu Ala or Hassan Asfur. Instead, the State Department official introduced me to two other, non-PLO Palestinians whom I had never met and who stood next to him: Hayek al-Fahoum and Hanan Ashrawi, both members of the Palestinian team that had conducted the formal front-channel discussions in Washington and had been kept in the dark until only a few days ago about the Oslo back channel discussions. Then, standing near the podium on which the DOP was supposed to be signed, at just a few minutes before 11 a.m., the time when the ceremony was supposed to begin, we started discussing the Palestinian demands. I presented the Israeli position as discussed earlier with Rabin and, luckily, they soon accepted it.
We then proceeded to discuss how to implement these agreed changes. Given the time constraint, the State Department Protocol guy wanted to simplify the process. He suggested that when Abu Mazen’s turn came to sign the DOP, he could simply cross out the two references to the “the Palestinian team within the joint Jordanian-Palestinian Delegation” and add the words “the PLO” in handwriting. But both the Palestinian representatives and I objected to this proposal. The Palestinians didn’t like it because the established order for signing the DOP had Peres signing first and Abu Mazen second. They were, therefore, concerned that handwritten changes added after Peres had already signed would not be binding. I rejected this approach because of the concern that Abu Mazen could have added other, non-agreed handwritten changes to the DOP. This left the Protocol guy with no choice but to find a way to somehow re-type the relevant pages quickly enough for the DOP to be ready for signing in just a few minutes. I then turned around and looked for a way to go into the White House where Rabin was waiting for me to report to him whether the problems had been satisfactorily resolved so that the ceremony could begin.
Trying to Get into the White House
It only then hit me that it’s not easy to get into the White House, especially on that particular day. With so many world leaders present inside the White House perimeter, the entire U.S. Marine Corps appeared to be assembled around the White House with strict instructions not to let anyone without a permit enter. In events that involve the participation of foreign leaders, the relevant security services normally provide the participants buttons of various colors to be worn on the suit lapel. The color tells the guards who is allowed to enter which part of the protected complex. The State Department Protocol guy’s button was of the correct color, so he was let in. Because no one had anticipated that I would need to get into the White House, the button I received did not authorize my entry, so I had to rely on my ability to explain why I needed to get in. The guards standing directly in front of the White House’s main entrance, however, appeared to be entirely unmoved by my initial attempt to convince them that I, a complete stranger with no credentials, should be allowed to enter the White House because I needed to talk with the Israeli Prime Minister right away.
It was already 10:57 a.m., and two conflicting fearful thoughts ran through my head. One was that the ceremony would never begin, because Rabin was waiting behind that closed door for a clue from me that the problem was solved and that he would hold everything until he heard from me. Even more frightening was the other thought that, as I was standing there, trying to convince the guards that I should be allowed in, Rabin would lose his patience and suddenly the door would open, the United States Army herald trumpets would begin playing the “Hail to the Chief,” and Clinton, Rabin, Arafat, and all the other dignitaries would begin walking out, and I would have no choice (if not first handcuffed by the guards) but to report the results of the re-negotiations to Rabin while walking alongside them with all the television cameras focused on us. As I contemplated these two horrible scenarios, I felt the clean shirt my wife had brought me just hours ago becoming soaked as my sweat dripped down my back.
Suddenly, one of the guards began talking into his wrist and then, miraculously, he took me by the arm, opened the White House door, and walked me through a long corridor that led to the Blue Room, where I saw Clinton, Vice President Gore, Rabin, Peres, and other dignitaries standing in a large circle in one corner of the room. At the opposite corner of the room, I saw a much smaller circle consisting of only three people: Russian Foreign Minister Kozyrev, Abu Mazen, and, yes, there he was, the arch-terrorist, PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat.
First Encounter with the Chairman
I quickly glanced at Arafat. That was the first time I ever saw him in person. Over the next three years, I would spend more time with him than any other Israeli and probably more time than most Palestinians. He looked exactly as in the pictures except that, when you stood close to him, he seemed shorter than I had imagined.
