Seconds before showtime, Bill Clinton received an urgent warning from a young aide: "Mr. President, you need to straighten your tie."
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Clinton reached for his neck. Taking a cue from their host, three Middle East leaders reached for theirs. Only the tieless Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, kept his hands at his side. That's him in the kaffiyeh, of course, no less a part of this fraternal tableau for his lack of Western attire. The man who was once his mortal enemy, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, is on the left. In an instant, they would walk into the White House East Room to sign the latest installment of the delicately crafted peace plan known as the Oslo Accords.
It was a silly picture that White House photographer Barbara Kinney snapped—"People tend to smile when they see it," she says—but also an intimate and intensely hopeful one. Or so it seemed that afternoon ten years ago, September 28, 1995. Here were statesmen checking themselves out like groomsmen on history's backstage.
Photographic images are frozen in time, but the meanings they evoke are fluid. Kinney's picture once stood for possibility. These were leaders representing peoples who had hated and killed each other for decades, but in the friendly glow of Bill Clinton's White House they were bonded—if not by mutual affection, then at least by mutual vanity. They were in Washington to sign the second phase of Oslo, a pact designed to lead within five years to the permanent settlement of conflicting Israeli and Palestinian claims over the Holy Land. The second phase would cede partial autonomy over parts of the West Bank to the Palestinians. The presence of the two men at the center of the photograph, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and King Hussein of Jordan, was especially important. They lent the imprimatur of the broader Arab world to the agreement—it was not simply a matter of relying on Arafat and his erratic ways.
A far more famous picture of Clinton as peacemaker had been taken two years earlier, on the White House South Lawn. That's when Oslo was unveiled and Clinton orchestrated a handshake between Rabin and Arafat. But the truth is that Clinton did not really have much to do with the initial accord, which the Palestinians and Israelis had negotiated directly, and secretly, and then presented to the White House. Rabin's handshake had been tentative and grudging.
For the people most familiar with the peace process, Kinney's image is more resonant. It was spontaneous, not staged. And it reflected the new comfort the Middle East leaders—especially Rabin and Arafat—had with one another and with the idea that their bloodstained region was ready at last to alter the grim continuities of history.
"There was a sense of bonhomie and camaraderie and trust among these guys—the Peace Brothers," recalls Martin Indyk, who was U.S. ambassador to Israel at the time and was in the room when Kinney raised her camera.
These days, the photograph evokes not possibility, but defeat. Within six weeks, Rabin would be dead, killed by a right-wing Israeli fanatic who did not like the former war hero's moves toward peace. Clinton was devastated. Later, he would become a more commanding figure on the world stage, but in 1995 he was still in many ways an apprentice in foreign affairs. He revered Rabin, an older man who had known violence and struggle and physical valor in ways Clinton had only read about. After Rabin's death, and despite the gradual unraveling of Oslo, Clinton persevered for his remaining five years in office to forge peace in the Middle East. But all his coaxing, and blandishments and all-nighters at Camp David were no match for Arafat's unwillingness to confront his own people's hatreds and embrace any role other than victim.
In the final hours of Clinton's presidency, when Arafat told him he was a "great man," Clinton recounts in his memoir that he responded vehemently: "I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you have made me one."
So Kinney's moment echoes ambiguously. Was it simply small, terrible twists of fate that prevented peace? Or was the hope these men felt that day always an illusion? Indyk believes the expansive possibilities of September 28, 1995, were real. Dennis Ross, the veteran U.S. negotiator for the Middle East, suggests the same in his memoir, The Missing Peace. Ross describes how, on that morning, Rabin and Arafat resolved a last-minute dispute over wording in an intense one-on-one conversation in Clinton's private study just off the Oval Office—the sort of exchange that had not happened earlier and has not happened since. Meanwhile, the other Middle Eastern leaders were talking in let's-get-it-done tones not just about the Oslo agreement, but about all the outstanding issues of the region, such as a settlement between Israel and Syria.