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Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman

March 5, 2017

An insider’s perspective on the life and influence of Israel’s first native-born prime minister, his bold peace initiatives, and his tragic assassination

More than two decades have passed since prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, yet he remains an unusually intriguing and admired modern leader. A native-born Israeli, Rabin became an inextricable part of his nation’s pre-state history and subsequent evolution. This revealing account of his life, character, and contributions draws not only on original research but also on the author’s recollections as one of Rabin’s closest aides. 

An awkward politician who became a statesman, a soldier who became a peacemaker, Rabin is best remembered for his valiant efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for the Oslo Accords. Itamar Rabinovich provides extraordinary new insights into Rabin’s relationships with powerful leaders including Bill Clinton, Jordan’s King Hussein, and Henry Kissinger, his desire for an Israeli-Syrian peace plan, and the political developments that shaped his tenure. The author also assesses the repercussions of Rabin’s murder: Netanyahu’s ensuing election and the rise of Israel’s radical right wing.


Itamar Rabinovich is president of The Israel Institute (Washington, D.C., and Tel Aviv); Global Distinguished Professor, New York University; and Non-Resident Distinguished Fellow, Brookings Institution. He served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States and chief negotiator with Syria from 1992–1996. He lives in Tel Aviv, Israel.

“Yitzhak Rabin was a soldier and a statesman who fought for the security of Israel and for a concept of peace for all nations. Itamar Rabinovich has written a thoughtful and extraordinarily comprehensive account of a significant leader.”—Henry A. Kissinger

“Itamar Rabinovich has written an insightful book on Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s charismatic warrior-statesman who valiantly dedicated himself to the cause of peace in the Middle East. As the head of Rabin’s team during Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations and as Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Rabinovich was at Rabin’s side during key moments in his country’s history.  I recommend his book to all those interested in peace between Arabs and Israelis.”—James A. Baker, III

“This highly informative and tightly-packed biography is undergirded by a deep personal knowledge of Rabin’s strengths and flaws as a leader and a sure command of Israel’s military and diplomatic history.”—Derek Penslar, Harvard University and the University of Toronto

"Puts the complexities of [Rabin's] career and achievement in fresh perspective."—Kirkus Reviews

"This well-written, easily digestible biography also provides useful insights into the inner workings of Israeli politics."—Booklist



Bill Clinton: If Rabin had lived, the world would be a different place

Ex-president says resurgent nationalism preceding 1995 assassination was a ‘microcosm’ of what is now happening ‘full bloom’ globally

BY TIMES OF ISRAEL STAFF March 10, 2017, 6:35 pm

Former US president Bill Clinton warned on Thursday that the assassination in 1995 of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the preceding uptick in nationalism was a “microcosm of what is coming full bloom across the world today.”

Speaking at a Brookings Institution event on the occasion of a book launch for Itamar Rabinovich’s “Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman,” Clinton said he remained convinced that if Rabin had lived, the world would be a different place today, in part because a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would have been achieved long ago.

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A Life with Consequences

by Dennis Ross

Jewish Review of Books, Spring 2017, pp. 27-29

In 1986, when I first met Yitzhak Rabin, he was the defense minister in Israel’s national unity government and I was a member of President Reagan’s National Security Council staff. In the ensuing years, during the Bush and Clinton administrations , I met and talked to him often, especially when I held senior positions, including that of the lead American negotiator on the Arab–Israeli peace process. Whenever I read another book about him, I naturally do so with a curiosity informed by my own set of intense experiences with the man who was one of Israel’s greatest leaders .

I have to admit that in approaching a new biography of Rabin, I did not expect to gain a great deal of new insight into the man and the country he served. And yet, much to my surprise, I did so in reading Itamar Rabinovich’s Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman. Rabinovich is a distinguished historian of the Middle East, but he, too, brings his personal history with Rabin to the biographical task. In 1993, Rabin appointed him to be Israel’s ambassador to Washington, during which time he also served as Rabin’s negotiator with the Syrians. His book tells a very revealing story that ties the arc of Rabin’s life to the course of Israel’s history from the pre-State period to the 1990s.