I immediately noticed that he did not have his gun belt around his waist. Good. However, he did wear his uniform. I subsequently never saw him wearing any clothes other than uniform. I wonder whether he even had normal clothes. My eyes continued to scan him. The two-day-old beard. The big smile that always looked a bit sinister. The bulging eyes. And the checkered headdress (or keffiyeh). In all the years that I spent later with Arafat, I never saw him clean-shaven, nor did I ever see him take off his headdress, except once. And when it happened, I was shocked: He was almost entirely bald. Without the headdress, he suddenly looked like a completely different person. It then hit me that when you look at Arafat, you don’t really see the person. You just see the costume, consisting of the uniform, the gun belt, the unshaven face and the headdress. Without them, there was no “Arafat.” He was a walking symbol.
A similar realization had occurred to me 15 years earlier, when I participated in the negotiations with Egypt in Washington, DC, on the Israel-Egypt Treaty of Peace. The two delegations were staying at the Madison Hotel, each occupying a separate floor. One night, Moshe Dayan, who was then the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs and the head of the Israeli delegation, called me to his hotel room. He wanted to discuss a certain point in the military portion of the draft treaty that was subject to a disagreement between Egypt and Israel and prepare together for the next day’s discussions with the Egyptians. It was already very late at night and Dayan apparently was beginning to get ready to go to sleep, so he had taken off his famous eye-patch. I was sitting in front of Dayan discussing matters of high importance, but as much as I tried to concentrate on the discussion, my eyes kept wandering to the place in his face where there usually was an eye-patch and now, there was nothing. Just a hole. He no longer looked like the famous Dayan; rather, he looked like an old man with one eye. Of course, Dayan did not choose the eye-patch to adopt an image of a modern-day pirate. He was wounded in World War II fighting alongside the British Army in Syria. While he was monitoring the enemy using binoculars, a sharpshooter hit him with a bullet. The binoculars stopped the bullet, so his life was saved, but the binocular glass shattered in his eye and he lost it with some pieces staying in his eye socket. He couldn’t adjust to an artificial eye due to the pain, so he started using an eye-patch instead. But once this medically required device was selected, the eye-patch became Dayan’s defining feature, giving him the aura of a fearless bandit. All that it took to depict Dayan in caricatures was to draw a circle and add the eye-patch. There was no need to draw the ears, nose, or mouth.
With Arafat, though, it was different. Arafat had deliberately selected his costume (in the old days, he also always wore dark eye glasses—even at night—but when I met him, he had already discarded that part of the costume). The image he adopted was that of a constant, unyielding rebel (in Israel, that image was perceived as the epitome of the arch-terrorist). He never shaved because revolutionaries aren’t supposed to have time to shave. He always wore uniform and carried a gun because he wanted to exemplify the fighter who must always be on guard, ready to go into battle. And as for the headdress, while, as Arafat had said, he arranged it to look like—and symbolize—the map of Greater Palestine (including Israel), I suspected it was actually intended to cover his bald head. I looked around the room. Everyone was wearing his best suit and nicest tie. Some even stuck a colorful handkerchief in the front pocket of their coat. Everyone was clean-shaven and I could sense that, in preparation for this celebratory event, a few had applied a more generous amount of aftershave to their faces. What a strong message Arafat could have sent to Israel and the entire world if, suddenly, he too had shown up, for the first time in his life, clean-shaven, wearing a nice suit and a tie. But no, not Arafat. Apparently, the clothes do make the man. Arafat’s message—addressed to his people—continued to be defiant. He agreed to forgo the gun but stuck to the uniform. So, out of Rabin’s demands, he accepted one and rejected the other. Just as I did a few minutes ago with regard to the four last-minute Palestinian demands for DOP changes. All that remained to watch for was whether or not there would be hugging and kissing.
Green Light to Proceed
I made a beeline for Rabin to close the loop on the DOP changes. After I reported to Rabin and Peres, who stood by Rabin’s side, on the agreement I had reached with the Palestinians regarding their four last-minute demands, Rabin expressed his satisfaction. The State Department Protocol guy, who was also standing nearby and heard Rabin approving the deal, darted to the other side of the room where Arafat was standing to inform him of the resolution of the four issues. I saw Arafat nodding his head in agreement. The crisis was over.
