Searching for Yitzhak Rabin's Legacy

Did he leave us a belief in the need for a peace process, in military power, in the importance of compromise? Historians, politicians and political scientists attempt to answer.

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
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A billboard with the portrait of late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at Rabin square in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015.
A billboard with the portrait of late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at Rabin square in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015.Credit: AP
Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

Two decades have passed since that Saturday night, the fourth of November 1995, when Yitzhak Rabin was shot in the back in Kikar Malchei Yisrael – Kings of Israel Square, as it was then called – in the center of Tel Aviv. Among the public, his violent and symbolic death continues to stir powerful feelings of grief and the sense of a missed opportunity, although most Israelis have long since lost their belief in the peace process, and this month have had to cope with another deadly round between Arabs and Jews.

“Legacy” is an elusive, vague term. Some think the preoccupation with Rabin’s legacy – perceived as the need for a peace process – is fading and will ultimately disappear. The discussion about Rabin’s legacy (if it exists) also raises numerous questions. Will the legacy not be eroded if no one is preserving it? By “legacy,” do we mean Israeli society’s ability to adopt the practical lesson of the assassination and turn its annual commemoration into a day of moral stocktaking? And how do we respond to the argument that, amid a political-diplomatic situation that offers only despair, there is no point to preserving his memory?

Another relevant issue is whether the legacy of an assassinated leader is available for appropriation by everyone. “‘Legacy’ is a word that historians generally don’t like, because it strikes a sentimental note,” says the historian Prof. Steven Aschheim, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

His book “The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany 1890-1990” (University of California Press) deals with attempts by diverse groups, among them Zionists, to appropriate Nietzsche’s ideas for national purposes. Aschheim adds, “Does a legacy consist only of the assets in the form of the writings that remain after death, or does it refer to the individual’s activity and worldview, which we annex in accordance with our interests and worldview? The word ‘legacy’ becomes a scientific term when we analyze the interpretations and appropriations of which use is made.” Aschheim notes further that “a legacy need not be positive: Adolf Hitler, too, left a ‘legacy.’ So that one can play with a variety of thoughts in connection with the term.”

‘A true, Zionist Israel’

“Rabin left a legacy,” maintains the historian and geographer Prof. Yossi Ben-Artzi from the University of Haifa. He distinguishes between a “heritage,” which is concrete, and a “legacy,” which is more values-based, referring to one’s inalienable spiritual or cultural assets. In Ben-Artzi’s view, Rabin did not leave a concrete heritage.

“When we talk about Rabin, we have recourse to the term ‘legacy,’” he notes, and goes on to elaborate, “Some people tend to fixate on a certain period of his life, as chief of staff or in the Palmach [pre-state commando force], or as a graduate of the Kadoorie agricultural school. But that does not add up to a heritage, so they latch on to the peace issue. Rabin is neither peace nor left. In his security essence, he was quite the hawk; in terms of moral values he was a social-democrat.”

According to Ben-Artzi, Rabin’s legacy consists of a fusion of several elements: his strategic decisions, his personal traits and the circumstances of fate: “The leadership, the modesty, the profound seriousness, the tremendous sense of responsibility for the country’s fate – all those qualities made him the opposite of many other leaders. His integrity and his Israeli-sabra character stand out sharply in comparison to prime ministers such as Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres. Rabin was a sabra, a native son. And he also possessed global strategic understanding. Perhaps as a result of his diplomatic service, as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, he developed an understanding of globalization and its price.

“Thus, in his second term as prime minister, he arrived at historic decisions,” Ben-Artzi continues. “All of this – the experience, the integrity, the strategic decisions on the Palestinian issue and on Jordan, concerning globalization and internal reforms and a change in Israel’s order of priorities – forged a feeling of great hope. For the country’s inhabitants, Rabin’s mode of state management signified for the country’s inhabitants a true, Zionist Israel, not the messianic-populist-settler version. These diverse elements coalesce into the legacy of the Hebrew state that was also the hope of its founders.”

Is a legacy something a person intended to leave after his death, or what the public does with it?

