The War Yitzhak Rabin Didn’t Win

A familiar historical outcry about slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin arises from the pages of this excellent book: If only he had gone all the way with peace.

A graffiti wall at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv in 1996.
Zvika Israeli, GPO

“Yitzhak Rabin – Sippur Yisraeli” (“Yitzhak Rabin – An Israeli Story”), based on the exhibition in the museum of the Yitzhak Rabin Center; edited by Anita Shapira and Nurit Cohen-Levinovsky; Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Publishers (in Hebrew), 268 pages, 116 shekels

This is not a good book. It’s an excellent book. It generates nostalgia. Nostalgia for a country that was and is no more. Nostalgia for a man who was and whose like we have not seen here since.

This book chronicles the life of Yitzhak Rabin with photographs that are interwoven with the history of both Israel and the world – that is, the history of our 20th century, from 1922, the year of Rabin’s birth, until 1995, when he was murdered. Some people date that century’s beginning to 1914, when the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated at the hands of one Gavrilo Princip, a murder that led to World War I, which took millions of lives. From the Israeli point of view, the 20th century ended with the killing of Yitzhak Rabin by one Yigal Amir, sealing country’s fate for many years, perhaps for all time.

The album consists entirely of images of Rabin in both national and global contexts, accompanied by short, explanatory texts. Both the selection of photos and the design are superbly professional, and words and pictures blend into one seamless unit. A volume like this has its advantages and disadvantages. The clear advantage is that the story it tells is complete; nothing is left out. The disadvantage of such a format is that the story is by necessity flat; it doesn’t emphasize the dramatic turning points in the man’s life, which became dramatic turning points in the country’s history.

The most significant point, of course, is Rabin’s decision to embark on the path of peace: A person whose whole life until then was devoted to war, “Mr. Security” – the great victor of the Six-Day War, and the very personification of security – underwent a sea-change at the age of 70 and became a salient man of peace. Not long before that, during the first intifada, he had called on Israeli troops “to break their [the Palestinians’] bones” (I think it was a figure of speech for him, but there were officers and soldiers who considered it an order and executed it).

The signing of the agreement with the Palestinians on the White House lawn in 1993 could have been a turning point in the history of Israel and the entire region. The two great national movements, the Zionist movement and the Palestinian national movement, could have breached the cycle of enmity – had it not been for another prominent trait of Rabin’s: a lack of imagination.

The world held its breath – and was disappointed. In military terms, Rabin was like a commander-in-chief who breaches the adversary’s front. In that situation the commander has to concentrate all his forces and push them through, even if it is a big gamble. That’s how a war is decided. It’s what Yigal Allon did in 1949, when he conquered Abu Ageila and reached El Arish (David Ben-Gurion stopped him for political reasons). Ariel Sharon did likewise in 1973, when he crossed the Suez Canal despite the wishes of Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, David Elazar.

Not so Yitzhak Rabin. He signed the Oslo Accords – and then stopped. He could have burst forward, signed a final peace treaty with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, given him the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and enabled him to establish the State of Palestine alongside the State of Israel. If he’d done that, we would be living in peace today, Israel would be blossoming in the heart of this region. It’s also very possible that many of the ills that are now afflicting the Arab countries would not have befallen them. Of course, none of this is mentioned in the album in question. It follows a middle road and avoids controversy. Even a Likud supporter can peruse it without suffering a stroke.

Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat at the ceremony marking the signing of the Oslo peace accord on the White House lawn, September 13, 1993.
AP

Full disclosure: I was fond of Yitzhak Rabin. I don’t know exactly why. He had no special charm. He wasn’t a brilliant interlocutor, not a thinker or an intellectual. What was it about him that attracted me and so many others?

I think it was the purity, the basic integrity that positively radiated from him. I would say: He was the ultimate sabra, the new Israeli that we wished for. He lacked all the traits that are so often typical of politicians: megalomania, guile, subversion, trickery and lying.

I got to know Rabin personally in 1968, when I was a member of Knesset and a magazine editor, and he was appointed Israel’s ambassador to Washington. Generally I avoided visiting our envoys abroad; they were the government’s sycophants and often bad-mouthed me to foreign governments. But I felt that Rabin was different, and requested a meeting with him in the embassy.

We had a long conversation, talking about the one subject that was dear to both our hearts: the Palestinian issue. I summed it up in a letter that I sent him the following day. We went on doing that in dozens of conversations over the following years. Some of our encounters occurred by chance: We were at the same reception and would meet by the bar. He drank whiskey, only whiskey – and the more he drank, the redder his face grew and the clearer his thoughts became. A true force of nature.

‘My door is open’

From time to time, we met in the Jaffa home and studio of the sculptor Ilana Goor. Her covert purpose was to bring together three people that interested her: Rabin, Sharon and me. She would put us in a side room where we sat and argued, while our wives – my Rahel, Lily Sharon and Leah Rabin, three interesting women, each very different – mingled with the other guests.

Already in my first conversation with Rabin, in Washington, he told me that he rejected outright the idea of an agreement with the Palestinians. He thought peace should be made with King Hussein of Jordan. Hussein’s subsequent fate didn’t interest him. As far as he was concerned, Rabin told me, Arafat could topple Hussein and supplant him. I noted in my letter that there was no logic to this: the next day we would again be in a state of war, this time with a Palestinian state that would stretch from Tul Karm to the outskirts of Baghdad. Rabin thought, wrongly, that the king would forgo Jerusalem for the sake of peace. After all, he had a capital: Amman. In vain I tried to persuade him that this would never happen. The king was a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammed and there was no way he could give up on the third holiest city for Islam.

After Rabin became premier, I visited his bureau to report to him about the clandestine talks I was already holding in Europe with Arafat’s envoys. Rabin listened attentively, but in the end told me he rejected my approach completely. When we parted, he added, “I don’t forbid you to hold these talks, and if you hear anything in them that you think an Israeli prime minister should know, my door is open.” That was Rabin.

I’d be happy if I could say honestly that I persuaded him to embark on the path to an agreement with the Palestinians. But I don’t think that was the case. Rabin was not susceptible to influence. He had a rare ability, absent in almost all other politicians, to see the situation for what it was, draw the logical conclusions and act accordingly.

After the Oslo Accords were signed he invited me for a conversation at his home in Ramat Aviv, where he explained how he’d reached the turning point.

“As you know,” he told me, “I advocated peace with King Hussein. When the king declared that he was divesting himself of responsibility for the West Bank, I looked for a local Palestinian partner. There was a person named Dudin [Mustafa Dudin, head of a group called the Palestinian Village Leagues], but I saw that he was an empty vessel. I invited all the heads of the Palestinian public in the West Bank and Gaza, one after the other. They all told me: We want to make peace, but the ‘address’ is the PLO. We went to the Madrid Conference and agreed to sit with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, but when we came to the Palestinian question, the Jordanians walked out and left us with the Palestinians. We talked to them, and every evening they called Tunis to get instructions from Arafat. Finally I said to myself: This is ridiculous. Let’s talk directly with Arafat.”

I believe that if Rabin had lived, he would have ultimately reached an agreement with Arafat on the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. They were two opposites: Rabin was cold and logical, Arafat was warm and emotional. But they connected. They had a high regard for one another. But unfortunately, it was too late: Rabin was killed, Shimon Peres failed and Benjamin Netanyahu came to power.

Martin Buber once told me: “There is a right moment for everything in history. Something was not right a moment before, and it is not right a moment after. But at that moment it’s right.”

Rabin missed that great moment immediately after Oslo. That was his huge tragedy. But this book “Yitzhak Rabin – An Israeli Story” makes no mention of that, of course.