Photos: The Oslo Accord, Behind the Scenes


(Courtesy, Robert McNeely)

January 6, 2016

The street violence that has roiled Jerusalem in recent months has left scores dead in a wave of stabbings, shootings and other attacks. Once again, hopes for Middle East peace have dimmed.

For a brief window starting in 1993, the outlook felt much different. As the new FRONTLINE documentary, Netanyahu at War, highlights, that September, President Bill Clinton hosted Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat at the White House to sign the Oslo Accord. The historic agreement established a framework for peace, signaling a possible end to decades of violence.

In a recently released collection of images from inside the White House that day — which we discovered while gathering still images for the film — the hope and tension of the moment can be seen on the faces of Clinton, Arafat and Rabin. FRONTLINE recently spoke with the Chief White House photographer during the Clinton years, Robert McNeely, about the photographs, and what he remembers about the charged climate that day.

“The event was the singular biggest event that had occurred at the White House since the Clinton administration had been there,” said McNeely, “It was huge.”

Courtesy, William J. Clinton Presidential Library; National Archives & Records Administration

Israelis and Palestinians negotiated the Oslo Accord in secret after years of public talks had failed. When Clinton learned of the agreement, he told advisors that only by having Arafat and Rabin together at the White House for a signing ceremony would the world believe they were serious about peace. For Clinton — pictured above waiting to greet both leaders — the public signing of the accord was as important as the agreement itself.

“There was a sense that it was a very big first step to Mideast peace, which had been a goal of so many people for so long,” McNeely said. He recalled Clinton being excited, nervous and full of hope prior to the event.

Courtesy, William J. Clinton Presidential Library; National Archives & Records Administration

Others inside the White House were anxious. Even up to the last minute, key advisors could not be sure how Arafat, pictured above, and Rabin, would get along. Recalled Dennis Ross, Clinton’s Middle East peace envoy, in an interview with FRONTLINE:

Rabin was insisting that Arafat can’t come in anything that looks like a uniform … We’re telling Arafat, “Don’t even — You can’t come with a — You don’t bring a weapon.” You know, he always had a pistol. “You don’t bring a weapon to the White House.”

Courtesy, William J. Clinton Presidential Library; National Archives & Records Administration

In the Diplomatic Reception Room, Clinton explained to Arafat and Rabin how the signing ceremony would unfold. There was no formal rehearsal or walk through that day, which added to the nervousness among those in attendance, including Rabin. As former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger told FRONTLINE:

At a point, the president looks at Rabin and he says, “You know, Yitzhak, you’re going to have to shake his hand.”

Rabin looked like someone had punched him in the stomach. [Arafat] is a man he considered a terrorist all his life. This is a general who’d fought four wars against the Arabs … And he stood there for a moment. And he said to Clinton, “OK, but no kissing”

So we then went down to the Oval Office and we worked out maneuvers with Clinton of how — Arafat liked to kiss, usually three kisses. And we worked out sort of football/basketball moves of how Clinton could step in various ways. If Arafat made a lunge toward Rabin, how Clinton could break them up.

Courtesy, Robert McNeely

Above, Rabin waits in the Blue Room before the event begins, “thinking within himself,” said McNeely.

Over six years as the chief White House photographer, McNeely photographed countless heads of state, but Rabin, he said, was different.

“There are different world leaders that you meet over time that you just feel a sense of humanity from — Rabin was one of those. Just very human and very real.”

Courtesy, Robert McNeely

In the moments before the official signing, the Israeli delegation grew concerned that McNeely’s pictures might make Rabin look too friendly with his longtime rival, Arafat.

“And [former Vice President Al] Gore comes over to me and says ‘Bob, the Israelis are getting a little nervous about all of these pictures. Would you mind if that is it?'” Although McNeely typically resisted anyone who tried to stop him from photographing Clinton, he said he understood. “As I start to leave I turn around to see this scene. Arafat is on one side of the room and Rabin is on the other.” It is a wide shot (above) that McNeely said he would have not taken, had he not been asked to leave.

Courtesy, Robert McNeely

As Clinton, Arafat and Rabin waited to be announced for the signing ceremony, McNeely said that there was “A real sense of nerves for the three of them, each in their individual way. The three of them are deep inside their own thoughts as they head out.”

Courtesy, William J. Clinton Presidential Library; National Archives & Records Administration

McNeely recalled the vastness of the event and responded by preparing a team of four White House photographers and one freelancer to capture every angle.

“The idea that finally Yasser Arafat and the prime minister of Israel were together to endorse something publicly like this was visually, historically, a big deal … I had everybody on every stand.”

Among the White House team was Sharon Farmer, who took the above head-on shot of the White House.

Courtesy, William J. Clinton Presidential Library; National Archives & Records Administration

The most iconic photograph of the day — the handshake — was taken by freelance photographer Vince Musi. Clinton reflexively put his arms around the two men, said McNeely. “That was spontaneous, part of the moment.”

Courtesy, William J. Clinton Presidential Library; National Archives & Records Administration

After the signing, President Clinton met with Arafat in the map room before escorting him out through the White House residence. For Arafat, that day in September marked a major shift in both his life and the life of the movement he led, the PLO. After years denouncing Israel’s right to exist, Arafat said he was ready to accept the existence of the state of Israel. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat recalled speaking with Arafat that day at the White House:

He knew what was going on. He knew the risks he was taking. He knew that transformations of our society is not going to be an easy one. He knew the turbulences in the Middle East … He’s a visionary. So I will not say that he was extremely optimistic, but he said one line to all of us. [He] said, “We have a long, long, long journey, and today it is a very, very, very small step.”

Courtesy, William J. Clinton Presidential Library; National Archives & Records Administration

Rabin joined Clinton for lunch in the Oval Dining Room. The two leaders had a deep connection, remembered McNeely, who said he could see it in their interactions.

“Clinton obviously enjoyed Rabin’s company and was very animated when they talked,” he said. “They smiled a lot and their body language was very open and friendly.”

Two years later, Rabin would be assassinated, and the peace process would slowly fall apart. Arafat died in 2004. Both men had come close to a peace process, but it wasn’t to be.

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

What Utah Police Can do to Reduce the Times They Shoot at Minorities
A decade of data clearly shows police in Utah disproportionately shoot at racial and ethnic minorities. What isn’t so clear is what to do about it.
September 22, 2021
New Data on Utah Police Shootings and Race Called ‘Extremely Uncomfortable’, ‘Disappointing’
Racial and ethnic minorities account for a third of the people shot at by Utah police over the past decade — despite these groups making up just a quarter of the population.
September 20, 2021
Most Minneapolis Voters Believe Crime Is on the Rise, New Poll Finds
An overwhelming majority of likely Minneapolis voters say crime is on the rise, a view strongly held by residents of every race, gender and age group across the city, according to a new Minnesota poll, our Local Journalism Initiative partner the Star Tribune reports.
September 18, 2021
Minnesota Poll: Most Minneapolis Voters Want Reform, Not Fewer Cops
A clear majority of Minneapolis voters oppose reducing the size of the city’s police force — a feeling that’s especially strong among Black voters, according to a new poll. At the same time, voters are showing support for replacing the police department with a new agency, our Local Journalism Initiative partner the Star Tribune finds.
September 18, 2021