In his article on October 30 (“Rabin’s legacy lives on through Netanyahu”), Haaretz editor Aluf Benn describes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the successor of Yitzhak Rabin. “The agreements Netanyahu has signed with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain recall the Rabin legacy,” he writes. “It took another 25 years for Israel to get back on the path that had been blocked by three bullets from Yigal Amir’s gun.”
This is a distorted perception of both Yitzhak Rabin’s path and of Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy. The core of Rabin’s policy, according to Benn, was the attempt to strengthen Israel’s international and regional status by cooperating with U.S. President Bill Clinton and forming an alliance with the moderate Sunni countries. Rabin, he says, “was leery of an agreement with Syria,” and regarded Yasser Arafat with suspicion and contempt.
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Rabin did nurture a close relationship with Clinton, and took advantage of progress in the peace process to alter Israel’s regional status, but the heart of his strategy was to develop relations with our nearest neighbors – Jordan, Syria, the Palestinians and Lebanon – in order to prepare for the threats posed by Iran and Iraq. He did not attempt to reach an overall solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, but believed in a gradual progress, and thought that a breakthrough could be achievedav by means of treaties with Syria or the Palestinians themselves. He preferred the Syrian option, but when his willingness for Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights did not lead to a breakthrough, he chose to sign the Oslo Accords.
Rabin’s initial attitude toward Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was skeptical and hesitant, but between the summer of 1993 and the summer of 1995, he learned to accept him as a partner. It is impossible to know what Rabin would have tried to achieve in negotiations for a final status solution. But in two speeches he gave shortly after the Oslo Accords, he spoke of a Palestinian entity that “would be less than a state and would administer the lives of the Palestinians independently.” These are not symbolic gestures and do not attest to contempt.
And what is Netanyahu trying to achieve? He poured fire and brimstone on the Oslo Accords, but withdrew from Hebron and in 1998, agreed to give up 13 percent of Area C, the part of the West Bank under exclusive Israeli control. In his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, he accepted the principle of two states for two peoples, demonstrated surprising flexibility in negotiations he conducted in 2016 with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and in 2020 again accept the two-state principle, when he adopted the Trump plan. He also conducted indirect contacts over the years with Syrian President Hafez Assad and his son Bashar, in which he agreed to major concessions in the Golan.
What strategy is reflected in these steps? It’s true that most of Netanyahu’s concessions have remained on paper, that his actions on the ground contributed to creeping annexation in the West Bank, and that the idea of a treaty with Syria was abandoned. But the attempt to maintain the status quo is not a strategy, and in any case the status quo is has not remained unchanged. Nor are the recent normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain the product of a long-term strategy. The Trump plan was not designed to establish normalization between Israel and the Gulf countries, but to offer an outline for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Netanyahu’s declarations about annexing the Jordan Valley and parts of the West Bank gave Trump a bargaining chip vis-a-vis the Emirates: postponement of the annexation and apparent acquiescence to the sale of advanced fighter jets in return for normalization.
Normalization of ties with Arab states is a good thing, but it does not contribute to reducing the challenge presented by the Palestinian issue. The global and Middle Eastern arenas have undergone far-reaching changes in the 25 years that have passed since November 1995, when Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated. Israel faces new threats and opportunities. At the same time the demographic clock continues to tick. Anyone who wants to follow in Rabin’s footsteps will have to design a regional and international strategy, and deal with the Palestinian challenge.
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Prof. Itamar Rabinovich served in the Rabin administration as Israel’s ambassador to Washington and as the chief negotiator with Syria.