It was 22 years ago that a bullet from a far-right religious assassin put an end to Yitzhak Rabin’s life.
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Since then, opponents of a two-state solution have repeatedly noted that Rabin was a lifelong opponent of a Palestinian state and confidently assert that were he still alive he would continue to oppose it.
Today, with the two-state solution on life support, it is more important than ever to end this dangerous fallacy.
While we will never know whether Rabin could have successfully reached a final peace agreement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, he would certainly have made every effort to end the occupation that threatens Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.
To be sure, Rabin never publicly expressed support for Palestinian statehood; on the contrary, he spoke out against it.
Those who argue that Rabin would not support the establishment of a Palestinian state today tend to cite his last speech to the Knesset, on October 5, 1995, in which he expressed support for “an entity which is less than a state, and which will independently run the lives of the Palestinians under its authority.”
Also cited as evidence is a statement by his daughter, Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, suggesting that her father was so frustrated with Arafat that he considered ending the peace process. Yair Shamir, the son of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who shares his father’s hard-line views, once publicized a letter signed by Rabin’s top adviser to a private citizen noting that it was the Rabin government’s policy to "reject the creation of a Palestinian state."
But the preponderance of evidence suggests otherwise.
In 1976, in his first term as prime minister, Rabin warned of apartheid if Israel continued to rule over the Palestinians, even calling West Bank settlements "a cancer." In a September 11, 1988 interview to Al Ahram, the then-defense minister said he was “currently against the establishment of a Palestinian state” — hardly a definitive stance.
Public rhetoric aside, Rabin understood that the logical extension of the Oslo process he authorized in the 1990s, and the creation of the Palestinian Authority, was a Palestinian state. Rabin biographer Dan Kurzman writes that Rabin was resigned to the eventual establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state, although his preference was for it to be linked in a federation with Jordan.
Kurzman’s claim is supported by my interviews with close associates of Rabin who told me that he had come to terms with the eventuality of a Palestinian state. He and his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, had an agreement not to discuss a Palestinian state at that stage but clearly understood that this was the end game, then-Labor Party Secretary General Nissim Zvili told me. Context is critical to understanding Rabin’s tough rhetoric.
The Israeli public in the mid-1990s was not ready for such a dramatic policy reversal; it already had difficulty with the idea of ongoing negotiations with Arafat, a terrorist who had spilled much Israeli blood and was widely perceived as someone who could not be trusted to lead a state. In 1994, only 37 percent of Israelis supported a Palestinian state; a large majority opposed it.
As a seasoned politician, Rabin understood that his right-wing political opponents would exploit every act of terror to play on people’s fears. In the months leading up to his assassination, right-wing demonstrators disseminated pamphlets and held up signs showing Rabin dressed as an SS officer, wearing a kaffiyeh and collaborating with "the terrorist enemy."
Rabin would not play into their hands by prematurely endorsing statehood, though he was well aware this was the end game of the peace talks.
Even Peres, who was far more enthusiastic about the Oslo process than Rabin, did not endorse a Palestinian state during Rabin’s lifetime. Nor did he mention a Palestinian state in his memoirs, published two years after the Oslo breakthrough. He did so only in 1997, the year that Rabin and Peres’ Labor Party updated its platform to recognize the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination in a state of their own.
Rabin witnessed the price of the occupation firsthand as defense minister during the first intifada. Preserving Israel’s character as a Jewish and a democratic state was of paramount importance to him. In contrast to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s status quo policy of “managing” the conflict with the Palestinians, Rabin undoubtedly would have continued trying to resolve it.
It is difficult to imagine that he would disagree with the vast majority of other retired Israeli generals – as well as the former heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet intelligence service – who today argue that a Palestinian state, alongside the Jewish state, is a top national security interest for Israel.
Rabin paid the ultimate price for pursuing peace. Suggesting he would have abandoned this path is a disservice both to his legacy and to the country for which he sacrificed his life.
Guy Ziv, an assistant professor of international relations at American University’s School of International Service, is the author of Why Hawks Become Doves: Shimon Peres and Foreign Policy Change in Israel. Twitter: @zivguy