Text size

Yitzhak Rabin was the darling of the diplomatic correspondents. They liked his bass voice and his tendency to always tell the truth and to speak without weighing his words. He did not have a list of talking points, and every meeting with him produced juicy headlines and verbal gems. Security was also a less burdensome issue in those days, before he was murdered; access was easy and the atmosphere was more optimistic.

Much has been written over the last two weeks comparing Rabin to his current successor, Ariel Sharon. Both generals reached the political summit at an advanced age, and there they discovered the limitations of the use of force and chose to withdraw from the territories. The similarities between them are striking, as are the differences: One liked drinking and smoking, the other likes to eat; one rubbed elbows with world leaders and sought their friendship, the other is suspicious of them and prefers his ranch and his sheep.

But the main difference between Rabin and Sharon is in their style of leadership. Rabin tended to decide quickly, and then to reconsider and broadcast hesitation. Thus he brought Yasser Arafat to the White House, but scowled as he shook his hand; thus he decided to tax capital gains, then changed his mind under the influence of businessmen who flew with him on a trip to Japan. Sharon also frequently hesitates and will wrestle with an issue, but only before he has made a decision. He decides slowly, but then he hunkers down in his position and it is hard to sway him from it. In this way he implemented the disengagement and imposed a capital gains tax.

Rabin frequently fumed at the settlers, but avoided a confrontation with them and was afraid to evacuate so much as a single trailer. Sharon described the settlers as the pioneers of their generation even as he dismantled 25 settlements. Rabin left Netzarim in place and allowed it to expand; Sharon destroyed it. Rabin was a politician who openly hated politics. Sharon is a master of political tricks.

The introverted Rabin lacked Sharon's cunning, his ability to read people and immediately grasp their desires and weaknesses. But he had a rare ability to understand and foresee strategic processes. In the two years before his murder, Rabin frequently traveled the world, which had opened up to Israel out of a desire to reward its recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the beginning of its departure from the territories. On all his trips - to Europe, Russia, America, Asia and the Arab states - he tried to persuade his hosts that the real problem is radical Islam. He called this "Khomeinism without Khomeini," and journalists who reported on these trips and grew tired of hearing his repetitive messages even created a shorthand acronym for this phrase.

Rabin was the first to warn Western leaders of the danger lurking in their backyards. He spoke of five million Muslims in France, of 300 new mosques in Holland and of the nuclear bomb being developed by Iran. When Bill Clinton criticized the Chinese for violating human rights, Rabin asked him whether he had already solved the human rights problem in Saudi Arabia - an issue that at that time was an absolute taboo in American foreign policy.

Rabin had no solutions; he wanted to shake people up and warn them. But his hosts were not interested. As far as they were concerned, the problem in the Middle East was the Israeli occupation - not Iran and radical Islam. They ignored the information they received, more than a decade ago, about Pakistani aid to Iran's nuclear engineers. Rabin's comments about Saudi Arabia and Muslim communities in Europe undoubtedly seemed to them like Israeli chutzpah.

In recent years, Rabin's angry prophecies have come true - in the September 11 attacks in the United States, in suicide bombings throughout the world, in Iran's progress in developing a nuclear bomb, and even in the current disturbances in France. One can only imagine what might have happened if his messages had been absorbed at the time instead of being greeted with a shrug. Perhaps the West would have been better prepared to deal with radical Islam. Or perhaps, like their Israeli counterparts, Western leaders would have made decisions only after the crisis had blown up in their faces.