Would It All Be Different if Yitzhak Rabin Had Lived?

Historians and journalists love to imagine that Rabin would have beaten Netanyahu at the polls and gone on to sign peace agreements with Arafat and Assad. But that doesn't tally with reality.

Yaakov Saar / GPO

Yitzhak Rabin, a heavy smoker and habitual drinker could have keeled over and died of perfectly natural causes at the age of 73. There were certainly many Israelis who were praying for such an outcome in November 1995. But Yigal Amir wasn’t prepared to let nature take its course.

Ever since Rabin’s murder, there has been a need for both Israelis and foreigners to imbue his death with a higher meaning, beyond the obvious one of the peak of ideological violence — political assassination. For years his allies and followers talked of “Rabin’s legacy” but it never really caught on. Never a noted orator, he left few memorable quotes and his autobiography was mainly remembered for the snide remarks at the expense of his old rival, Shimon Peres. Other more articulate members of Rabin’s generation slyly reminded us that Oslo was the brainchild of the coterie of advisers around Peres, whom he despised and that on the eve of the crowning achievement of his military career, the Six-Day War, he had collapsed from tension and nicotine poisoning.

For the purposes of preserving a largely false sense of national unity, Rabin couldn’t be regarded as a symbol of the ideological struggle at the heart of Zionism. Besides, once the trauma of a prime minister’s assassination at the hand of a fellow Jew had subsided and the right wing was back in power, Rabin had to be depoliticized so everyone could join in his veneration. But as the years passed and Oslo became a byword for a stagnating diplomatic process and eternal deadlock between Israel and the Palestinians, a new narrative emerged. Rabin was no longer just the martyr of peace, he was the embodiment of the elusive solution to the conflict. Amir had not just ended a man’s life, he had succeeded in dashing all hope for a peaceful resolution.

Historians and journalists love to play with the great what-ifs of history and this is one of the neatest ones. Rabin survives, wins the next elections, Israel’s rightward shift is reversed, Benjamin Netanyahu never comes to power and in his third term Rabin signs comprehensive agreements with Yasser Arafat and Hafez Assad followed by peace across the Middle East. The only problem with this dream scenario is that almost nothing in it tallies with reality.

In the months leading to the assassination, Rabin was trailing Netanyahu in most polls, in some by as much as 13 points. There was a year for those polls to reverse, certainly Netanyahu’s propaganda machine would have had a much harder time portraying war-hero Rabin, rather than Peres, as a limp-wristed leftist. But it still looked more likely at the time that Netanyahu was headed for the prime minister’s office.

But even if Rabin had lived and won in 1996, there is no proof whatsoever that he was prepared to go all the way. He had never contemplated dividing Jerusalem or relinquishing control of strategic locations in the West Bank such as the Jordan Valley. As Joint Arab List MK Ahmed Tibi, a former advisor to Arafat, once said, the Israeli prime minister who is capable of delivering the minimum that the Palestinians are willing to accept has not yet been born. The assumption that had Rabin lived he could have brought the Oslo process to its final station ignores the role of the Palestinians and all the other players. It also overlooks the fact that Rabin was not the only Israeli leader to try to reach an agreement.

It may be easy to forget that three other prime ministers led Israel in the intervening period — not just Netanyahu. Ehud Barak spend most of his short premiership negotiating with Arafat and Assad. Ariel Sharon withdrew unilaterally from Gaza. Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni met dozens of times with Arafat’s successors. And Peres was around as well for all this time. They all had a mandate from the Israeli public to make major concessions. You could perhaps argue that Rabin would have negotiated with greater skill and in better faith but there is little proof that would have been the case.

If the Shin Bet security service bodyguards had reacted a second earlier, if Rabin had agreed to wear a bulletproof vest, if Yigal Amir’s aim had been slightly off or his gun jammed, the history of the Middle East may have been totally different. But it’s just as likely that had Rabin lived, he would today be a hyperactive nonagenarian pensioner like Peres, and Netanyahu would still be prime minister, explaining why it’s all the Palestinians’ fault.

To say that with Rabin’s assassination the peace process was also murdered is lazy thinking. And this ties in with other lazy assumptions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict such as the one that it’s actually quite simple to solve, if you just get the two sides in a room, bang their heads together, then split the territory along the Green Line. People too easily forget that the Oslo process wasn’t happening in a bubble. The Cold War had just ended, the United States had established itself as the sole global policeman in the Gulf War of 1991 and for a brief optimistic moment you could believe in a world turning away from confrontation.

The past 15 years have been everything but peaceful, particularly in this part of the world. There is no reason to believe that solving the Palestinian issue would have been any easier than any of the other intractable messes blighting the Middle East. Clinging to the notion that if only Rabin had survived, we would be living in a better place now, is just an excuse not to acknowledge how hard this is to solve and avoid re-examining tired formulas.