Rabin, Arafat and a handshake of hope

It was twenty years ago today. On September 13 1993, in bright sunshine and nudged together by Bill Clinton – younger than the others, but playing the father figure – Yitzhak Rabin extended a reluctant hand to a smiling Yasser Arafat before an audience on the White House lawn.

In that moment it seemed that an end to more than a century of violence between Jews and Arabs was at least possible, if not imminent. Rabin certainly appeared eager to perform the last rites on the conflict. “Enough of blood and tears,” he bellowed, “enough.”

Euphoria was the order of the day. That even the old sabra warrior had been able to overcome his visceral revulsion and take Arafat's hand suggested a genuine peace was within reach. As a twentysomething journalist who imagined spending much of his future career covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I naively wondered if I would have to find a new area to specialize in.

I needn't have worried. As everyone knows, the Oslo accords agreed two decades ago did not bring the peace dreamed of that day. Less than a year later, Hamas suicide bombs were exploding on Israeli buses and within two years Rabin was dead at the hands of a Jewish extremist. Today the two sides remain as divided as they were then, all the key issues still unresolved. Talks are underway in 2013 to tackle questions that seemed about to be answered in 1993.

But today is not just a fateful anniversary. It is also Kol Nidre, the start of Yom Kippur when tradition demands we reflect and atone for what we have got badly wrong. The coincidence of the two dates has had me looking back on what I have written and said on Israel/Palestine these last 20 years - and wondering if I should regret the argument at the heart of it.

Again and again, I have insisted that the “current situation” is unsustainable, that Israel cannot indefinitely postpone the day it reconciles with the Palestinians, that it cannot forever occupy the territories it gained in the war of 1967. And yet I look at Israel 20 years after Oslo and, on the contrary, it looks like a country where the status quo is very sustainable indeed. The economy hums along nicely, the restaurants are full, the people sunning themselves on the beach. While violence rages in the surrounding region, Israel sees itself more than ever, says Haaretz editor Aluf http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/20/jewish-majority-isr... Benn, deliberately deploying a notorious phrase, as “a villa in the jungle.”

Even so, I cannot beat my chest and atone for saying that this cannot hold. Even if it has lasted 20 years, even if it lasts another 20, this will not be viable forever. As we welcome a new chief rabbi, it's worth remembering the words of an old one, Immanuel Jakobovits, who warned that Israel could not “lord” it over another people, ruling them against their will, without end. That was not a passing observation on the geopolitics of the day, but rather the statement of a moral truth that will assert itself eventually.

Now there is a chance to act. Bibi Netanyahu is unchallenged http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/09/netanyahu-israel-leade... at the top of Israeli politics; Mahmoud Abbas is in a rare position of strength, his Hamas rivals weakened by their Islamist allies’ removal in Egypt. Events have given the two the space to move toward each other. Perhaps this should be among our reflections, even our prayers, this Yom Kippur: the hope that we get closer to the peace we glimpsed in the sunshine two decades ago – and that this time, it is no mirage.

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the Guardian

Last updated: 5:45am, September 13 2013