Yitzhak Rabin: An Appreciation

Harvey Sicherman

The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in his seventy-third year ends the life of another “son of the founders” of the state of Israel. He belonged to the generation of 1948—the young men whose military prowess gave Israel a fighting start. Unlike some of his early mentors, such as Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan, Rabin was to achieve supreme power twice. And more than any other of his generation he will be recalled as the general who waged both war and peace.

From General to Statesman

Rabin was an accidental hero who never conceived of himself for the part. Raised by avid socialists, he could have been a mathematician or even an agronomist, but he ended up in the Palmach, the “shock troops” of the nascent state. Although experienced in combat from 1948, his true genius was as a planner. The sudden campaign of 1967 that crushed three Arab armies in six days grew from his meticulous designs, especially his emphasis on manpower and training.

Rabin was not considered a man destined for the highest office, a judgement reinforced by the nervous breakdown he suffered on the eve of the 1967 war. Appointed as Ambassador to the United States, Rabin distinguished himself in September of 1970 when, in close coordination with Henry Kissin ger and King Hussein, he helped to rescue Jordan from a combined Syrian-PLO assault. Yet, when he returned to Israel, Golda Meir did not offer him a cabinet seat or a high place on the party list. But war—the surprise Arab attack on Yom Kippur of 1973—suddenly catapulted him into supreme power. The Labour Party needed a candidate untouched by the disaster; Rabin was elected Prime Minister and presided uneasily over a quarrelsome coalition. His bitter feud with Shimon Peres, then Defense Minister, dated from this period.

Rabin was not a politician. He was a General who became a Statesman. Lacking campaign manners and an extroverted personality, he was shyly gruff, reflecting less an innate rudeness than a man forcing himself to do what he did not like to do. His real gift was strategic planning, the capacity to see reality and then to create a plan to bend that reality toward his objectives. In early 1975 he offered an astonishingly frank and prescient view of Israel’s situation: there would be seven lean ye ars, he predicted, before the Western democracies would get a grip on their oil problem and the United States would recover from Vietnam. During that time, Israel had to trade space for time and use both space and time to extract the maximum help from America and the maximum political change from Egypt. The second disengagement agreement, reached in 1975, was his major achievement, although it proved more painful than he expected.

Rabin’s Lean Years

Once he settled on a strategic plan, Rabin’s mind closed to alternatives and would reopen only under the impact of a great shock. His initial meeting in 1977 with President Carter was a disaster because he rejected Carter’s comprehensive approach that, in his view, would have put the peace diplomacy of peace at the mercy of Syrian, PLO (and Soviet) vetoes. After losing power to Menachem Begin, he was indignant when the new Prime Minister promptly jettisoned strategic political coordination with Washington. Rabin was also outmaneuvered by Shimon Peres for control of the Labour Party. These were indeed his lean years.

In May of 1983, at a very low point in his career and an equally low point in U.S.-Israeli relations, he gave me a long interview. I had been on a USIA-sponsored speaking tour, and having known Rabin since his Washington days, I wanted his views on the future. He treated me to an hour-long tirade against a U.S. policy that he thought treated “followers” (the Saudis) as leaders. Where was the strategic concept guiding U.S. policy? he demanded. How could a President launch a plan (the Reagan Plan of September 1982) without having the support of a single major Arab state arranged in advance? A Lebanon-Israeli peace treaty, he predicted, would never be reached because Washington had not fixed it with Syria; in the absence of pressure on Syria, such a pact would be “absurd,” “stupid,” the “worst blunder.” When I suggested that such a treaty might be signed even if it could not be executed because of Syrian opposition, he called it “child’s play.” (Later I found out that this was a dress rehearsal for a similar speech that he made to Secretary of State George Shultz who arrived soon thereafter to negotiate just such an abortive treaty!) He must have noticed me wilting under the blast because he occasionally interrupted his denunciation with his sudden flicker of a smile, a quick drag on a cigarette, and a friendly rumble, “When I say your policy I do not mean you personally!”

Political Rebirth

The Lebanon War, like the Yom Kippur War, rescued Rabin. A national unity government, headed by Shimon Peres with Yitzhak Shamir as deputy, was created to take Israel out of Lebanon and to stabilize its runaway economy. After two years, Shamir became Prime Minister. But most remarkably, Rabin remained Defense Minister throughout.

