New biography tries to answer the ‘What if?’ hovering over Yitzhak Rabin’s legacy

 

 

In 1986, Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel's defense minister, arrives at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Credit: Sgt. Robert G. Clambus via Wikimedia Commons.

By Rabbi Jack Riemer/JNS.org    

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin embodied the qualities of his generation: toughness, gruffness and idealism.

He started out intending to be a farmer. The realities of life in Israel in the 1940s forced him to become a soldier. The frustrations of trying to run an effective army amid never-ending political intrigue forced him to become a politician. Then the realization that the army could not guarantee Israel’s security forever forced him to become a peacemaker. Just as only an anti-communist, like President Richard Nixon, could reach out to China, so too only a man totally committed to Israel’s security, as Rabin was, might have been trusted by the Israeli people to make the concessions and sacrifices that peace would require. We will never know what would have happened had Rabin lived, but the man who killed the prime minister also killed the Arab-Israeli peace process he was working on.

Every year for the last 20 years, on the anniversary of his death, young people gather by the thousands at the place where he was assassinated—now called Rabin Square—to mourn his loss and the lost opportunity for peace. “What if?” is an impossible question to answer. We will never know, but the forthcoming biography of Rabin by Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. and chief negotiator with Syria under Rabin, makes the case that the prime minister would have taken the risks for his concept of “peace with safeguards,” no matter what opposition stood in his way.

Rabinovich tells the story of Rabin’s three careers: soldier, politician and peacemaker. He recounts how Rabin never gave an order to attack until he had first considered every risk and examined every detail to make sure that the attack would succeed. He tells of how Rabin, as commander of the entire Israeli army, would often interview ordinary soldiers after an attack in order to gain their perspective on what went right and what went wrong. Rabinovich explains that Rabin came out of a socialist home and a kibbutz background, and therefore never cared about rank. He felt he could learn from corporals and privates, not just from the top brass.

The cover of Itamar Rabinovich's new biography of Yitzhak Rabin. Credit: Yale University Press.

In the second stage of Rabin’s career, he entered politics, becoming Israel’s U.S. ambassador and eventually prime minister. He learned how crucial America is to Israel’s well-being and made important alliances with U.S. leaders. He learned that Israel is a morass of political intrigue. He was first a disciple and then a rival to both Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon. He was a subordinate, but also a threat to both Golda Meir and Abba Eban. During all his years in government, he engaged in a power struggle with Shimon Peres. Rabin and Peres were opposites in every way. Peres was a bold visionary, imaginative and ambitious, creative and restless, forever tinkering with new ideas. Rabin was cerebral and cautious, his feet firmly planted on the ground. Yet they ultimately came to understand that they were joined at the hip and, like it or not, they needed each other. When Rabin and Peres received the Nobel Peace Prize together with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the joke in Israel was that they were honored for making peace with each other, not with Arafat.

The greatest transformation in Rabin’s life came when he moved from being the guardian of Israel’s security to being the person willing to explore the possibility of making a lasting peace with Jordan, Syria and the Palestinians. Rabin came to the conclusion that Israel could not be a garrison state forever, and that it must find some way to make peace with its enemies. 

To put it mildly, Rabin was not a person who cared about ingratiating himself with anybody. When he became prime minister, he spoke out with contempt against those who regarded all the land of Israel as sacred and who would not yield an inch, even for the sake of the security of the state. He dismissed those people as a “a cancer on the State of Israel” and “propellers who only make noise,” which is surely not the most tactful way to persuade anyone to agree with your viewpoint. 

1994 Nobel Peace Prize laureates (from left to right) Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin pose in Oslo in 1994. Credit: Saar Yaacov/GPO.

Rabin believed he could not go to the Israeli public and ask them to gamble for peace until he was first able to persuade Syria’s Hafez al-Assad to make the painful but necessary steps for peace. But Assad turned out to be no Anwar Sadat—the Egyptian president who signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Assad had no understanding of why he should make public gestures to win over Israeli public opinion when in Syria, public opinion was simply irrelevant. 

On the Palestinian front, Rabin would not ask the Israeli people to take risks for peace unless he was first able to persuade Arafat to guarantee that he would control the terrorists within the land he would govern. But Arafat—after learning from what happened to Sadat, who was assassinated two years after making peace with Israel—was unwilling to risk his life by doing so. We will never know whether Rabin could have persuaded the Israelis to make the concessions that peace would have required.

Rabinovich’s biography of Rabin is clear and objective. It is the work of a man who has substantial scholarly credentials—he currently heads the Israel Institute think tank—and who worked with Rabin in his efforts to make peace with Syria. The author describes Rabin’s meticulous attention to detail and his insistence on careful planning, which were both the late prime minister’s greatest assets and greatest faults. In the end, as this book makes clear, Rabin was not a dreamer but a realist, not a bold thinker but a careful planner, not a charismatic leader but an often intemperate and undiplomatic head of state. This leadership style—the inability to listen to and persuade those who differed with his goals—is what led to his demise.

Yet Rabin is remembered with ever-increasing nostalgia, not so much for what he did, but for what he symbolizes. He stands for the belief that there can be peace with safeguards, and that this belief is not the fantasy of naïve dreamers, but a real and practical possibility.

“Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman” (Jewish Lives series); by Itamar Rabinovich; Yale University Press (March 2017); 304 pages; ISBN-10: 0300212291; ISBN-13: 978-0300212297.

Posted on December 5, 2016 and filed under Book Review.