Ze’ev Jabotinsky.Credit: GPO

Ben-Artzi: “Rabin intended to change Israel as it was in the early 1990s, and he did so. When Theodor Herzl, who was an essayist and a philosophical theoretician, talks about the Jewish state in 1896 and says, ‘Let’s aim for that,’ is that what we mean by his legacy? His clear vision is far more important than his correspondence and his speeches. Rabin was not an editor of feuilletons, like Herzl, or a columnist, and the writings he left were not authored by him, but he had a very clear vision. There is a clear legacy and a path: what the State of Israel should be. The problem is that we don’t know how to expound his legacy, because it is not concrete. When I enter the Rabin website and see the Entebbe operation, it’s obvious that this is not Rabin’s legacy.”

Prof. Zeev Maoz, who teaches political science at the University of California, Davis, sees Rabin’s legacy as the fusion between an understanding of Israel’s security needs and a grasp of the complexity of those needs in a world that involves diplomatic ties and peace.

“Rabin understood Israel’s security needs and also the limits of power, and this is the interconnection that some people are looking for in his legacy,” Maoz says. “Rabin’s understanding about when force can solve problems and when force is incapable of solving problems is related to his reading of [David] Ben-Gurion’s legacy. Ben-Gurion was extremely pessimistic about reaching agreements with the Arabs, though in his last years, and precisely after the 1967 war, he grasped the limits of power and the fact that fundamentally peace creates security.”

Like Ben-Artzi, Maoz says that Rabin’s legacy incorporates both his take on security and the lessons of his diplomatic service. That dual background led Rabin to the insight that ultimately Israel must reach peace agreements with its neighbors. These needed to include stable security arrangements, which would entail painful concessions.

Maoz: “This was apparent both in the Syrian context, where Rabin was effectively the first leader to express readiness to forgo the entire Golan Heights, and again in his agreement with the PLO, in which he understood that we were heading for a two-state solution. He was aware of the limits of power and grasped the need for backing in the form of international recognition. That combination is what creates the legacy.”

In Maoz’s view, not enough attention is paid to Rabin’s first term as prime minister (1974-77). The interim agreement with Egypt that followed the Yom Kippur War entailed recognition that it is not always necessary to take a belligerent attitude toward the Arab world, Maoz observes.

“Rabin was ready to risk his government,” he says. “He did so, for example, in the vote on Oslo II, which passed by a majority of one. For him, an agreement that offered security and stability took precedence over political survival. That is one of his distinguishing traits.”

Maoz relates a real-life story that he feels encapsulates Rabin’s legacy. “When I was a student,” he says, “I conducted a study of the Entebbe operation. I spoke to everyone who was involved in the operation, including Yigal Allon and Shimon Peres. The government of Israel made two decisions about the hijacking: to negotiate with the terrorists and to launch a rescue operation. Everyone I spoke to maintained that the first decision was purely tactical. Because they didn’t know whether a military operation was feasible, it was decided to say, in order to gain time, that Israel was ready to negotiate with the terrorists.

"Rabin told me the truth: ‘That was a genuine decision. If we hadn’t reached the conclusion that a military operation stood a chance, we would have gone on negotiating and probably would have released imprisoned terrorists.’

“Rabin also told me,” Maoz continues, “that when the decision was made to launch the operation, he informed the leaders of the opposition that if the operation failed, he would resign. That frankness, which is not typical of politicians, reflects a personality that believes that there are more important things than being prime minister. The position is a means to reach a goal, and a legacy is the readiness to recognize your self-limitations, to decide that if I cannot achieve goals, I don’t have to be prime minister. That is something we do not attribute to Rabin. We look at him as someone who saw the world through the prism of security or who was not ready for a full peace, who was hesitant and pessimistic. I think he saw the situation realistically. We forget that when Rabin was ambassador to Washington, he tried to persuade the prime minister, Golda Meir, to push for agreements with [Egyptian President] Anwar Sadat, but without success.”

Moshe Arens, July 2012.Credit: Moti Milrod

Disciple of Jabotinsky

“After [Levi] Eshkol, Meir, and Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin was the most inarticulate prime minister in Israel’s history,” Prof. Avi Shlaim, an Israeli-British historian from Oxford University, says for openers. He continues, “Consequently, there is not a single text with a clear exposition of his political creed. But this does not mean that he did not leave behind a distinctive political legacy.

