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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.



 

New biography tries to answer the ‘What if?’ hovering over Yitzhak Rabin’s legacy

Jewish News Service (JNS.org), December 5, 2016

By Rabbi Jack Riemer

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin embodied the qualities of his generation: toughness, gruffness and idealism.

He started out intending to be a farmer. The realities of life in Israel in the 1940s forced him to become a soldier. The frustrations of trying to run an effective army amid never-ending political intrigue forced him to become a politician. Then the realization that the army could not guarantee Israel’s security forever forced him to become a peacemaker. Just as only an anti-communist, like President Richard Nixon, could reach out to China, so too only a man totally committed to Israel’s security, as Rabin was, might have been trusted by the Israeli people to make the concessions and sacrifices that peace would require. We will never know what would have happened had Rabin lived, but the man who killed the prime minister also killed the Arab-Israeli peace process he was working on.

Every year for the last 20 years, on the anniversary of his death, young people gather by the thousands at the place where he was assassinated—now called Rabin Square—to mourn his loss and the lost opportunity for peace. “What if?” is an impossible question to answer. We will never know, but the forthcoming biography of Rabin by Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. and chief negotiator with Syria under Rabin, makes the case that the prime minister would have taken the risks for his concept of “peace with safeguards,” no matter what opposition stood in his way.

Rabinovich tells the story of Rabin’s three careers: soldier, politician and peacemaker. He recounts how Rabin never gave an order to attack until he had first considered every risk and examined every detail to make sure that the attack would succeed. He tells of how Rabin, as commander of the entire Israeli army, would often interview ordinary soldiers after an attack in order to gain their perspective on what went right and what went wrong. Rabinovich explains that Rabin came out of a socialist home and a kibbutz background, and therefore never cared about rank. He felt he could learn from corporals and privates, not just from the top brass.

In the second stage of Rabin’s career, he entered politics, becoming Israel’s U.S. ambassador and eventually prime minister. He learned how crucial America is to Israel’s well-being and made important alliances with U.S. leaders. He learned that Israel is a morass of political intrigue. He was first a disciple and then a rival to both Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon. He was a subordinate, but also a threat to both Golda Meir and Abba Eban. During all his years in government, he engaged in a power struggle with Shimon Peres. Rabin and Peres were opposites in every way. Peres was a bold visionary, imaginative and ambitious, creative and restless, forever tinkering with new ideas. Rabin was cerebral and cautious, his feet firmly planted on the ground. Yet they ultimately came to understand that they were joined at the hip and, like it or not, they needed each other. When Rabin and Peres received the Nobel Peace Prize together with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the joke in Israel was that they were honored for making peace with each other, not with Arafat.

The greatest transformation in Rabin’s life came when he moved from being the guardian of Israel’s security to being the person willing to explore the possibility of making a lasting peace with Jordan, Syria and the Palestinians. Rabin came to the conclusion that Israel could not be a garrison state forever, and that it must find some way to make peace with its enemies.

To put it mildly, Rabin was not a person who cared about ingratiating himself with anybody. When he became prime minister, he spoke out with contempt against those who regarded all the land of Israel as sacred and who would not yield an inch, even for the sake of the security of the state. He dismissed those people as a “a cancer on the State of Israel” and “propellers who only make noise,” which is surely not the most tactful way to persuade anyone to agree with your viewpoint.

Rabin believed he could not go to the Israeli public and ask them to gamble for peace until he was first able to persuade Syria’s Hafez al-Assad to make the painful but necessary steps for peace. But Assad turned out to be no Anwar Sadat—the Egyptian president who signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Assad had no understanding of why he should make public gestures to win over Israeli public opinion when in Syria, public opinion was simply irrelevant.

On the Palestinian front, Rabin would not ask the Israeli people to take risks for peace unless he was first able to persuade Arafat to guarantee that he would control the terrorists within the land he would govern. But Arafat—after learning from what happened to Sadat, who was assassinated two years after making peace with Israel—was unwilling to risk his life by doing so. We will never know whether Rabin could have persuaded the Israelis to make the concessions that peace would have required.

