Photos: The Oslo Accord, Behind the Scenes

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(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.”

whthouse_clinton
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.

whthouse_clinton_arafat
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.”

whthouse_clinton_rabin_arafat2
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.

whthouse_rabin_portrait
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.”

whthouse_bluerm
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.

whthouse_arafat_clinton_rabin
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.”

whthouse_lawn
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.

rabin_arafat_handshake
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.”

whthouse_clinton_arafat3
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.”

whthouse_rabin_clinton
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.


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