In the chapter Rabinovich devotes to Rabin’s early years in Mandate Palestine, we meet a shy 15-year-old who attempts to explain himself to a friend in his youth group: “I may have a sense of inferiority because I do not have the confidence that the members are interested in me.” A few years later, after he graduated from the Kadoorie Agricultural School, the shy youth’s loyalty to his peers and their cause outweighed any careerist inclinations. He passed on the chance to study water engineering in California and enlisted in the Palmach. Soon establishing himself as an expert military planner, tactician, and operator, the 26-year-old Rabin commanded the Harel Brigade in the fight for Jerusalem during Israel’s War of Independence. This experience left him profoundly convinced of, among other things, the need for military preparedness. I was bothered by the question,” he later wrote in his memoirs, “why has this war caught us so ill prepared? Was it necessary?” From the armistice talks in Rhodes in 1949, in which he was a participant, he learned from Israel’s surrender of its leverage in negotiations with Egypt that it should never deal with the Arabs in a collective setting but only bilaterally.

Rabin’s complicated relationship with David Ben-Gurion and his problems with Moshe Dayan prevented him from rising through the ranks of the IDF as rapidly as his military performance might otherwise have led an outside observer to expect. Although Ben-Gurion had promised to name Rabin chief of staff, it was his successor, Levi Eshkol, who finally did so, in 1963. The two worked well together until the trying weeks in May of 1967 before the Six-Day War—when Rabin found himself caught in an impossible position between a divided Israeli cabinet led by a hesitant Eshkol and a highly combustible general staff. Driven to exhaustion, and even put—briefly—out of commission, Rabin quickly rallied and implemented the spectacularly successful war plan for which he was largely responsible.

Justly celebrated as a hero, Rabin decided to leave the military and enter politics, but not directly. Feeling that he needed a period of transition, he asked Eshkol to appoint him to be Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Serving in that position during the last year of the Johnson administration, he did not get on very well with President Johnson or those in Dean Rusk’s State Department, who were pushing for complete Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai and not requiring from Egypt a peace treaty in return. In a tart memo written on November 15, 1968, which Rabinovich quotes, National Security Advisor Walt Rostow wrote, “Rabin feels we’ve changed our position and undermined Israel’s bargaining position. The fact is that this has been our consistent position for over a year, but the Israelis have turned off their hearing aids on us. As for undermining their position, we can’t afford to go along with their bazaar haggling if we’re going to have any chance of peace.” The advent of the Nixon administration turned things around.

Rabin forged a close relationship with Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, and the two together regularly circumvented both the State Department and Israel’s foreign minister, Abba Eban. Eshkol’s successor as prime minister, Golda Meir, both saw Rabin’s value and at times felt he exceeded his authority, acting as if he were already a minister. She felt he got out in front of what she was ready to do, especially with respect to an interim pull-back from the Suez Canal in response to Anwar Sadat. Rabin, for his part, was often frustrated by the inability of the Meir government to explain what it was ready to put on the table in order to achieve peace. By the end of his tenure in Washington, their relationship had soured, with Rabin believing that the prime minister had not fulfilled a promise to make him a minister. He returned to Israel in March 1973 ready to run for the Knesset elections on the Labor Party list.

The 1973 war was traumatic for Israel. The surprise attack, the Arabs’ use of oil as a weapon, the terribly high casualties, and the widespread sense of vulnerability after the conflict—so different from the exultation after 1967—all combined to darken the mood and shake the faith of the Israeli public. When the Agranat Commission issued its report on Israel’s intelligence failings at the beginning of the war, Golda Meir was not called on to resign, but massive demonstrations against the government spearheaded by reserve soldiers forced her to do so 10 days later. Rabin bore no stigma from the war, having been outside the government at the time; what’s more, his high standing after 1967 made him an attractive leader for the Labor Party. Since that party then dominated the Knesset, it was able to pick a successor to Meir without a country-wide election. Though Rabin had not established a political network within the central party machinery, Pinhas Sapir was a major power broker within Labor and his backing made it possible for Rabin to defeat Shimon Peres in a contest for the party leadership. On June 3, 1974, he became the prime minister of Israel.

One of the fascinating features of Rabinovich’s book is his discussion of the problems Rabin faced during his first term as prime minister and the degree to which these problems were bound up with his bitter rivalry with Peres. The tension and clashes between the two leaders limited the effectiveness of the Rabin government and contributed to the general sense that the Labor establishment had been in power for much too long—factors that would contribute to the Likud victory in 1977.

