Yitzhak Rabin was one of Israel’s greatest leaders. The left lionized him as a peacemaker and, after Oslo, the right demonized him as a traitor. Neither seemed to pay close attention to his words, which contradicted the views of both. I was reminded of Rabin’s legacy on Jan. 28, the 46th anniversary of the date when he became the first Israeli prime minister to address a joint session of Congress.
The speech coincided with America’s celebration of the Bicentennial Year. He noted that the Liberty Bell is inscribed, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof,” which comes from Leviticus—Ukratem dror ba’aretz lchol yoshveha.
He reminded members of Congress that Israel’s Declaration of Independence echoed America’s, with the addition of “the principle that the Jewish people shall preserve its integrity and restore its national existence in its own land, despite the holocausts of history.”
“The war of 1776 and the war of 1948 were both battles of liberation,” Rabin observed. “What made them into revolutions was the human vision that fired them. It was a vision not only to win freedom, but also to construct new societies in freedom. In our case, it was the revolt of an ancient nation to put an end, once and for all, to homelessness, helplessness and holocaust. It was the assertion of our right to self-determination, to return to Zion, to reclaim it of the desolation of 20 centuries, to gather in the oppressed of our scattered sons and daughters, and to build there a new society inspired by the values of the old.”
Rabin then proceeded to explain the conflict with Israel’s neighbors in a clear and unequivocal way that contradicts the fantasies of the left and reinforces the views of the right.
“If I were to be asked to state in a word, what is the heart and the core of the Arab-Israel conflict, I would say this: It is the refusal of the Arab countries to reconcile themselves to the right of existence of one, small, viable, sovereign, Jewish state in the land of our people’s birth. By Jewish state, I mean an independent, democratic society, secular in the equality of all its citizens, Jew and non-Jew alike, before the law, and founded upon historic Jewish values.”
He spoke in 1976 before Israel signed treaties with Egypt and Jordan. His words were as applicable today as they were then regarding the Palestinians.
“I am saying that the question of territory, the matter of boundaries, the issue of maps were not, and are not, the true obstacles to peace,” he said. “Twenty-nine years ago, in 1947, we accepted a very truncated partitioned territory upon which to rebuild our Jewish statehood. It was not because of its shape or size that the Arab leaders rejected that U.N. partition plan. They went to war against us because they rejected our very right to freedom as an independent people.”
Rabin reminded his audience: “Defeat would have meant national holocaust and the eclipse of the Jewish people in history.”
Addressing the refugee issue, he said: “And just as every war reaps its inevitable tragic crop of refugees, so did the Arab war against Israel produce two refugee problems of almost equal size—an Arab one and a Jewish one from Arab countries.”
The victory in Israel’s War of Independence did not lead to peace because the Arabs “refused to reconcile themselves to a Jewish independent state.”
He recalled Israel’s victory in the 1956 Suez war. “At its end, we agreed to evacuate the Sinai Peninsula. Did Israel’s withdrawal from all the territory occupied in the war lead to peace? It did not even lead to a negotiation.”
Rabin reminded the members, “Until 1967, Israel did not hold an inch of the Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank, the Gaza Strip or the Golan Heights. Israel held not an acre of what is now considered disputed territory. And yet we enjoyed no peace. Year after year Israel called for—pleaded for—a negotiated peace with the Arab governments. Their answer was a blank refusal and more war.” He explained the reason had nothing to do with a conflict over territorial claims. “The reason was, and remains, the fact that a Free Jewish State sits on territory at all.”
It is in this context that must be appraised. The Palestinian issue, he stated, “is not the obstacle to peace as some would suggest. Certainly, it has to be solved in the context of a final peace. But to assert that this is the key to peace, the formula for peace or the breakthrough to peace is to misread the realities.”
Who was to blame for the Palestinians’ statelessness?
“It was not Israel that prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state in 1947, as the Partition Plan had proposed. What did prevent it was the Arab declaration of war on the Plan itself, because it called for the creation of a Jewish state,” said Rabin.
Then he made a critical point that supporters of the Palestinians and two-state advocates always ignore:
For nineteen years no Arab government saw fit to establish a Palestinian State, even though the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were under Arab control. Neither was there a Palestinian demand to do so. In January 1964, the organization that calls itself the P.L.O. was established by Arab Heads of State. Yet, even then, statehood in those territories, then held by Jordan and Egypt, was never the objective. We know what the objective is. It is written large into the Palestinian Covenant which is their binding constitution. Every paragraph of it spits out the venom calling for Israel’s destruction.
At the time, Israel still viewed the solution to the Palestinian issue “within the geographic and political context of peace with Jordan.” Israel ultimately was forced to deal with the Palestinians separately when King Hussein of Jordan decided he didn’t want any more Palestinians to add to their majority in the kingdom. They had already tried to overthrow him once, just six years earlier.
“Israel is ready to give up much and compromise much on territory,” he said, foreshadowing his position in the Oslo talks.
“I do not know when peace will finally come,” he stated. “But of this I am certain: It will be our future strength that will largely determine the resources of peace in our region. Weakness is no prescription for negotiation. If it be perceived that Israel is not weak, so shall our neighbors perceive the wisdom of mutual compromise, reconciliation and peace.”
The speech was shortly before Israel withdrew from Sinai in accordance with the interim peace agreement with Egypt. Rabin acknowledged Israel was “making tangible concessions for concessions far less tangible” because “it is necessary to take measured risks not only in case of war but also for the sake of peace.”
“Peace, not war, is our tradition,” said Rabin. “We see no glory in battle. I was once a soldier—not by choice, but by necessity. I know the horrors of war, the waste and the agony.”
“We are an old people, and there is no sacrifice too great to protect the freedom we have won and the new society we have created,” he concluded. “I believe Americans, above all, can understand this truth.”
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including “The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews” and “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”