Rabin: What might have been

THE MURDER OF YITZHAK Rabin on 4 November 1995 was a watershed in the campaign of incitement of the Israeli far right against the Oslo Agreement. Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin, was not considered insane or unbalanced before the killing, merely another right wing activist supporting the settlers. He was swept along by the rising tide of hatred. The language of the anti-Oslo campaign had moved from harsh criticism to chants of “death to Rabin” amidst a sprinkling of rabbinical rulings, threats and curses. The mainstream right, however, believed that they could capitalise on the situation and benefit politically from the rising paranoia. Opportunistically, they did not distance themselves from it. Moreover, Bibi Netanyahu, the Likud leader was happy to attend demonstrations and to ride the tide of right wing anger. Arik Sharon, one month before the killing told the daily Ha’aretz that Rabin’s Labour administration was “a sick government”. Benny Elon, until recently Minister for Tourism and a member of Moledet, a far right party which advocated “transfer”, warned that Rabin was precipitating civil war and that “if he is not careful, he is liable to be killed”. Jews had always regarded themselves as history’s victims — the oppressed, the downtrodden and the powerless — they simply could not be violent themselves in this fashion. Yigal Amir had shattered this self-delusion in the name of halting the historic reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.

Under Rabin’s premiership, Hamas began its bombing campaign to wreck the peace process. While Oslo was certainly the underlying cause, the indiscriminate killing of thirty Muslim worshippers in a Hebron mosque in 1994 by a radical settler, Baruch Goldstein, provided the motivation for  Hamas to retaliate. With settler rejectionists feeding Islamist rejectionists, the first bus bombings took place in Tel Aviv and Beit Lid in 1994 and 1995. Rabin’s title of “Mr Security” looked hollow and the enemies of Oslo made political capital. The opinion polls showed a sudden, but dramatic drop in Rabin’s support in favour of the Likud leader, Bibi Netanyahu. While Rabin’s standing in the polls gradually recovered, the next bombing ensured that they once more plummeted. With each atrocity, the rate of recovery was slower.

Following Rabin’s killing, the new Prime Minister Shimon Peres was thirty percentage points ahead in the polls. In all likelihood, many floating voters in Israel were revolted by the radicalism of the far right and the opportunism of the Likud. But Hamas’s actions at the beginning of 1996 — the first systematic campaign of suicide bombing in Israel’s cities — unnerved and angered many. Moreover, it persuaded the floating voters to move back to the Likud of Bibi Netanyahu — someone whom many Israelis believed was directly complicit in the evolution of this tragedy, someone who did nothing to damp down the incitement of the far right. At Rabin’s funeral, his widow was noticeably reluctant to shake Netanyahu’s hand. The Daily Telegraph at the time remarked that on the day of the funeral, Netanyahu was “pale, sweaty and obviously shocked. But he also seemed uneasy. The Telegraph asked “Did he feel some personal responsibility for the assassination?” Despite a sense of disdain for Netanyahu, the bombings of the Islamists took precedence in Israeli emotions and concerns. The bombers killed 87 Israeli civilians and injured over 200 in successive days in  the heart of the country at the beginning of 1996. The reaction of the Israeli electorate a few months later was to give Netanyahu a sliver of a majority and to place the opponents of Oslo in power.

The strength of Oslo was that it was based on a constructive ambiguity where Rabin and Arafat could “do business” and make progress. Thus. although Oslo did not specifically announce that a Palestinian state would arise, this was the clear context of the Rabin-Arafat dialogue. Rabin had always been a promoter of the Jordanian option in the past, but in the last two years of his life, his stock answer tended to be: “I am against a Palestinian state at this stage”.

The constructive ambiguity of Oslo became specific certainty with Netanyahu consistently pointing out Palestinian violations of agreements. Arafat, in turn, retaliated by listing Israeli violations. Arafat’s incompetence in governance plus the increasing strength of the Islamists were further ingredients added into this witch’s brew. If Oslo had provided a win-win scenario, the situation after Rabin’s death meant a return to the “them and us” syndrome. If Oslo symbolised a coming together of the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps against their rejectionists, the post-Rabin state of affairs resurrected the megaphone war and a return to “Israel versus Palestine”.

Why was Rabin different? Unlike Menachem Begin’s fatalism, Rabin did not see Arafat as a new Hitler and did not believe that Israel would always be in state of war with its neighbours. A military action was conducted to achieve a specific outcome and not out of a sense of revenge and retribution. Yoram Pen, a close aide to Rabin, recalled that there was more to Rabin than the persona of a hawkish general. Rabin wrote that “there is neither moral right nor practical benefit in the illusion of the efficacy of force to attain fundamental political objectives or conclusive political solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict”. Effectively, he argued against Clausewitz’s dictum of war as politics by other means. In 1986, at a conference at Be”er Sheva University, he argued that democracies — unless they are mobilised to fight totalitarian dictatorships such as the struggle against Nazism — cannot follow Clausewitz. In a democracy, public opinion has to be courted and seduced. He argued that “wars of choice” cannot be waged with smoothness by democratic regimes.

in Vietnam was another and the idea of imposing a peace treaty on Lebanon in 1982 was, in Rabin’s view, an Israeli policy doomed to failure.

