Opinion |

Yitzhak Rabin Told Me: I Don't Forbid You From Continuing Contacts With the PLO

Long-time peace activist Uri Avnery offers appreciation and criticism of the slain Israeli prime minister following recent publication of Itamar Rabinovich’s biography 'Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman'

Uri Avnery
Uri Avnery
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Rabin, Peres and Arafat near the Erez Gaza crossing.
Rabin, Peres and Arafat near the Erez Gaza crossing.Credit: Yaacov Saar/GPO
Uri Avnery
Uri Avnery

It was in the 1950s. The war between David Ben-Gurion and "Ha’olam Hazeh,” the weekly magazine of which I was the editor, reached its peak. One day I went to swim at the Galei Gil pool at the entrance to Ramat Gan, and ran into Ezer Weizman, the commander of the Israeli Air Force. We both loved to joke around. We stood around and laughed and then Yitzhak Rabin came up to us. He was wearing a bathing suit too, looking serious as usual.

He ignored my existence and turned to Weizman: “You don’t have enough trouble that you’re with Uri Avnery?” It was our first meeting, the first of many.

I agree with every word Dan Miron wrote in his article (September 4, 2017 in the Haaretz book supplement in Hebrew) in response to Tom Segev’s review of the biography of Rabin written by Itamar Rabinovich (August 8, 2017 in the book supplement in Hebrew).

I liked Rabin because there was something fresh, pure and honest about him. He had no pretensions, did not lie, brown-nose or act self-righteous.

After the victory in the Six-Day War, which was the result of the actions by Rabin, Weizman and Levi Eshkol, Rabin gave an impressive speech in which he also mourned the enemy’s dead. It captured my heart and I visited him when he was appointed the Israeli ambassador to Washington.

We had a long argument over the issue that was the topic of all our conversations later: My proposal to support the establishment of a Palestinian state. Rabin opposed it, and took the side of returning the West Bank to Jordan. He espoused the illusion commonly believed here that King Hussein would give up East Jerusalem. After our conversation I wrote him a long letter in which I tried – in vain – to convince him there was no such possibility.

After the Yom Kippur War I started secret (and illegal) contacts with Yasser Arafat’s representative Said Hammami. After a few months Hammami notified me that Arafat agreed for me to inform Rabin, by now prime minister, in secret of the existence of our contacts.

I requested a private meeting with Rabin and was immediately invited to see him. We had a long conversation. Rabin said he was willing to make peace only with King Hussein. After such an agreement, he would no longer care what happened there, he added.

For his part, the PLO could lead a revolution that would overthrow the king and appoint Arafat as president in his place. I tried to claim his position was illogical; after all, the result would be that the king would fall and instead of Jordan, a Palestinian state would arise that would stretch from Qalqilyah to the outskirts of Baghdad – and would not be obligated to peace with Israel.

We did not agree, but at the end of our conversation, when we were just about at the door, he said: “Uri, I don’t agree with your views, but I don’t forbid you from continuing with the contacts, and if you hear anything that you think the prime minister of Israel needs to know, my door is open.”

I made use of this invitation a number of times. Arafat used this path to pass on offers to Rabin, for example concerning Israeli votes in the United Nations. Rabin rejected every one of them.

One time Rabin invited me to visit him in his official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem. When I arrived, he was alone in the house. He brought me in the room, poured us generous glasses of whiskey, sat on his chair and began without any introduction, as he usually did: “Uri, have you decided to eliminate all the doves in the Labor party?”

At the time, HaOlam HaZeh exposed two corruption affairs: The case of the governor of the Bank of Israel Asher Yadlin and the case of Housing Minister Avraham Ofer. They both were among the leaders of the dovish wing of the Labor party. I explained to Rabin that I could not mix corruption affairs with political opinions.

I don’t know if I influenced him in advance of the Oslo Accords. I didn’t feel that I did. In my opinion, no one was able to influence Rabin. He reached all his conclusions by himself, through clear and systematic thinking. As a result he was called the “analytic mind.” His rival, Abba Eban, told me: “He really does have an analytical mind. Analytic is to break down. Rabin knows how to dismantle things, but he does not know how to put them back together again.”

Rabin was no less caustic than Eban. His comments on Shimon Peres, who he deeply hated, are memorable: “A relentless subversive,” was one of many, while Yossi Beilin was “Peres’ poodle.”

At age 70, Rabin did something incredibly rare: He changed his viewpoint 180 degrees. The man who fought all his life against the Palestinians began to strive for peace with them. It was the result of independent logical thinking.

He once explained to me all the stages of his thinking of how he arrived there: His systematic, unsentimental thinking. At first he had his reservations about Arafat, but for months the two grew closer and closer to each other. It is hard to describe two so very different people: Rabin was dry and unemotional, Arafat was entirely emotions and hugs. But they had one characteristic in common: The concern for the fate of their people.

Rabin’s historic mistake was that after the signing of the Oslo Accords he did not rush forward to exploit the moment that was created, but hesitated, waited and allowed the forces of opposition in Israel to regroup. But I have no doubt that in the end he would have arrived at the logical conclusion, that Israel had an essential interest in establishing an independent Palestinian state with close coexistence between the two countries. It seems to me that the leadership of the right understood this, so they sent Yigal Amir.

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