Rabinovich’s biography of Rabin is clear and objective. It is the work of a man who has substantial scholarly credentials—he currently heads the Israel Institute think tank—and who worked with Rabin in his efforts to make peace with Syria. The author describes Rabin’s meticulous attention to detail and his insistence on careful planning, which were both the late prime minister’s greatest assets and greatest faults. In the end, as this book makes clear, Rabin was not a dreamer but a realist, not a bold thinker but a careful planner, not a charismatic leader but an often intemperate and undiplomatic head of state. This leadership style—the inability to listen to and persuade those who differed with his goals—is what led to his demise.

 

Yet Rabin is remembered with ever-increasing nostalgia, not so much for what he did, but for what he symbolizes. He stands for the belief that there can be peace with safeguards, and that this belief is not the fantasy of naïve dreamers, but a real and practical possibility.


 


 

Book Review // Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman

Saint, Sinner, Sabra

by David K. Shipler

April 7, 2017

Moment Magazine, in 2017 March-April, Arts & Culture, Featured, Politics

A double myth about Yitzhak Rabin has prevailed since his assassination in 1995. For the Israeli right, his peacemaking attempts were and still are evidence of traitorous subversion. For the Israeli left, and especially to much of the outside world, his memory is crowned with rare nobility. He is either a Neville Chamberlain or a Nelson Mandela, a villainous appeaser or a creative visionary, poised either to destroy Israel or to save it.

Rabin fit into neither category. He was a paradox, as inventive leaders often are. His long history as a tough and skillful warrior informed his evolving quest for guarded compromise with the Arabs—Jordan, Syria and the Palestinians in particular—as the best hope for Israel’s long-term security. By the end, when a Jewish extremist gunned him down, he had demonstrated that the obligation of war and the yearning for peace could coexist in the same person. And in the same country, as it could be said of Israel itself.

The point is made by Rabin’s latest biographer, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, Itamar Rabinovich, a respected historian of the Middle East who served as negotiator in Rabin’s failed attempt at a peace agreement with Syria in the 1990s. Rabinovich notes at the end of Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman, “At some point I considered as a subtitle for this book a line written by the poet Shaul Tchernichovsky: ‘The image of his native landscape.’” Rabin was “the quintessential sabra,” Rabinovich writes, with “a rough exterior concealing an inner sensitivity.” He was “a political dove and a military hawk.”

Rabin demonstrated this repeatedly. In 1982, with his Labor Party in opposition, he refrained from voicing his misgivings about Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s invasion of Lebanon because, as a former chief of staff, he believed that once in a war, “it was imperative to win it,” Rabinovich writes. Yet the politician in him “had to juggle his statements according to the war’s ebb and flow,” and he was widely criticized when he urged the army “to tighten the siege of Beirut.”

Rabin had no taste for political deal-making, an aversion with lasting costs. As prime minister in 1974, he failed to mobilize his party and coalition partners to counter the rise of the religio-nationalist settlement movement Gush Emunim, whose heirs now populate today’s right-wing government. Rabinovich faults him for not “taking bold initiatives and sweeping the country with the vision of a young prime minister representing a new era in Israeli politics.” At that time, “he was cautious by nature, and incrementalist. As a political leader he lacked confidence and experience.”

He gained his footing in his second stint as prime minister from 1992 to 1995. Ready for those bold initiatives, he and his persistent rival, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, explored two tracks: Syria, which Rabin decided should come first, and the Palestinians, with whom Peres’s aides had been secretly negotiating. The Palestinian track culminated in the Oslo Accords and a partial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Syria became a tantalizing, frustrating effort that Rabin eventually abandoned.

Rabinovich knows a lot about those years, during which he served as Rabin’s note-taker in high-level meetings and conducted talks in Washington (always in the presence of American officials) with Walid Muallem, then the ambassador from Syria to the United States. Rabinovich developed a scholarly expertise on Syria, and makes excellent use of his personal experience to provide a fresh account of the Israeli efforts to get Syrian president Hafez al-Assad to display the public diplomacy and full recognition that would persuade Israelis to give up the Golan Heights, captured from Syria during the 1967 war.