I later learned that Clinton had conveyed to Arafat the need to avoid hugging or kissing Rabin and, just to be on the safe side, Clinton also rehearsed maneuvers with his aides to physically block any possible attempts by Arafat to hug or kiss Rabin. At the same time, Clinton also broke the news to Rabin that he had decided that a handshake must take place between Rabin and Arafat. Clinton well recalled the 1979 Israel-Egypt Treaty of Peace signing ceremony that took place at the White House where President Jimmy Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat were seen clasping their hands in a triangular handshake signaling that a new era of peace commenced. Clinton immediately knew there must be a handshake here, too. The deal will not be perceived by the world to be a deal without it. Rabin swallowed the news with dignity, even though, looking quite shaken, he repeated his request: “But no kissing.”
I don’t know whether the Bard of Avon was correct in observing that, “All the world’s a stage.” But on September 13, 1993, the White House clearly turned into a big stage. After Begin and Sadat shook hands in the White House in 1979 before the cheering audience and were later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir famously quipped: “Rather than the Nobel, they deserved an Oscar.” Theatrics is always intertwined with Middle East peacemaking. Indeed, on September 13, 1993, the elevated podium on which the signing ceremony would occur momentarily began looking like a stage. The people invited to attend the event were seated on chairs arranged in rows, just like in a theater. And over the foregoing three days, Clinton, Rabin, and Arafat were dealing with the costumes that Arafat, a main protagonist in this show, would wear. These three characters also discussed their movements during the play’s climax, and Clinton even rehearsed them with his aides. All of these visuals, one must admit, were much more important than the script that I wrote for this play—the text of the DOP.
Now that the crisis was over, Clinton and company began to prepare to walk out of the White House to take their places on the podium. I turned around and hurried back to the White House South Lawn to take my place next to the podium.
At 11:07 a.m., seven minutes after the planned start time, the ceremony began. Clinton and all the other dignitaries began walking out of the White House to the South Lawn, most of them being seated on the front row chairs reserved for them. Clinton, Rabin, Peres, Arafat, Abu Mazen, Christopher, and Kozyrev stepped up to the podium and stood in a line behind the table on which the DOP would soon be signed. I was standing at the right side of the podium, waiting for the time the actual signing would begin to climb onto the podium and assist Peres with the signing. But first, the speeches. Everyone spoke, but at the time, my exhaustion began to show and the celebratory words turned into a long buzz in my head.
Only when Rabin began to talk in his typically frank manner did I tune again. I assume that the military background Rabin and I shared made his words that seemed to come from his heart so appealing to me. They summed up exactly what I thought. Among other things, Rabin said:
We have come from Jerusalem, the ancient and eternal capital of the Jewish people. We have come from an anguished and grieving land. We have come from a people, a home, a family that has not known a single year not a single month in which mothers have not wept for their sons. We have come to try and put an end to the hostilities, so that our children, our children’s children, will no longer experience the painful cost of war, violence and terror. We have come to secure their lives and to ease the sorrow and the painful memories of the past to hope and pray for peace.
Let me say to you, the Palestinians: We are destined to live together on the same soil, in the same land. 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 into the eyes of their parents, we who have come from a land where parents bury their children, we who have fought against you, the Palestinians.
We say to you today in a loud and a clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough. We have no desire for revenge. We harbor no hatred towards you. We, like you, are people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, to live side by side with you in dignity, in empathy, 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 the arms.
And then the speeches were over and the signing time arrived. Peres was to sign first. According to a cue agreed earlier with the Protocol Office, I climbed up the podium and assisted Peres with signing all copies of the DOP in all the right places and then moved back to the side of the podium to allow the others to sign. Within just a couple of minutes, the signing ended and, as planned and rehearsed, Clinton embraced Rabin and Arafat and almost pushed them one against the other so as to make them shake their hands.