Unlike his hawkish predecessor Golda Meir who was closer to Dayan and Peres, Rabin on attaining the Premiership for the first time in 1974 was the first Israeli Prime Minister to recognise “a Palestinian problem”. During the two succeeding decades —

Why was Rabin different? Unlike Menachem Begin’s fatalism, Rabin did not see Arafat as a new Hitler aid did not believe that Israel would always be in state of war with its neighbours. and this was particularly catalysed by the first Intifada — he moved towards a position of recognising Palestinian nationalism per se. It was a gradual journey towards Oslo almost in parallel with parts of the Palestinian national movement. His original views — within his support for the Jordanian option — focused on the River Jordan as a security border, a unified Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Gush Etzion and the Jordan valley to be retained as security zones. In an ideological sense, he opposed the settlers and detested in particular the religious settlers of Gush Emunim and termed them “a cancer in the body of Israeli democracy”. He understood that the occupation brought in its train a moral undermining of Israeli society as well as a denigration of the Hebrew term “tohar ha”neshek” the purity of arms. He also understood the demographic argument that by the year 2010, there would a Palestinian Arab majority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. Settlement, occupation and annexation ultimately meant nullifying the right of the Jews to national self-determination. In his last speech in October 1995, he intimated that Gush Etzion could be given back. He therefore seemed to be  Line — ideas that later emerged in the Clinton Parameters and the Geneva Accords. He significantly continued to negotiate with Arafat while fighting the Islamists. This approach was placed in abeyance by all his successors as Prime Minister, admittedly in changed circumstances. Professor Shlomo Avineri who was secretary-general of the Foreign Ministry in the first Rabin administration in the 1970s has argued that he was hawkish in strategy to achieve an agreement, but dovish in negotiations once the agreement had been reached. This imagery did not endear him to the Israeli peace camp. On the other hand, the idealism and liberalism of the peace camp did not accord with his hard-headed understanding of the political reality. And yet, at the end of the day, it was Rabin who gingerly clasped Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn in September 1993. And it was at the conclusion to a peace rally — “a demonstration of gratitude” as David Grossman termed it — that Rabin was murdered in 1995.

Suppose fate had not taken its course on 4 November 1995 and Rabin had stood in the 1996 election against Netanyahu, would he have won? Would the reaction to the series of suicide bombings have swept Rabin away as it did Peres? Would Rabin’s prestige have nullified the desire for security? All answers now reside within the realm of speculation. Rabin would probably have done better than Peres, but the opinion polls show Rabin trailing Netanyahu before his death.

If Netanyahu’s tenure, 1996-1999, had been averted, there is every likelihood that the peace process would not have faltered so badly under a second term Rabin administration. Despite a growing call to reduce the pace of the peace process, the Rabin-Peres team would have provided the stability and rationality in policies that were subsequently missing. Perhaps there would have been an earlier evacuation of the Gaza settlements — and possibly of West Bank ones as well. The joker in the pack amidst such speculation is the global rise of Islamism. Was it a foregone conclusion that Hamas and Islamic Jihad would have wrecked any Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation regardless of who was Prime Minister of Israel? It should be noted that 172 Israelis were killed during the years of the Intifada 19871993. However, in the initial years of  were killed. Could Rabin have succeeded in persuading Arafat to take action against them where others had failed? After all, Arafat had moved against the Islamists following the bombings of Beit Lid. Yet Arafat also demonstrated his tendency to equivocate in complex situations. Arafat found himself in a contradictory situation. On one level, he had made peace with Israel and wished to reassure them in terms of security. On another level, he was determined to keep the Palestinian people mobilised for the difficult negotiations that lay ahead. Moreover, Arafat throughout his chairmanship of the PLO had striven for unity, it was better to keep disparate groups within the tent than outside — and outside his control. So would Arafat have taken action if Rabin had lived? Probably not, but history under Rabin’s responsible stewardship may still have taken a less bloody path.

The fifth anniversary of Rabin’s murder in November 2000 occurred when the peace process had all but collapsed, the Al Aqsa Intifada had commenced and the fire was raging ferociously. On that anniversary, the Rabin Center for Peace noticed that two passages had been omitted from the official version of Rabin’s last speech at the Peace Now rally. This speech was distributed widely and particularly in educational institutions.

The first removed passage read:

“There are enemies of peace who are trying to hurt us with the aim of torpedo-ing the peace. I want to say plainly: We have found a partner for peace among the Palestinians — the PLO who was once an enemy and has ceased terror.”

The second removed passage read; “It will also be possible to achieve peace with Syria.”

Such a tampering with history reflected the new reality of the Intifada and the embittered gulf that had opened up between both peoples.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement commented that “Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret of redemption”. It is an apt comment to conclude on the tenth anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin.



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