In August 1993, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher took Rabin’s offers and conditions to Assad, and while Assad agreed in principle, Rabinovich reports, he waffled on key details, rejecting the “large measure of normalization” Rabin had demanded at the beginning of a phased withdrawal. The Americans reacted positively to Assad’s acceptance of “the basic equation,” but Rabin was looking for a resolution he could sell to the Israeli public: an acceptance of Israel as complete as Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat’s dramatic opening had been in 1977. Rightly or wrongly, Rabin concluded that the Syrian track led only to futility.

Rabinovich’s creditable and workmanlike narrative moves efficiently and often concisely. The context he offers is especially illuminating on the run-up to the 1967 war (a good primer for those unfamiliar with the history); the intricacies of Israeli politics (arcane except to readers already knowledgeable); and Rabin’s hopeful, tragic final years and months. It is a useful sketch of history, not a psychological study, but in the book’s plain accounting, some of Rabin’s reflective nature filters through. More of his contemplative side would have enriched the portrait.

Rabin demonstrated his “inner sensitivity” most strikingly toward his own soldiers. He observed, in a speech after the Six-Day War, that even in a nation “swept by joy” at the victory, “we encounter again and again a strange phenomenon among the fighters. They cannot be fully happy…The fighters in the front lines saw with their own eyes not just the glory of victory but also its price—their comrades fell next to them, covered by blood. And I know that the terrible price paid by the enemy has also deeply affected many of them.”

In a passage deleted by censors from his 1979 memoirs but published inThe New York Times, Rabin describes his Palmach unit’s expulsion of Palestinian civilians from the towns of Lod and Ramle during the 1948 War of Independence. “Psychologically, this was one of the most difficult actions we undertook,” he writes in the excerpt quoted by Rabinovich. Inexplicably, Rabinovich then omits a telling paragraph in which Rabin laments, “Great suffering was inflicted upon the men taking part in the eviction action [who] included youth movement graduates, who had been inculcated with values such as international fraternity and humaneness.” Some refused to participate, Rabin recalls, and “prolonged propaganda activities were required after the action, to remove the bitterness of these youth movement groups, and explain why we were obliged to undertake such a harsh and cruel action.”

 

Those remarkable lines make Rabin seem self-absorbed, but they contain his paradox, an altruistic self-interest that drove him to realize how Israelis suffer by making Arabs suffer. That sensibility, essential for peace, has practically died with him as Israeli politics has hurtled to the right.

 

 


 

Rabin, in a New Light

A new biography by Yitzhak Rabin’s former ambassador to Washington and lead negotiator with Syria recalls the rise of the Israeli leader and a time of possibility

By Armin Rosen

The Tablet Magazine, April 24, 2017

Former Israeli diplomat and Tel Aviv University president Itamar Rabinovich’s new biography of Yitzhak Rabin begins by acknowledging what anyone attempting to demystify the life and times of Israel’s fifth prime minister is up against. “A political assassination…is unlike any other form of death,” Rabinovich writes in the prologue to Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman, part of Yale University Press’s ongoing Jewish Lives series. “An assassination is not only the terminal point of a person’s life but also the starting point of a new reality that the death itself created.”

Rabin’s human proportions are now hopelessly obscured behind layers of political narrative and outright myth. In death, Rabin has been drafted into a simplistic and personality-driven theory of recenet history: He’s a visionary who would have willed Israel and the Middle East into a golden age of coexistence; a martyr to a dying utopian idea as well as the victim of a society that’s proven incapable of ever truly embracing it. At times, Rabin is remembered as the Israeli equivalent of some idealized version of Abraham Lincoln, his life a providential means of herding his country from one historical stage to the next, and at the inevitable expense of his own life.

Rabinovich’s book provides some much-needed clarity, and it begins with a rejection of the Lincoln comparison, which comes slightly later in the prologue. “Lincoln had completed his mission; his assassination was an act of revenge against that achievement,” Rabinovich writes a little later in his prologue. In contrast, Rabin’s accomplishments were incomplete and ambiguous. The Oslo Accords were an era-defining breakthrough, but there’s still no final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and there may not have been one even if Rabin had lived. Both in his book and in a recent interview with Tablet, Rabinovich ominously notes that in his view, the domestic forces responsible for the atmosphere of violence and division in the lead-up to Rabin’s assassination have gone unchecked in the two decades since. “Among the developments that reinforced and accelerated” Israel’s “journey towards the right” and away from a “genuine quest” for peace with the Palestinians, he writes, were the fact that “the Israeli state failed to punish the larger circle that incited and called for the killing of Rabin, that Israeli society did not go through the requisite soul-searching after the assassination… The assassin and his camp were in fact rewarded for the crime.”