Rabinovich also highlights Rabin’s inability to stand up to the settler movement—even though he publicly called the settlers “a cancer in the social and democratic tissue of the state of Israel, a group that takes the law into its own hands.” This failure can be attributed to the weakness of Rabin’s government, and the fact that Peres and others within Labor supported the settlers at this time. Kissinger and King Hussein would have liked a limited disengagement on the West Bank to parallel the ones that had been implemented with both Egypt and Syria, and Rabin saw that such an arrangement could help Jordan replace the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians, but he still judged his domestic position to be too weak to pull off such a plan. Rabinovich repeatedly depicts Rabin as having foregone opportunities to effectively counteract the settler movement as well as the PLO.

It is not that Rabin was wholly ineffective during his first stint as prime minister; he concluded the second interim agreement that set the stage for peace with Egypt and also gained deep strategic commitments from the United States. Moreover, the spectacular Entebbe rescue operation was vintage Rabin—he did not rush to judgment and consistently challenged the military to come back to him with a plan that could be expected to work. (Though this operation restored a great deal of confidence in Israel’s military daring and effectiveness, it, too, was followed by skirmishes between Rabin and Peres over who should get credit for it.)

But Rabin was not skillful at handling the press, the coalition, or his party. On the brink of the 1977 elections he resigned after the revelation of his wife Leah’s (then illegal) overseas bank account—which seemed to fit into a narrative which included far more egregious instances of corruption among the Ashkenazi Labor elite and connected this to their distance from Mizrahi voters, those Jews of Middle Eastern origin who felt neglected, disadvantaged, and treated as outsiders by the Israeli establishment. In 1977, these voters turned to Likud and have rarely paid heed to Labor since, except when its leaders have had unimpeachable security credentials.

Rabin, of course, did have them. Following the Begin- Sharon debacle in Lebanon which Rabin had warned against—Labor regained enough of its strength to participate in national unity governments, and Rabin served as defense minister from 1984 until 1990. His image, authority, and credibility were restored. When Peres brought down the national unity government in 1990 in response to Yitzhak Shamir’s opposition to an American formula for Palestinian representation at an Israeli Palestinian dialogue, and then failed to create a Labor-led government, Rabin was displeased. Always the pragmatist, he believed that it was still possible to work with Shamir, and that it was, in any case, better to be in the government than outside of it. Yet he himself was the ultimate beneficiary of Peres’s move, since he soon regained control of the Labor Party and then led it to an electoral victory over Likud in the 1992 elections.

Rabinovich’s discussion of Rabin’s second term as prime minister is written from an insider’s perspective and makes for especially interesting reading. Determined to learn from his mistakes back in the 1970s, Rabin believed that the First Gulf War had brought about a unique moment in the Middle East, and focused his efforts on making peace with the inner circle of Israel’s neighbors in order to better position Israel for the threats he expected to arise from Iran and Iraq.

This discussion of Rabin’s peace policy reminds me of the adage that where you stand depends on where you sit. Rabinovich feels the Clinton administration was let down when Rabin decided to go with the Oslo breakthrough, concentrate on the Palestinians, and put the Syrian track on the back burner. The Americans were dismayed, he writes, that Rabin did this after putting in their pocket a statement of his readiness to withdraw fully from the Golan Heights if Israel’s needs were met. From my vantage point, as the State Department’s special Middle East coordinator, things looked rather different.

When Secretary of State Warren Christopher presented Rabin’s position to the Syrian president more as a commitment than a hypothetical possibility, Assad’s response was not to treat it as a historic breakthrough but as a reason to begin to bargain over Israel’s needs. As far as Rabin was concerned, Christopher had gone too far. “He felt,” Rabinovich writes, as if “the rug had been pulled out from under him.” Assad had pocketed what had been conveyed without giving anything back. Rabinovich is certainly correct when he says that Christopher (and I) believed that Assad had in fact responded favorably. But that was because we expected him to begin to negotiate and try to grind the process out—Assad was never one to move in leaps. We were not, however, disappointed by the Oslo breakthrough—only surprised because Rabin had consistently downplayed it with us, even during the meeting in which Rabin made what we understood to be a historic move with respect to Syria.

In August 1993, I went with Christopher to meet Peres and Norwegian foreign minister Johan Holst at the Point Mugu naval air station in California to hear about the breakthrough with the PLO. In asking Christopher to meet them, Rabin again conveyed some skepticism about the breakthrough and wanted to know what we thought of it—perhaps because he had kept us in the dark about it. Rabinovich, who was also at Point Mugu, is also right to say that Peres was clearly nervous about what our response would be. But there was no holding back on our part. We understood that an existential conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was crossing a historic threshold—even if, as I would tell Christopher at the time, the Declaration of Principles were more aspirational than tangible, and the hard work would await all of us.