The applause and roar that came from the audience was almost deafening. It was only then that I noticed the size of the crowd. I then finally allowed myself to succumb to my exhaustion. My role was over for that day. There was no longer a need for me to remain focused, so my brain finally shut down, and my memories of the rest of that day are completely blurred. A lunch hosted by Secretary of State Warren Christopher. A glimpse of Clinton, Rabin, Arafat, and Peres standing on the White House lawn being photographed holding shirts of “Seeds of Peace,” an organization quickly created to support people-to-people contacts between young Israelis and Palestinians. Different people talking with me, asking questions, shaking my hand. But what I really recall is simply the anti-climactic feeling: It’s finally done.
Did You Feel the Winds of Change Blow?
People often ask me how I felt on September 13, 1993. Was my spirit elevated? Was I aware of how important that event was? That history was being made? And how did I feel about the fact that, at the center of this historic event was the DOP, the agreement that I had written? The entire world, billions of people, so it seemed, was watching the event on television. So how did I feel being there? Normally, those questions are asked with dreamy eyes and an expectation of an affirmative, poetic response.
My usual answer is that I felt nothing like this. Rather, my feeling was a strange combination of total exhaustion and razor-sharp focus. During the four months that I spent negotiating the DOP, and particularly the three weeks prior to the September 13 signing ceremony, I was constantly flying back and forth between Norway, Washington, and Jerusalem, almost never spending more than two to three days in the same country, barely sleeping four hours per night and often forgoing sleep altogether. And all the while, I was negotiating issues that were of the utmost importance to Israel and the entire Middle East, arguing over every word, and sometimes every comma, in an atmosphere sometimes so tense that I would not have been shocked had the space-time continuum itself snapped. The combination of tension and sleeplessness resulted in a level of exhaustion I had never before experienced, and have not since.
And yet as soon as I arrived in the U.S. capital and learned about the last-minute crisis that required re-negotiating the DOP, something clicked in my mind and brought back the necessary focus, notwithstanding my exhaustion. It was as if a secret cache of energy exists somewhere inside your body that is kept there for those rare instances when you need it after all your normal energy has been depleted. A “to do” list formed in my mind that included all the steps that had to be taken in a very short time, with the last step being: See to it that the DOP is executed properly before you collapse. All the while, as I was moving from one step to the next one, I was 100 percent focused on what needed to be done, and the rest of the world simply disappeared. I stood by the President of the United States and barely noticed him. The White House was filled on that day with numerous famous guests, some of them the most important people in the world. Kings and Princes, Presidents and Prime Minsiters stood around me or walked by, but they were all reduced to background noise. I was focused on the DOP alone.
In such a situation, there is no room left in your mind for emotions or contemplative perception of the circumstances in which you operate or the impact of what you do. This privilege is left to the audience alone. All that I remember from that day are boxes I checked on the list of things required for the successful execution of the DOP. And, of course, as I recall in the clearest manner possible, item No. 1 on that “to do” list was to get a clean shirt.
After the DOP was signed, and before we boarded the plane on the way back to Israel, a thought kept bothering me: Why did the Palestinians create the 11th-hour crisis with their ultimatum of not showing up at the signing ceremony if their demands were not met? I understood why they had a valid point, at least for two of their demands. What troubled me was the manner in which they attempted to extract changes in the DOP, after it had been agreed to and initialed.
Was this just a bump in the road on their way from being a terrorist organization, whose objective was to break the accepted rules, to a more civilized organization, which strives to comply with the international norms? Or was that conduct reflective of Arafat’s unique personality? Or perhaps that was part of a well-thought-out set of tactics of negotiations on the edge? Or was the crisis created because of the friction between the formal, West Bank/Gaza-based, front-channel, non-PLO Palestinian team and the informal, Tunis-based, back-channel, PLO group, as they were taking their first step toward becoming a consolidated delegation, with each still having different habits and objectives, resulting in some chaotic conduct?
And what if Arafat actually wanted the crisis to not be resolved before the ceremony began, but rather to have an opportunity to stage the crisis, then have it developed and resolved, through obtaining additional Israeli concessions, in full view of the world’s media, to show the Palestinian people his resolve?
I would soon learn what the correct answer was: All of the above.