Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who rose to Israel’s premiership on the strength of his revulsion for Yasser Arafat, shook the Palestinian leader’s hand Wednesday evening and discarded a central tenet of his Likud Party career.
It was a grim and lock-jawed handshake, conducted at arms length after negotiated assurances that Arafat would not attempt an embrace or plant a kiss upon the Israeli leader’s cheek. But it transformed Israeli politics even so, conferring recognition on Arafat and Palestinian self-rule by the one-time leader of mainstream opposition to both.
“Arafat made peace with the other half of Israel today,” said Terje Larsen, the Norwegian academic who brokered the first agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization three years ago and helped save their talks in intensive mediation these past few weeks.
The two sides remain worlds apart on the shape of their future together, and their progress on substance was little more than a mutual pledge - still hedged a bit by Netanyahu - to comply with their obligations under previous accords. There is no agreement yet on the time or manner of Israel’s overdue withdrawal of army troops from most of the West Bank city of Hebron, and the parties have not even begun to talk about the further territorial compromise that was due to be completed three days from now.
But after nearly three months of deadlock and intimations of a return to bloodshed, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk said “the meeting is the message, regardless of content.
“It’s an important meeting because in the process of organizing this meeting they came to appreciate that they are partners in the peace process and not adversaries,” he said. “In this case they also agreed on a road map for the conduct of their negotiations.”
It took 80 days in government to complete the reversal of Netanyahu’s 14-year public brief for ostracism of Arafat as a terrorist interested only in Israel’s destruction. As recently as seven months ago, at the start of Israel’s spring election campaign, Netanyahu stated flatly that he would never meet with the Palestinian Authority chief. By April, in the campaign’s final days, he said he would “consider” a meeting if it became “essential to the security of Israel,” but the centerpiece of his television campaign remained an attack advertisement demonizing Arafat and showing footage of then-prime minister Shimon Peres holding Arafat’s hand.
Wednesday evening, after an hour and a quarter of private talks, Netanyahu and Arafat climbed the very same staircase depicted in that ad for a joint appearance.
“After my talks here today, I can observe that both parties reiterate their commitment to the interim agreement and their determination to carry out its implementation,” Netanyahu said setting his face in a stony mask and taking care not to smile even once while the cameras rolled.