True, we wanted to preserve the Syrian track, but, in reality, so did Rabin. Part of his pattern was to use each track as leverage against the other, which was perhaps a reflection of what Rabinovich describes as the lesson that Rabin learned from the unhappy experience of negotiating with the Arabs as a collective in 1949. This is a larger point that Rabinovich makes in this very readable and important book: Rabin was a realist who saw peacemaking not as the source of security but as a further development that needed to be based upon security. He understood that demographics argued for separation from the Palestinians. In 1994, he told me that he would build a separation fence. Even though he preferred to negotiate an agreement, he could not count on reaching one with the Palestinians and, one way or another, there would be a partition of the land.

In his book’s prologue, Rabinovich writes: "Most deaths are simply the end of a life. A political assassination, however, is unlike any other form of death. It is a death that acquires its own significance; a death with consequences. An assassination is not only the terminal point of a person’s life but also the starting point for a new reality the death itself has created."

In his epilogue, Rabinovich discusses the new reality created by Israeli extremist Yigal Amir’s assassination of Rabin. He writes with characteristic sobriety of the peace that might have been, but he does so with a sense of possibility, not certainty much like Rabin, in this respect. Rabinovich is wistful only insofar as he seems to say that the landscape of the Israel Rabin tried to save may be changing now as a coalition heavily influenced by religious nationalists and settlers is governing the country.

One thing is certain: Rabin could not have made peace by himself. It takes two sides to conclude a genuine peace agreement, and I am dubious that the Palestinians are up to the task. But I am also confident that Rabin would not have let Israel become a binational state. Whether Israel will have the political leadership to prevent that outcome is something that only time will tell.


Dennis Ross is the author of several influential books, most recently Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.–Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which was awarded the 2015 National Jewish Book Award for history. Ambassador Ross was U.S. point man on the peace process in both the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. He also served in key foreign policy roles in the Reagan and Obama administrations. He is currently counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.


Book Review: An Insider's View of How Rabin Almost Made Peace With Syria

Itamar Rabinovich, the late prime minister's ambassador to Washington, details why Rabin preferred peace with Assad over the Palestinians, in his new book, 'Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman.'

David Makovsky

Haaretz, May 14, 2017

As a journalist who covered Yitzhak Rabin during his second tenure as prime minister between 1992 and 1995, I found he was most relaxed when he was most analytical. It was when he sat at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv that he felt most at home – both as prime and defense minister. I would interview him many times there, and he was far more at ease than when he was at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem and could hear protesters not far from his window. He would light up a cigarette and begin talking about trends in the Middle East, often flicking his wrist as he distinguished between what he deemed to be strategic change versus tactical shifts. If you asked Rabin the right question, he would not hold back. He lacked guile and was proud of his unvarnished candor.

What was so striking about Rabin is how animated he became when he spoke about the Middle East. Rabin was most proud of his analysis, and how his policy would stem from that analysis. Rabin’s public credibility existed not just because he was the veteran Israel Defense Forces chief of staff who won the 1967 war and spent many years as defense minister. Rather, it was because the public trusted the intellectual honesty Rabin conveyed. You could disagree with Rabin – as so many certainly did in the Oslo years – but you knew where he stood and believed he honestly thought he was doing what was best for the country. Rabin was committed to telling his public, as he often did in an unambiguous fashion, that the status quo was harming Israel, and it needed to be addressed.

To be sure, Rabin led Israel at a time of seismic global change. The Cold War had just ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the massive arming of Damascus at that time. The United States, Israel’s patron, won the Gulf War against Iraq, dealing a blow to Arab radicalism. Around the same time, Israel welcomed a wave of highly educated immigrants from the former Soviet Union. This was the time for Israel’s leading thinker to seize on the strategic change, both in the region and internationally. Rabin sought to convince Israelis that a combination of peace agreements, military strength, better relations with the U.S. and economic renewal were better for Israel's security than more settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. He wanted to convince them that Israel had the opportunity to secure a more integrated place in the Mideast by making some painful concessions.

Itamar Rabinovich’s new biography of Rabin is a one-volume political profile that is key to understanding the personal trajectory of this seminal Israeli figure. It is a book spanning Rabin’s life, largely focusing on his military and political career. The book explores Rabin’s relationship with key figures of Israel’s pantheon like Ben-Gurion, Dayan and, of course, his endless, famous rivalry with Shimon Peres.

