The Arafat-Rabin handshake 20 years on

September 13, 2013

By Gary Hershorn

There I was on Saturday, September 11, 1993 waiting for the U.S. Open women’s tennis final to start in New York when I received a call from my manager at the time, Larry Rubenstein, that I had to return to Washington the following night as soon as the men’s final was finished to help cover what he said was a big event Monday morning. “There is going to be an historic handshake and you need to be there so just get back to DC,” he said.

Word had come that PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were going to attend the signing of the Israeli-PLO peace accord with President Clinton on the back lawn of the White House. I was told to do whatever I needed to in order to get out of New York on Sunday night after the men’s final and be at the White House at dawn Monday morning.

It was a great honor to be told by my boss that I would be the Reuters photographer on the main camera platform in front of the stage where the signing was taking place but before that happened, I had two tennis finals to photograph and make sure I actually arrived back in Washington on Sunday night before I could allow myself to start thinking about how I wanted to capture the historic moment.

For two days all I thought about was what would happen if the tennis final went five long sets and on Sunday night I missed my flight back to DC. How would I ever accept missing what was expected to be the biggest handshake in Washington since Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin shook Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s hand with President Carter on the front lawn of the White House during their peace treaty signing in March 1979.

As I remember 20 years ago, Steffi Graf won the women’s title, Peter Sampras took care of Cedric Pioline in straight sets to win the men’s championship, the car service I hired to take me from the tennis center to La Guardia Airport worked perfectly, the flight wasn’t cancelled and I walked into my apartment about 11 p.m. Now came the fun part, two hours of getting all the equipment I needed ready for the morning event before getting a few short hours of sleep before the big event.

One of the reasons I was asked to photograph this event from the main camera platform was that as a predominantly sports focused photographer, I was well equipped with the use of remote cameras. Larry asked me how many cameras I could set up and trigger in addition to the camera I was shooting with my eye. In the end I used four remote cameras set up in various locations on the platform with lenses from wide angle to telephoto so we had as many views as we could of the expected handshake.

An event like this is, for the most part, easy to set up for. The White House left little to chance with the chairs for Arafat, Clinton and Rabin clearly marked and perfectly positioned behind the signing table directly in front of us so we knew exactly where the handshake would occur. With everything laid out so well, it was easy to decide what lenses the remote cameras needed, where they had to be pointed and where their focus needed to be set to. I chose to shoot with a 400mm lens with my eye and set up one remote camera directly beside me focused on the chairs where the handshake would occur so if I was out of focus with the camera I was photographing with, I would have a back up.

It would be easy to ask at this point, how can you be out of focus on such an important moment especially when photographing two people standing still in front of you. Well, as the moment approaches the butterflies set in, your hands get sweaty and you start to question all your decisions and being out of focus is entirely possible.

With the set up complete, all that was left was the wait for the event to happen. I remember having a discussion with colleagues, what if they don’t shake hands? What if they sign a document look at each other, turn around and head back into the White House? How disappointing would that be for everyone? It didn’t take long before the ceremony began and all the participants arrived on stage to take their marked spots. The documents were signed. Everyone stood up and all I remember was a pause – a pause that seemed like and eternity when Arafat and Rabin didn’t exactly know what to do next. With what seemed like a small little nudge from President Clinton’s outstretched arms, PLO Chairman Arafat reached first in the direction of Prime Minister Rabin who sported what seemed like a little puzzled look before he himself put his hand firmly into Arafat’s.

Just like that, the moment happened, history was made and our camera motors fired off sequences from every possible angle recording a momentous occasion. As quick as it happened, it was over and the race began to be the first news agency with a picture sent out on the news wires. Remember this was the pre-digital era so the film was gathered up from all the photographers and cameras and sent by a runner back to the Reuters office six blocks from the White House where it was developed, edited, scanned and transmitted to the world.

As would be expected when photographers are basically standing on top of each other we all had the same images with a very slight nuance from one to the next. A competitor of Reuters had more pictures published in the newspapers in the U.S. but Reuters won the publication around the world. It was a great day to be a photographer, one that reminds you that we do get to witness historic moments and are beyond privileged to be the recorders of the world’s great events.

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