Empty Handshakes

The world was agog with the anticipation of a handshake that was supposed to take place in New York on September 24, 2013 and perhaps be the start of international rapprochement between Iran and the United States after the breakage of relations in 1979. However, the friendly overtures to the West and to Israel by the new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani and his charm offensive, so different from his predecessor, did not lead to a personal meeting at the United Nations with President Barack Obama. There was no meeting of minds, let alone of hands.

Apparently, according to official sources, a handshake at this point was too complicated for the Iranian leader, who has to be conscious that he could be attacked politically by hardliners in Tehran for touching Obama. It is an enticing notion to learn from this of real political dialog in Iran, usually considered a monolithic society, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, where dissent is dangerous and sometimes deadly.

More likely, the hands-off nonevent was a deliberate snub by the Iranians who may regard Obama as weak and indecisive because he has been so equivocal about action regarding the chemical weapons in Syria, and who therefore do not take him or his indeterminate threats seriously. Moreover, the non-handshake suggests that President Rouhani's charm offensive may be directed less towards genuine reconciliation with the West and more towards reducing or ending economic pressure on Iran and to continuing its nuclear program.

The whole incident comes twenty years after a handshake that at the time seemed historic and portended an equally dramatic change in international relations. This event occurred on September 13, 1993 in the garden at the White House when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, head of the PLO, shook hands with the beaming President Bill Clinton in the middle, in a setting partly choreographed by Rahm Emanuel, now mayor of Chicago. Clinton had not been directly involved in the secret negotiations in Oslo that had led to the meeting but he presided in jubilant fashion over the last stages of the drama being played.

The photo of the occasion shows clearly the discomfort of Rabin in greeting the PLO leader, but nevertheless the important Oslo Accords were signed on that day. The outcome was the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements. The main points were the establishment of an authority for the Palestinian people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for a transitional period not exceeding five years, leading to a permanent settlement based on Security Resolutions 242 and 338. Permanent status arrangements were supposed to begin as soon as possible and would cover issues including Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, borders, relations and cooperation with other neighbors, and other issues of common interest.

Other agreements followed the Oslo Accords including "Oslo 2" in 1995 that outlined both the responsibilities and jurisdictions of Israel and the Palestinians, and also the functions of the Palestinian Authority (PA) that had been created. The whole process was based on the premise that agreement by the parties on some issues would build trust, and that would help lead to agreement on the most important, difficult issues in the permanent status negotiations.

Yet skepticism was in order from the start. Rabin returned to a country that was divided on the Oslo Accords. The Israeli Knesset approved the agreement was by 61-50, with 8 abstentions and 1 voting present. Rabin soon suffered the sad fate of being assassinated at a peace rally in Tel Aviv on November 4, 1995.
Yasser Arafat, by contrast, did not convene the Palestinian National Council to discuss the agreement as he should have done. He remained chairman of the PLO, which Rabin had recognized as the sole representative of the Palestinian people, from 1969 to 2004, and president of the PA. In retrospect it is evident that the historic handshake may have been symbolic but had little meaning of any substantive nature. Arafat was lauded in Washington for the handshake but his own earlier words, more meaningful than his symbolic gesture, seemed forgotten.

On November 10, 1974 in an interview with Oriana Fallaci that was reported in the Washington Post, Arafat said, "The goal of our struggle is the end of Israel. And there can be no compromises or mediators... We don't want peace, we want victory. Peace for us means Israel's destruction and nothing else."

Israel by contrast did make compromises. It initially withdrew its forces, the IDF, from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. Since then the PA has administration over those areas; in the West Bank, which was divided into three jurisdictional areas, the PA has control of Areas A and B while Israel administers Area C where almost all the settlements are located.

Further attempts at compromise have failed, at Taba, Egypt, in 2001 and Annapolis, Maryland, in 2007, which was intended to implement the "Roadmap for Peace" and restart the negotiations on a final status agreement. At that meeting, then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went so far as to declare that Israel was prepared to give parts of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians for a final settlement. Even so Hamas, now in charge of Gaza, called for a boycott of the Annapolis meeting.

Similarly, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu established a ten-month moratorium on Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank the PA regarded this as an insufficient gesture. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the PA, regards all Israeli settlements as "illegal." Moreover, Abbas calls for the end of the "occupation of all lands since 1967 including East Jerusalem. Syria Golan, and occupied Lebanese territory," as well as a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. For him East Jerusalem would be the capital of a Palestinian state.

The differences between the parties are acute. In his speech at Bar Ilan University on June 14, 2009, Netanyahu, stating "we do not want to rule over them," had endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state if Jerusalem were to remain the united capital of Israel. In recent weeks Secretary of State John Kerry has been attempting to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but he ought to be wary, as the past twenty years show that handshakes do not necessarily lead to desired or agreeable results. The memory of Arafat's refusal to engage in serious peace talks for ten years after the handshake should inject a note of caution about a desirable outcome of the hoped for and much anticipated handshake between Rouhani and Obama.