WASHINGTON -- It was impossible to sit there, on the South Lawn of the White House, watching Israel's Shimon Peres and the PLO's Abu Mazen put pen to paper, hearing all the talk about peace and hope and future generations living together, seeing the hand of Yitzhak Rabin clasping that of Yasser Arafat, and not be moved.
Running through the crowd of congressmen, diplomats, and dignitaries herded together to witness yesterday's signing ceremony was a hopefulness that was almost tangible, a hunger to believe that the drama unfolding before them was no drama at all, but the real article: peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
But for some of us, it wasn't so easy.
I looked at Yasser Arafat up there on the podium, exultant in his triumphant appearance in the American capital, and thought about the day he (or someone answerable to him, or loyal to him, or inspired by him) tried to kill me.
Jerusalem, 1977. I was a summer student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. On that morning, taking the bus up to the Mt. Scopus campus, I didn't notice the briefcase under the seat in front of me. But another passenger did, and when nobody claimed ownership, he told the driver. The bus was stopped and emptied, the street cordoned off. The bomb squad was called.
Yes, there was a bomb in that suitcase. One bad pothole, and another busful of statistics would have been added to all the other victims of the terrorism Yasser Arafat has spent decades advocating, planning, carrying out.
Is it possible -- really now, is it? -- that Arafat has had a change of heart? That the man whose followers danced with joy as Iraqi Scuds landed on Tel Aviv during the Gulf War really means, now, to make peace with Jews? That the man who threatened a fellow-Palestinian, Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij, with "10 bullets in the heart" for having dared to suggest a peaceful end to the intifada a few years back, is ready, now, to suppress that violence?
Yesterday wasn't a day for dwelling on such questions. It was a day for handshakes and hugs and the endlessly-repeated question: "Can you believe it?"
"Can you believe it?" asked Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, Saudi Arabia's silken ambassador to Washington. "A week ago, who could imagine Rabin and Arafat shaking hands? It goes to show: In our business, we can't afford to be pessimists - even if people think we are smoking something."
That's easy for a Saudi prince to say. But until last week, Bandar would have walked out of any room that Yitzhak Rabin walked into. Does Israel dare not be pessimistic?
Rabin, fearless soldier and tough politician, sounded like he dared. His were unquestionably the most moving words spoken on the South Lawn yesterday. "Let me say to you, the Palestinians: We are destined to live together on the same soil, in the same land. We, the soldiers who have returned from battle stained with blood -- we who have seen our relatives and friends killed before our eyes -- we who have attended their funerals and cannot look into the eyes of their parents -- we who have come from a land where parents bury their children -- we who have fought against you, the Palestinians -- We say . . . enough of blood and tears. Enough."
What President Clinton presided over yesterday was akin to a wedding uniting two clans with a long history of enmity. And far from being a mistake to do it so publicly, so formally, that was the whole point.
It was necessary to have the pomp and circumstance, to involve personally the President of the United States -- though he'd played no role in bringing the marriage about. It was necessary that the guest list include Henry Kissinger and Coretta Scott King and former Presidents Bush and Carter and the Russian foreign minister and the entire U.S. Congress.
For the more public the ceremony, the more intense the coverage, the more solemn the vows, the more luminous the witnesses -- the more everyone concerned will feel the pressure to make this union work.
That, at any rate, is the hope.
This marriage may well fall apart. It may end up annulled. But maybe, just maybe, what all those witnesses on the South Lawn were part of yesterday was the conceiving of that most elusive offspring of the Arab-Israeli encounter, a just and lasting peace.
(Jeff Jacoby is the Boston Herald's chief editorial writer.)