* * *

Rabinovich served as Rabin’s (and later Shimon Peres’s) ambassador to Washington and lead negotiator with Syria from 1993 to 1996. Since Rabinovich was a close colleague of the prime minister’s, the Rabin he describes isn’t a reassuring or politically useful abstraction, but an imperfect and never fully-formed political actor. Rabin was “not a jumper off of cliffs,” he explained. “He didn’t look five stations ahead. He always looked at the next station. I don’t think he expected to become prime minister.” At times, Rabin benefited from wild swings of fortune: The aftermath of a war scare stemming from a botched military exercise in 1959 cleared the way for Rabin to become the IDF’s third in command, just as he was planning to travel to the U.S. to study at Harvard University.

As Rabinovich’s book explains, Rabin’s worldview was formed out of experiences from early in his career. During Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, Rabin commanded the division of the Harel Brigades tasked with securing the road between the new country’s Jewish-majority coastal plain and Jerusalem, its besieged inland capital. The division’s casualty rate pushed the 50 percent mark, and Rabin became convinced that Israel had been dangerously ill-prepared to fight off the Arab invasion. “The reason that he decided to stay in the IDF was to make sure that didn’t happen again,” said Rabinovich.

Rabinovich’s book touches on another intriguing detail in Rabin’s early biography: In February of 1949, Rabin attended the conference on the Greek island of Rhodes where Egypt and Israel negotiated their post-war ceasefire agreement. In Rhodes, the young lieutenant colonel Rabin saw that “it was not in Israel’s interest to negotiate with an Arab collective,” and understood that “Israel does better when it deals separately with individual Arab states,” Rabinovich writes—the future prime minister saw that peace was possible, so long as it was done gradually and carefully. Later on, Rabin showed a remarkable ability to learn from both his failures and his triumphs. The scandal and infighting of his first unsuccessful, mid-’70s term as prime minister taught him to be a less domineering and more politically minded leader when he took the reins again 15 years later. And one of the many surprises of Rabinovich book is reading about Rabin’s sense of regret over his role in the multi-year escalation cycle with Egypt and Syria leading up to the 1967 Six-Day War, at time when he served as the IDF’s chief of staff and cemented his later reputation as Israel’s “Mr. National Security.”

Rabinovich describes Rabin as “a military hawk and a political dove,” someone who was widely respected, but lacking in natural charisma. If the IDF ever entered into a conflict, Rabin believed it had to win, regardless of how ill-advised that conflict might be at its core—an attitude that might explain Rabin’s commitment to violently suppressing the first Palestinian uprising when he served as Yizhak Shamir and Shimon Peres’s Minister of Defense in the 1980s. At the same time, he saw the strategic necessity of an accommodation over the status of the West Bank from an early point, telling a group of “young Orthodox Zionists” in 1974 that he was willing to “visit Kfar Etziyon with a passport,” according to Rabinovich’s book.

During his second term as prime minister, which lasted from July of 1992 until his assassination on November 4, 1995, Rabin recognized that the biggest threats to Israel were no longer from Egypt, Syria, or the Palestinians, but from Iraq and Iran, the hostile revisionist states further to Israel’s east. “He believed that Israel had to consolidate its immediate environment in order to deal with these threats,” saidRabinovich. Rabin wanted to put his country on the path to peace with Syria and the Palestinians, and saw an opening for negotiations after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been a patron of Hafez al-Assad’s regime in Syria as well as Yassir Arafat’s PLO. But that doesn’t mean Rabin ever intended to rush towards a final agreement with either. “I don’t think that when he began he was trying to achieve final status peace with all of Israel’s neighbors,” Rabinovich said. “He was an incrementalist by inclination and he always moved step by step.”