“Rabin’s political legacy, in a nutshell,” Shlaim goes on, “is that there is no purely military solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. This was not always his view, but something he learned from experience. When the first intifada broke out, in 1987, Rabin was minister of defense in a national unity government headed by Yitzhak Shamir. His initial order to the IDF was to ‘break the bones’ of the demonstrators. Only gradually did it dawn on him that this was essentially a political conflict, which could only be resolved by political means.

“During his second term in office, Rabin acted on this premise and the result was the Oslo accord and the hesitant handshake with Yasser Arafat on the lawn of the White House. This was the first-ever agreement between the two main parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict: Israel and the Palestinians. The critics of the Oslo accord argue that it was doomed to failure from the start. My own view is that it was a modest step in the right direction, the beginning of the search for a political settlement of the conflict between the two rival national movements.

“An assassin’s bullets put an end to this process. What might have happened had Rabin not been killed, there is no way of knowing. History does not disclose its alternatives. What is fairly clear is that the Oslo peace process broke down because, following the return of Likud to power under Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, Israel reneged on its side of the deal.”

Salman Masalha.Credit: Emil Salman

Paradoxically, as Shlaim sees it, Rabin might go down in the collective memory as the only true disciple of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the spiritual father of the Israeli right. He explains: “Jabotinsky was the principal architect, in the early 1920s, of the strategy of the ‘iron wall’ for dealing with Palestinian Arab opposition to the Zionist project. The essence of this strategy was to deal with the Arabs from a position of unassailable military strength. The premise behind it was that the goal of an independent Jewish state in Palestine could only be achieved unilaterally and by military force.

"There were two stages to this strategy. First, the Jewish state had to be built behind an ‘iron wall’ of Jewish military power. The Arabs, Jabotinsky predicted, would repeatedly hit their heads against the wall until they despaired of defeating the Zionists on the battlefield. Then, and only then, would come the time for stage two: to negotiate with the Palestinian Arabs about their status and rights in Palestine.

“The politicians on the right have always been fixated on stage one of the ‘iron wall’ strategy: on accumulating more and more military power in order to preserve the status quo and keep the Palestinians in a permanent state of subservience. Netanyahu is a prime example of this approach. He is a reactionary, status-quo politician, who has no interest in negotiations and compromise with the Palestinians and who explicitly rejects a two-state solution. For him and his ilk, only Jews have historic rights over the whole Land of Israel. He is a proponent of the doctrine of permanent conflict.

“Yitzhak Rabin was the first Israeli leader to move from stage one to stage two of the strategy of the ‘iron wall’ in relation to the Palestinians,” Shlaim avers. “He practiced what Jabotinsky had preached: He negotiated from strength, and went forward toward the Palestinians on the political plane. For him, at least in his second term, military power was not an end in itself but a means to an end: a negotiated settlement of the century-old conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Rabin appreciated the value of military power but, unlike the politicians on the right, he also understood its limits. That is his true and enduring political legacy.”

In the name of the tribe

Rabin’s assassination was an honor killing, says Israeli Druze poet and political columnist Salman Masalha. The concept of family honor is enshrined in both early Jewish culture and in Muslim culture.

“The incitement against Rabin was based on the allegation that there was no Jewish majority supporting his decisions and the steps he was taking," says Masalha. "Because his government was based on a ‘blocking majority,’ which included Arab parties that were not part of the government [with whose help the government could muster a majority in the Knesset], a similar claim was voiced by the assassin, who added that Kikar Malchei Yisrael, too, was filled with Arabs. It’s interesting that Netanyahu made use of a similar allegation in the recent Knesset election: The Arabs are filling up buses and rushing to the polling stations, he said, and again, heaven forbid, the opposition will draw on the Arab votes, because it lacks a Jewish majority.”

In Masalha’s view, Rabin’s legacy is the tragedy of Israeliness. “As chief of staff in the Six-Day War,” he points out, “Rabin conquered the territories that are laden with historical-cultural-religious symbols, and it was actually he who gave the Jews access to the territories. These notions trickled down more and more intensely with the establishment of settlements in Hebron, Beit El and the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem, setting in motion the deterioration in which Israel leaned toward Judaism and moved away from Israeliness. Democracy was subverted first in the territories and afterward lost its moorings within the Green Line as well.