Rabinovich was Rabin’s ambassador to Washington and his chief negotiator with Syria. His centrism very much reflected Rabin’s. His portrait of Rabin includes interviews with many of those who worked closely with him, other archival, primary sources and, of course, the secondary literature. He also gained access to transcripts of dozens of interviews and speeches that Rabin gave.

All this enabled Rabinovich to delve deep into some of the more mystifying elements of Rabin’s career, including his emotional state on the eve of 1967 war when he was IDF chief of staff, with all the pressure that entailed, particularly in the absence of a full-time defense minister. Rabinovich’s conclusion, based on interviews with those familiar with the episode, was that Rabin suffered from “physical exhaustion and acute anxiety” but not a nervous breakdown as critics have alleged.

Rabinovich’s book also adds to our understanding of Rabin at a critical moment of his second premiership. Crucially, Rabin had to decide whether to remain on the Syrian diplomatic track and abandon the secret Oslo channel or vice versa. On one hand, he thought there was value in pursuing both tracks simultaneously, believing it could create leverage for Israel. Yet he also knew that two breakthroughs could overload the political circuits in Israel.

Rabinovich, who was present at the pivotal meetings where Rabin was pressed to choose one track, describes how this all came to a head in August 1993. U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher was pressing for a breakthrough with Damascus. For Rabin, the regional strategist, a breakthrough with Syria was ideal. Shorn of its Soviet patron, a deal with Damascus could peel Syria away from Iran, while also potentially cutting it off from its proxy, Hezbollah. Syria was a centralized state that had gone to war with Israel three times. Peace with Damascus was viewed as a potential strategic bonanza.

The Palestinian issue was far messier. Rabin felt that, despite the intifada, the Palestinians did not pose a conventional military threat to Israel in the same way that Syria did. Moreover, focusing on the West Bank would mean a head-on collision with the settler movement. In contrast, there were relatively few (and largely secular) settlers on the Golan. What makes Rabinovich’s account of August 1993 so intriguing is that it is clear Rabin’s regional assessment was not sufficient for his own decision-making: Rabin didn’t just need to decide if a deal made strategic sense for Israel; he needed Syria to demonstrate to the Israeli public that it genuinely wanted peace.

According to Rabinovich’s account, Rabin was repeatedly disappointed in ’93 that Assad was oblivious to the public diplomacy necessary to frame any breakthrough in negotiations to the Israeli people. While drawn to the regional value of a Syrian breakthrough, Rabin had to account for his own ability to deliver.

At the same time, Rabin was concerned that his government could collapse, due to a looming crisis involving the likely indictment of Shas minister Aryeh Deri for corruption, which would trigger the exodus of the Shas party from the coalition. Always believing he could make one big breakthrough, Rabin thought the time for decisions was imminent.

Despite months of talks at Oslo, on August 3, 1993, Rabin made it clear to Christopher that his preference was for a breakthrough with Syria. Rabinovich recounts how he played his ultimate card, telling Christopher that if Hafez al-Assad would satisfy Israel’s demands on a range of issues (security, water and normalization), Israel would fully withdraw from the Golan over five years. Rabin wanted to prove to the Israeli public that he would achieve full normalization with Syria, including an exchange of embassies early in the withdrawal process. Rabin made clear he was making the territorial concession to Christopher and not Assad, and called it the “deposit.”

Here Rabinovich, historian, practitioner and confidant, realizes he has just witnessed something potentially historic. “As we made the short walk from Rabin’s office to the conference room in which Rabin’s and Christopher’s aides were impatiently waiting, I said to [American counterpart Dennis] Ross that I could hear the winds of history in the room. I knew Rabin had just given Christopher the keys to an Israeli-Syrian peace.”

According to Rabinovich, in the follow-up meeting upon Christopher’s return from Damascus on August 5, Rabin expressed disappointment with Assad’s lack of alacrity in seizing upon his offer, and felt Christopher was too revealing of the “deposit” to Assad. Rabinovich says the U.S. saw the Assad response as supportive of the Rabin offer, and put forward a counter-offer that was just the beginning of the negotiation. Rabinovich seems disheartened the U.S. didn’t engage in more urgent diplomacy; instead, Christopher went on vacation.

However, it may be unfair to blame the Americans. It’s likely Rabin did not convey his desire for an accelerated timetable to the Americans. They seemed to know about the competing secret Oslo track in general terms, but may not have realized that he wanted a breakthrough that month, or could risk a collapse of his government. Rabin may not have wanted to share his sense of urgency with the U.S. believing it was too politically sensitive.