* * *

Assassinated leaders leave a trail of “what ifs” in their wake. Rabinovich thinks that Yigal Amir “inflicted a blow” on the peace process on November 4, 1995, without entirely killing the possibility of peace. Still, the former ambassador hinted at what Rabin’s future could have included. According to Rabinovich, Rabin believed that peace with Syria could be possible during a hypothetical third term as prime minister, so long as there was “geopolitical pressure on Assad in order for him to make a deal.”

Rabinovich believes that the biggest missed opportunity of the early 1990s peace process was Rabin’s “deposit” of hypothetical Israeli concessions in a prospective peace deal with Syria, which he communicated to Secretary of State Warren Christopher in August of 1993. At that point, Hafez al-Assad demanded Israel commit to fully withdrawing from the Golan Heights as a starting-point for negotiations. In a characteristically subtle move, Rabin outlined his vision of a generous final agreement for Christopher, with the expectation that the US’s top diplomat would use his knowledge of Israel’s bottom line to carefully guide Assad to the negotiating table. Rabinovich writes that the “deposit” was mishandled: Christopher prematurely revealed Israel’s final status positions during a meeting with Assad that month, leaving Rabin with the feeling that “the rug had been pulled out from under him,” Rabinovich writes. Assad also gave only vague indication that he was ready to call off his conflict with Israel under any circumstances. A settlement with Syria “would have put the whole peace process on a different footing,” said Rabinovich, and even might have prevented Syria’s violent collapse two decades later. Alas, Rabinovich said, “the combination of the mishandling of the deposit and the ambivalence of Assad directed the peace process to the Palestinian track” instead, where it founders to this day.

Rabinovich’s book transports readers back to a time when a much different Middle East seemed possible, an all-too-brief window when regional tranquility wasn’t a far-off notion or a dark punchline. But Rabinovich’s book also makes the important case that nothing was ever as simple or straightforward as it now may seem to have been—starting with Rabin himself.

 

Armin Rosen is a New York-based writer. He has written for The Atlantic, City Journal, and World Affairs Journal, and was recently a senior reporter for Business Insider.

 

 


 

New Biography Paints Intimate Profile of Yitzhak Rabin

Seth J. Frantzman

Jerusalem Post, May 5, 2017

A new biography of Yitzhak Rabin paints an intimate profile of the leader and his struggles.

On July 13, 1992, Yitzhak Rabin presented his government to the Knesset.

“He was determined to put an end to what he saw as the mortgaging of Israel’s resources and future to the settlement project in the West Bank and Gaza,” writes Itamar Rabinovich in a new biography. Israel, the author continues, was being drained economically and its international position was being undermined.

Some 25 years later, the same argument could be made and is being made by Israel’s Left. John Kerry said as much in his speech bookending the Obama years. Israel’s current government isn’t listening.

 

Should it be? Rabin was always a complex figure and his Janus-faced policies – on the one hand the tough soldier who allegedly encouraged the army to “break bones” during the first intifada and on the other hand the “man of peace” – loomed large in Israeli history. This feeds into competing narratives of history as well: that Rabin alone helped lead to peace and his murder destroyed the chance for peace, or that Palestinian intransigence is the real problem.

Rabinovich, a professor at New York University, former ambassador to the US under Rabin and a chief negotiator with Syria, is well placed to unpack Rabin’s life. He sets out by arguing that “as consequential as Rabin’s assassination was, it is his life – his decisions and actions – not his death that defines his legacy.” Rabinovich argues that Israelis are still in need of a new Rabin, “a leader of the stature and qualities,” that can fix the country’s fundamental problems.

Rabin was born in Jerusalem in 1922. It’s hard to imagine how interconnected the world he was born into was. His mother Rosa, a non-Zionist, nevertheless moved to Palestine in 1919 when the Soviet revolution was not to her liking. She knew Labor Zionist leader Berl Katznelson, and Moshe Shertok was her cousin. Zionism was very much a family business in those days, even for non-Zionists. Rabin was nurtured in these circles, in elite schools, and among the budding doyens of Labor youth movements. In 1941 he joined the Palmah. The War of Independence “catapulted him from a mid-level officer in the Palmach to one of the IDF’s best-known senior officers,” writes Rabinovich.