This set the stage for another of Rabin’s strategic concepts. As Prime Minister and later as Defense Minister, Rabin had been responsible for Jewish settlement activity and the governance of the West Bank and Gaza. He and Peres had fully subscribed to “land for peace” with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. The Jordanian “option” whereby Israel would turn over large parts of the West Bank to King Hussein in return for peace was the logical end of that policy. Jewish settlements were planted in those areas that Israel would retain as strategic points. But Rabin, someti mes undercut by Peres, did not stop the small number of Jews following a religious, or nationalist, ideology from establishing their own communities in other locations.

In 1987 the Intifada erupted. As Defense Minister, Rabin applied variations of force, including the infamous “breaking of bones” strategy to deal with the often youthful stone throwers. It did not work, and Rabin cast around for a political way out. When King Hussein washed his hands of the Palestinian portfolio in 1988, Rabin came to a stunning conclusion: the Palestinians had become Israel’s only choice as negotiating partners. The two Yitzhaks—Shamir and Rabin—then became the unlikely parents of a revived version of Begin’s autonomy plan, an idea Rabin had previously criticized as wrongheaded, unworkable, and fit only for lawyers. Israel’s 1989 initiative embodied Rabin’s new concept.

Shamir proved much less enthusiastic about this scheme than Rabin for elementary reasons. Rabin did not see autonomy as an end in itself but rather the only way to diffuse the Intifada and rid Israel of responsibility for the Arab population. This could lead eventually to an Arab sovereignty over part of the territories, anathema to Shamir and the Likud. Moreover, Rabin knew that the local Palestinians would not act decisively without the PLO, and unlike Shamir, he was prepared to give the PLO an indirect role on the Palestinian negotiating team. In 1990, the Unity Government collapsed over this point when the Bush administration looked like it might produce the Palestinians. Following some frantic bidding, Shamir outmaneuvered Peres and formed a Likud government. Rabin was out. And once more, Peres bested him in retaining control of the Labour Party.

The Israeli-Palestinian Track

Eclipsed again, Rabin refined his strategic concept. He thought the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference with its multiple tracks resembled too closely the old “comprehensive approach.” In late 1991 he laid out a clear alternative. Yes, he reasoned, Israel’s overall security required a deal with Syria because Syria’s formidable military constituted a strategic threat. But, he argued, the status quo with Syria was defensible; the Syrians had no real war option although they could harass Israel through guerrilla actions in southern Lebanon. The real pressure for change came from the Israeli-Palestinian frictions. On that front, both parties urgently needed change and their interests overlapped. Rabin’s conclusion: the Israeli-Palestinian track deserved priority.

In this reasoning Rabin reflected majority opinion. By 1992, the Israeli electorate had drifted into a quandary: they wanted the toughness of Likud’s positions but more flexibility in negotiation. The Labour Party’s leader, Shimon Peres, stood for the latter but was not trusted to b e tough enough. And suddenly Yitzhak Rabin—"Mr. Security”—was the man of the hour. He had the desired toughness but was also not bound to Likud’s ideological inflexibility in dealing with the Palestinians. Hoisted once more unexpectedly into Party leadership, Rabin won the Prem iership at last in his own right.

He lost no time in proclaiming his concept of dealing first with the Palestinians, but the official Palestinian delegation did not react with any enthusiasm. Rabin’s position proved sufficiently alarming to Syria, however, and Asad promptly showed a brief measure of flexibility. This put Rabin off track momentarily. As he himself had noted, there was no urgency, although there were strategic interests in reaching a deal with Syria. Such a deal would require Israeli departure from virtually all of the Golan—a substantial risk both militarily and politically because the Golan settlements were Labour-sponsored and Rabin had campaigned on the theme of “not coming down from the Heights.” For nearly a year Rabin was caught awkwardly justifying concessions on Golan where there was no constituency for change, while the Palestinian front stalled—the very place where change was most needed. Even worse, a stalemate served the cause of Hamas fundamentalists in Gaza and elsewhere, whose fanatical religious approach precluded any negotiation with Israel.

As the first native-born Israeli Prime Minister, Rabin was not given to invocation of the Holocaust as the dominating event of Jewish history. A general who loved his army as a family, he was confident of Israel’s strength. After the demise of the Soviet Union and Iraq’s defeat, he saw the Palestinians, not as a military threat to Israel’s physical survival, but as a disastrous drain on the Jewish state: they could neither be incorporated into the Israeli democracy as loyal citizens nor be driven off the land. There had to be a “safe divorce” that retained Israel’s strategic control yet freed Israel of the military occupation. Autonomy with its complex step-by-step transition had grown in his mind as the best way to ease onto this path. But he needed a Palestinian partner.