With a Syria deal off the table, Rabin returned his attention to the Palestinians. The advantage to a breakthrough with the Palestinians, Rabinovich points out, was that, “it was an interim agreement, and the toughest decisions could be delayed for five years. In a deal with Syria, the most painful choices [committing to a full withdrawal from the Golan] would have to be made up front. Rabin ended up deciding to give the green light to conclude the Oslo negotiations and forsook a Syrian track.”

Rabin dispelled the notion that if you are weak, you cannot afford to compromise, and if you are strong, you do not need to compromise. As Israel’s “Mr. Security,” Rabin believed that Israel was strong and could negotiate from a position of strength. The destinies of the Israelis and the Palestinians would be separated, and this motif would be more dominant than the theme of reconciliation. It would be a soldier's peace – without illusions. He believed it was unhealthy for Israeli decision-making to be held hostage by perpetual gridlock. After all, Zionism came about because the Jews were committed to transforming their predicament and refused to be paralyzed. Rabin may have lacked the charisma of other leaders, but as the famed novelist Amos Oz said of him: “By being a careful engineer and a precise navigator, his personality embodied the spirit of new Israel, a country seeking not redemption but solutions.”

Rabin understood that the moral authority of leadership could be strongest at home and abroad when Israel exhausted every avenue for peace, using war only as the last resort. As a journalist who interviewed him countless times, I remember him often saying how important it was for him to be able look into the eyes of mothers and tell them he had tried all options before sending their sons into battle. For him, Israel’s public resilience was tied to the moral authority of its cause.

He defined leadership not just as saying tough things to outsiders, but to his own public. He felt it was important to preserve Israel’s character as a nation-state of the Jewish people and as a democracy.

For Rabin and his fellow Israelis, Oslo shook the country to the core. Many were thrilled and viewed Oslo as the ticket to being a normal Western country that Israelis craved. Yet, for Rabin’s critics, Oslo was perfidy. A societal chasm emerged, and the trajectory was clear. Israel would be yielding biblical patrimony. For the critics, the move was not just misguided but illegitimate. Tragically, Rabin would pay the ultimate price.

Rabinovich’s account is an important reminder of the role of leaders can play in rising to the occasion in making historic decisions, especially at a time when people believe decisions are too momentous for any single leader to even consider – let alone make.

David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He was a senior advisor in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of State’s Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations during 2013-2014. He has written widely on the Middle East Peace Process including “Making Peace with the PLO: The Rabin Government’s Road to the Osl Accord” (Harper Collins, 1996).



What actually happened



Let us start with due diligence: I know Itamar Rabinovich. We are not friends but we both served under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in his second term (1992–5), I as the director of the Government Press Office, he in a much more important position – the Israeli ambassador in Washington. Rabinovich has written impartially about Rabin, whom he knew well. I’ll try to adhere to his example.

In this biography Rabinovich, an acclaimed historian of the Middle East, follows the slow rise of Yitzhak Rabin from his service in Jerusalem in 1948, when, as a commander of the Palmach (“strike force”) regiment, he sent sixteen-year-old fighters to their deaths trying to break the Arab siege of the city, to his role as one of the architects of Israel’s greatest victory, in the Six Day War of 1967; as an ambassador in Washington during the Cold War, where he was schooled in diplomacy and statesmanship, and as Prime Minister (1974–7) and later Defence Minister (1984–90) during the first intifada, when he realized the need to settle with the Palestinians; and as Prime Minister again, eventually paying with his life for daring to make peace with the PLO.

This is not the first Life of Rabin. Rabin of Israel (1977) by Time Magazine’s Israel correspondent, Robert Slater, was a very empathetic biography, which Slater revised immediately after Rabin’s assassination (curiously enough, Rabinovitch doesn’t mention this landmark book). When it was revised and republished again in 2015, shortly after Slater’s death, Rabin’s daughter, Dalia, said that “the two men shared a chemistry that allowed for the creation of a truly honest and open biography”. Rabinovich, who had no less chemistry with Rabin than did Slater, nevertheless makes few allowances for his subject. A case in point is his handling of May 23, 1967, just before the Six Day War, when Rabin, mentally and physically exhausted, suffered a breakdown and was incapacitated for thirty-six hours. Ezer Weizman, his second-in-command, replaced him until he recovered. In a short book like this, Rabinovich could have easily settled for a brief mention of the incident – one that was kept secret for several years. Instead, the author quotes a damning passage from the memoirs of Weizman: “The state and stability of the Chief of Staff, Yitzhak Rabin, [were] fraying. It was manifested through changes of decisions, in expressions of anxiety regarding the future and inability to make decisions. Rabin generated insecurity around him”.