“Rabin, the symbol of Israeliness, who brought the Jews to these highly charged places, understood that there is no other way than to divide the country, otherwise the Jewish majority in Israel will be lost,” Masalha continues. “He was hesitant and did not act abruptly, but very slowly. In the meantime, the territories filled up with settlers who espouse a fundamentalist religious ideology.

“And that is the situation today, after 20 years in which nothing really came out of the Oslo accord, not for the Israelis and not for the Palestinians. Israel is neither able to ‘digest’ the territories and grant citizenship to everyone, nor is it capable of ‘vomiting’ them out. Rabin paid with his life for the change of direction he wanted, to salvage what could be salvaged from his perspective as a Jew and as an Israeli.

"Those who lay claim to his legacy, such as [Labor Party leader] Isaac Herzog and the members of Zionist Union are far from Rabin’s basic principles – he spoke out against apartheid and about the rights of the Arabs in Israel as equal citizens. In the last election they forgot the Arab parties when considering a possible coalition. Rabin was the only one who succeeded in mustering a majority for his national platform with the support of the Arab MKs, and for that reason was assassinated.”

Not a strong leader

Moshe Arens, a veteran Likud figure and former defense minister, notes that he enjoyed good relations with Yitzhak Rabin, “and in certain periods even very good relations.” Arens adds that he himself was the key to the establishment of the national unity government in 1984, “thanks to the Israeli notion of rotation – first Peres and then Shamir [as prime minister].” One of Rabin’s conditions for the rotation agreement was that he would serve as defense minister during the entire term of the government. Arens, who had been defense minister in the previous, Likud-led, government, did not hesitate for a moment, “because I thought it was important to form a national unity government in the wake of the rift that accompanied Operation Peace for Galilee [the first Lebanon War].”

Arens relates that he received “innumerable compliments” from Rabin for his decision, but after three years regretted it all. The reason: In 1987, Rabin, as defense minister in the Shamir government, spearheaded the decision to scrap the Lavi jet fighter project, which Arens had initiated. As a result, Arens, who was a minister without portfolio at the time, resigned from the government. In our conversation he spoke at length about the Lavi project, to make it clear that Rabin had been favorably impressed by “the best fighter plane in the world.” However, Rabin was easily influenced, according to Arens, and in this case “he was pressured, mainly by a few IDF generals, who told him, ‘We can buy planes abroad, we will use the money for more important things.’

“Rabin was not a strong person. The Oslo Accords were not his initiative – Peres and Yossi Beilin and the group that conducted negotiations in Oslo dragged him into it.”

Is that his legacy?

Arens: “I find it difficult to discern a Rabin legacy, unless you want to identify him with the Oslo Accords. He is the person who shook hands with [Yasser] Arafat and he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Even if Rabin was dragged into it, the Oslo accord is a fact and it is impossible not to associate the agreement with him. To Rabin’s credit, it must be said that he was a person who pondered issues and did not think he knew everything. He discussed things with others and listened to what they had to say. As I said, he was influenced in connection with Oslo and in the end was persuaded.

“Rabin,” Arens continues, “who said that Jerusalem must remain united, was certainly not in favor of a return to the 1967 borders. We don’t know what would have happened if the terrible murder had not occurred, whether he would have pressed ahead with the Oslo Accords and would have become convinced that there was no choice but to divide Jerusalem and return to the 1967 borders. In my view, Rabin did not speak in those terms. Organizations such as Peace Now appropriated him in their rallies and presented him as an advocate of peace. It’s far from certain that Rabin would have agreed.”

Arens thinks that Rabin’s portrayal as a statesman who personifies the Oslo Accords and was assassinated on the altar of peace, as the person who, by shaking hands with Arafat, annulled the demonization of the enemy, may be part of his legacy, as some maintain, but that ultimately reality triumphed.

“You have to see it in the context of the shift in public opinion in Israel, which has moved to the right since the assassination," he notes. "The majority of the public in Israel today view Oslo as a failure. What, then, of the legacy? How many people believe in that legacy? How many want to take action on its basis? After all, in the election that was held after Rabin’s assassination, the Labor Party lost. One would have thought that it would be the exact opposite, given the horrific murder and the victim. An interesting phenomenon, and worth analyzing.”

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