Rabin’s original analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian track proved to be accurate. It was indeed the negotiation where the needs of both parties overlapped the most. Yet there can be no doubt that for this old soldier the notion of embracing Yasir Arafat as a “partner” was pro foundly repugnant. His mind, once convinced that Oslo opened the way, propelled him forward; his heart gave his every step forward a telling reluctance. The handshake on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993, will capture forever the General caught reluctantly in the toils of his own strategic logic.

Betting on Autonomy

For the remaining two years of his life, Rabin faced a series of disappointments. Arafat enraged him by his slowness, his ineptitude, and his failure to keep promises. Rabin lost ground politically as Israel lost men, women, and children to suicide bombings while Arafat acted we akly to contain terrorism. The Prime Minister’s observation that the bombings did not threaten Israel’s existence hardly reassured bus riders or the mother of the soldier on leave. Always impervious to critics once his strategic direction was decided, Rabin took many months to realize that his position was slipping. In the spring of 1995, he read Arafat the riot act. Unless the Palestinian Authority got tough on the terrorists there would be no further autonomy. There was a measurable improvement in A rafat’s performance thereafter, although still not dramatic enough to change the drift of public opinion.

Meanwhile there were other achievements. As the Israeli economy boomed, peace was reached with Jordan, and Arab taboos at dealing with Israel began to fall away. Relations with the United States were never better. Other major powers also drew closer. On the political level, Rabin reached a final reconciliation with his old rival Peres, and the two worked well at last in tandem—Peres the more adventurous, Rabin the cautious calculator of risks. It took all of their efforts to hold together a dimi nishing coalition.

When the overall picture was taken into account, Rabin decided to double his bet on autonomy. He would risk Oslo II, ridding Israel of the main Arab urban centers and giving Arafat his biggest stake in good behavior. Rabin, who detested the complexities of autonomy, would produce t he most complicated, legalistic, and detailed form of autonomy ever conceived. And in presenting Oslo II to the Knesset, Rabin would reveal his latest and last strategic concept.

This concept contained a sketch of the final borders of Israel in relation to the Palestinians. It was an Israel beyond the pre-1967 lines, incorporating many of the settlements and entrenching Israel on the Judean heights. Jerusalem would remain wholly Israeli. Israel would retain strategic military control of the Jordan Valley one way or the other. Whereupon the identity of the Arab sovereign on the other side hardly mattered. Characteristically, Rabin preferred—as a matter of logic— that it be a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation.

In the world at large, Rabin saw international terrorism to be an increasing danger—especially the brand fed by such states as Iran, with its desire to become a nuclear power. This was an Israeli view that he pressed in Washington and elsewhere, arguing that it set a pattern dangerous to the Western democracies.

As his majority fell away, Rabin became even more contemptuous of his critics. The settlers were “crybabies”; some of his opposition he described as political allies of Hamas. No doubt he was hurt and outraged by those who called him a traitor or depicted him in a Nazi uniform. But these curses would make no difference to his policy.

Rabin’s Legacy

We see him now in the clips, an aging, worn soldier too long in the campaign, not a man given to intensive consultations with others, brief and rough. Not for him the holding of hands, the “dialogues,” the empathy with his opponents. Angered by the Likud’s attempt to influence Congress against his policies, an attempt joined by some American Jews, he lashed out. The Diaspora’s role was (in his view) to support the Israeli government of the day and not to get in the way. But when a member of his government suggested that Israel no longer needed Diaspora support, Rabin said succinctly, “He’s an idiot.”

On that final, fateful evening Rabin saw in the huge outpouring of support for Oslo II the evidence that logic—his logic—had begun to rally the people despite disappointments and terrorism. The tide—his tide—had begun to rise again. He went to his death a happy man.

Only time will tell whether Rabin’s last strategic concept can work. But he was in some sense out of his time. His faith was not in the Labour Socialism of his youth. That was a tactical device like autonomy. He believed above all in the building up of the Jewish state and that achievement, rather than glory, wealth, or even personal honor, mattered most. The outpouring of grief and the cessation of party strife are less a testimony to Rabin the man than to Rabin the Statesman, who stood for more than his own ambition. He bequeaths to Israel this higher ideal, the only ideal that justifies the sacrifices and courage of his life.

And he also leaves something else—his method. The Statesman, like the General, needs cold, hard, strategic calculation or he is disarmed. As Rabin put it ironically in his memoirs, “There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that the risks of peace are preferable by far to the grim certainties that await every nation in war.” Rabin’s calculus was a rare gift. He had been suddenly snatched away, and tears welled even in the eyes of hard-bitten men.

The outpouring of grief and the cessation of party strife are less a testimony to Rabin the man than to Rabin the Statesman, who stood for more than his own ambition.