Rabinovich is a master of brevity. He summarizes one of the most dramatic events in Rabin’s life – the handshake with Yasser Arafat on the South Lawn of the White House – with a few dry words. One has to read the memoirs of Bill Clinton to discover the drama behind the scene, when the fear was that Arafat would not only push for a handshake, but – in the tradition of the Middle East – would attempt to kiss Rabin as well. The night before, Clinton rehearsed the meeting with his National Security Advisor, Tony Lake, both having a good laugh at the different tricks and physical manoeuvres designed to foil Arafat’s potential flirtatious schemes. But Rabinovich will have none of that juicy stuff. Here is how he sums up the event:

[Rabin] found the perfect demeanor for dealing with Arafat. He shook his hand, but his discomfort was evident. His facial expression and body language reflected his uneasiness. For an Israeli public who had to absorb Arafat’s transformation from a rabid and unacceptable enemy into a partner in a peace process, Rabin found the perfect pitch.

Rabinovich’s language – lean, precise, devoid of embellishment – reminds me of the way Rabin himself used to talk: dugri, as we say in Hebrew, straightforward, to the point. He refrains from any asides about his subject, even the kind of minimalistic comment that Henry Kissinger made about Rabin: “I grew extremely fond of him though he did little to encourage affection”. In an era when language is being abused for political purposes and agendas, Rabinovich’s book is a breath of fresh air. If doctors take the Hippocratic oath to be loyal to their profession, historians follow the directive of Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886), the founder of modern historical science, “to show what actually happened”.

As Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Rabinovich was in a similarly awkward position to the one that Rabin had occupied two decades before, when Golda Meir was the Prime Minister and Abba Eban the Foreign Minister: officially under the Foreign Minister but in practice reporting directly to the Prime Minister. Manoeuvring between these two powerful figures, in his case Rabin and Shimon Peres, who alternated between collaboration and undermining each other, surely stretched Rabinovich’s diplomatic skills to the full. The author could have illustrated his personal dilemma with a perfect example. After the ceremony at the White House, the Israeli delegation was invited to dinner at the ambassador’s mansion. Much to the delight of the Israeli journalists present, Rabin, obviously exhausted by the long day’s events and perhaps fuelled by more booze than he was used to, started levelling nuanced insults towards the grim-faced Peres, who sat alone on the other side of the room. At one point Rabinovich, always the gentleman, went over and sat with the Foreign Minister. This episode, which I witnessed, is absent from the book, because Rabinovich writes about Rabin, not about himself.

One of the most intriguing chapters deals with the way Rabin, in the summer of 1993, wavered between the Syrian and Palestinian options. Having qualms about dealing with the PLO, Rabin hoped that if he made a breakthrough with Damascus this would coerce the Palestinians into negotiating from a weaker position. Talks with Syria’s Hafez al-Assad seemed promising, so much so that Rabinovich, who was Israel’s chief negotiator, told the US Middle East Envoy, Dennis Ross, that he “could hear the wings of history”. But Assad remained vague on the issue of full peace with Israel, and when the Syrian path was closed Rabin had no choice but to turn reluctantly to the Palestinian one, not least because he wanted to avoid an open clash with Peres, who had been leading the then clandestine Oslo talks. The State Department official Daniel Kurtzer, frustrated by the failure of American diplomats (himself included) to broker a peace between Israel and Syria, wrote that such peace “could have been achieved in the 1990s . . . . Historians of the future will look back and wonder why a difference of a few hundred meters along the shore of the Sea of Galilee was allowed to block the way to a peace agreement”.

Rabinovich is neither in the business of passing judgements such as this, nor in wondering whether, considering Syria’s dire situation today, it would have been wise to give the Golan Heights to Hafez al-Assad – or, alternatively, whether Syria in the possession of Golan would still have fallen into a bloody civil war. Loyal to Ranke, he refuses to speculate about alternatives. He also avoids the trap of asking the inevitable question: what would have happened if Rabin hadn’t been assassinated? In an event for the book’s launch on March 9 at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Bill Clinton said that “I remain convinced that had [Rabin] lived we would have achieved a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians by 1998 and that we would be living in a different world today”. I’m sure that Rabinovich kept his legendary diplomatic poker face when he heard that. Here he calls this kind of speculation “an exercise in counterfactual history”.

