By Ray Fleming
IT was the cruelest of ironies that yesterday should have been the tenth anniversary of the handshake and signature by Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafaf, on the South Lawn of the White House, of an agreement for various steps towards reconciliation.

Almost simultaneously agreement on autonomy for predominantly Arab regions in Palestine was reached between the two sides in Oslo. The photographic record of the White House ceremony shows that Mr Rabin's hand was extended uncertainly, even reluctantly, but the fact remains that September 1993 was a time for justified hope in Israeli/Palestinian relations. The mood continued until two years later when Mr Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli at a peace rally; Benjamin Netanyahu formed his right–wing coalition in May 1996 and the impetus towards mutual respect and peace was lost.

Hope was restored briefly during the premiership of Ehud Barak, culminating in the Camp David talks at which the Israelis claimed that they had made an offer which Yassir Arafat could not refuse and then accused him of “never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity” when he did refuse it.

The offer was, in fact, much less generous than the claims made for it and certainly not enough to make Arafat sure the Palestinians as a whole would support what he agreed to.

Subsequent talks in Egypt came very close to an agreement but on that occasion it was Mr Barak who withdrew, nervous of whether he could carry his electorate with him. The combative Ariel Sharon arrived, intensified the occupation and extended the setttlements. Yassir Arafat cannot control the hostility that these policies provoke. The decade has ended in deep despair.

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