In the two decades after the assassination of Rabin, there has been a debate in Israel over his legacy. Should he be remembered for his awe-inspiring contribution to the security of Israel or, conversely, for his bold – and highly controversial – decision to make peace with the PLO? Leslie Derfler, another biographer of Rabin (also not mentioned by Rabinovich), thinks that the shift from “Mr Security” to “Peacemaker” wasn’t so dramatic after all, because there was a continuity, “an underlying awareness of the need for a political and not a military solution to assure Israeli security”. Rabinovich puts it in his own words:

Indeed, it is wrong to remember and commemorate Rabin as a dovish leader. Rabin was a centrist leader preoccupied with Israel’s security, and he came to the conclusion that the country should seek to moderate and eventually settle its conflict with its Arab neighbors. To him, the quest for peace was intimately connected with the quest for security.


In this epilogue, Rabinovich says that he considered as a subtitle for the book a line by the poet Shaul Tschernichovsky: “The image of his native landscape”. He calls Rabin “the quintessential sabra, the native-born Israeli”. And yet the Israel that Rabin helped to create and defend has changed drastically. Rabinovich sees in the final years of Rabin as Prime Minister “a valiant effort by a soldier-turned-statesman to use most of the territory he captured in 1967 to consolidate, save and preserve that original landscape. His assassination became a crucial step on the road to its transformation”. Had I been writing these words myself, I would have added the word “tragically” or “alas” at the beginning of that final sentence. Itamar Rabinovich would never do that: he leaves it for his readers to decide. And that is why this book is so compelling.


Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman

Review by Maron L. Waxman

Jewish Book Council, June 2017

The first native-born prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin exemplifies his generation. He was brought up in the Labor tradition, graduated from a prestigious high school, then joined the Palmach, an elite fighting force in the prestate underground army. Like many of his contemporaries, he served in the War of Independence, an experience that shaped his life. Shy, outspoken, and not always long on patience, Rabin was not a natural leader, but he had a strong sense of purpose. Despite his awkward manner and many differences with other political leaders, notably Shimon Peres, he left his mark on Israeli history .

Itamar Rabinovich, former Israeli ambassador to the United States and president of Tel Aviv University, served as Rabin’s chief negotiator to Syria. From his firsthand knowledge of Rabin’s policies and close working relationship with him, he has written a sympathetic and highly informative biography that tracks Rabin’s career from chief of the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) to his not entirely successful first tenure as prime minister—he did plan and execute the Entebbe rescue—to his return to the prime ministership after fifteen years—a rare event in politics—as a more experienced and skilled leader .

The horrific and bloody battle on the road to Jerusalem in 1948 in which Rabin lost half his men was a key point in Rabin’s career. It burned itself into his memory as both a military and political failure. Believing that the leadership had not prepared the troops for war, Rabin, as he moved up in the military chain of command, determined that Israel’s security would never again be compromised. He developed Israel into a dominant regional power, culminating in the stunning success of the Six-Day War. This victory and Rabin’s record as a highly effective defense minister gave him authority with the public as a leader who ensured Israel's security .

As an insider during Rabin’s second tenure as prime minister, Rabinovich is able to convey the tension and sense of immediacy in this complex and difficult period. A military hawk, Rabin was also a political dove, determined to pursue the peace process; above all he was a realist who believed Israel could not exist without resolving the issue of the West Bank. Paths to peace agreements had been opened, and in a compelling account Rabinovich gives a firsthand report of the events that led to the signing of the Oslo Accords .

Equally compelling is Rabinovich’s account of the anger and hardening of positions leading up to Rabin’s assassination. Israeli security failed to take seriously the increasingly vicious threats against Rabin and incitement of the right wing, believing that a Jew would never kill a Jew, and Rabin himself chose to maintain his public appearances. His assassination in 1995 at a large and enthusiastic peace rally in central Tel Aviv threw the country into a state of deep shock and mourning. Rabin’s funeral was an emotional outpouring attended by world leaders, an acknowledgment of his stature and place in Israeli history .

Rabinovich, a prominent historian, brings both his deep knowledge of the Middle East and his insider’s experience to this close-up picture of the years in which Israel grew into a full-fledged nation and Yitzhak Rabin’s part in that development. Well-organized and highly readable, "Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman" is of definite interest to any follower of Israel’s history .