Rabin is accused of expelling Arab inhabitants from villages conquered in 1948, a fact he admitted in 1979. The biographer concludes the reality of today is “far removed from the considerations the political and military leadership had to take into account in July 1948.” In the 1950s, Rabin was one of the first IDF officers sent abroad to be educated at a military staff college. He slogged through appointments along the Golan, defending Israel from Syria’s provocations. Rabin told an interviewer that Israel should respond in kind, “against the perpetrators and against the regime that supports them.” Rabin got his wish in 1967 when Israel went to war and crushed the armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Readers expecting a military history here will be disappointed.

The author is more interested in the lead-up to the war and Rabin’s breakdown from exhaustion before it was launched, than the intricacies of battalions and brigades.

Rabinovich expertly sketches the “Siamese twin” rivalry and relationship with Shimon Peres that lasted from the ’70s to ’90s. He also leads readers through the fascinating discussions with Jordan in 1974 when King Hussein asked Israel to give him a strip of land in the Jordan Valley to separate the kingdom from the Palestinians. Rabin also “supported the establishment of settlements in the Golan Heights, in sparsely populated parts of the West Bank and in areas around Jerusalem that were designated to become part of Israel once a final status agreement could be reached,” writes Rabinovich.

The most fascinating part of the book deals with the last years of Rabin’s life, when he was trying to come to peace agreements with Syria, the Palestinians and Jordan. The Syrian track is now forgotten amidst the bloodshed across the border, but serious thought was made of giving up the Golan in the 1990s.

Most interesting are Rabin’s comments in an October 1995 speech, after the Oslo Accords, when he told the Knesset that the Palestinian “entity” in the West Bank would “be less than a state... we will not return to the lines of June 4, 1967.” Rabinovich is careful to remind readers that the soldier-statesman was not a dove. He was “a centrist leader, preoccupied with Israel’s security.”

In the words of Henry Kissinger, “Yitzhak was not a flower child.”

 


 

 

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).



 

Yitzhak Rabin: The Spirit of Israel

Kevin P. Spicer

America Magazine, May 17, 2017

Yitzhak Rabin’s life is fundamentally the story of Israel in the 20th century. Born in 1922 in Jerusalem, Rabin studied agriculture in a kibbutz east of Tel Aviv, enlisted in the Palmach, the pre-national military strike units formed to confront possible Nazi attacks, and fought alongside the British in Syria and Lebanon against troops loyal to Vichy France. Possessing keen analytical skills, Rabin rose through the Palmach’s ranks. He demonstrated these skills militarily during key operations of the War of Independence (1947-48), transitioned from the Palmach to the newly declared Israel Defense Forces and concluded the war as a lieutenant colonel in the supreme high command.

In October 1949, Rabin went against the wishes of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and attended the farewell rally of Palmach soldiers. This decision sidelined his advance in the I.D.F. for more than a decade. In 1964, Ben-Gurion’s successor, Levi Eshkol, redeemed Rabin by appointing him chief of staff for the I.D.F. Soon, Rabin was determining Israel’s national security policy and oversaw its victory in the Six-Day War against Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Success did not engender contentment over his role in the events that led to war but precipitated a brief period of physical exhaustion and anxiety, a factor his enemies would later use against him. Still, Rabin persevered. From 1968 to 1973, he effectively represented Israel to the United States, polishing his diplomatic skills. Soon after his return home, he defeated his archrival Shimon Peres as Labor Party leader and led his party to parliamentary victory. Rabin’s first tenure (1974-77) as Israel’s prime minister, the first Israeli-born leader to win the position, was marked with highs and lows, the latter resulting from his frankness and often brutal honesty. In December 1974, clashes with settlers highlighted internal tensions that never went away. In May 1977, political scandals coupled with the nation’s fatigue over 29 years of Labor hegemony led to his unseating. Still, Rabin remained in government as a member of the Knesset and became Minister of Defense (1984-90). In December 1987, his hardline stance, which permitted the use of force against demonstrators during the First Intifada, seemed uncharacteristic of his leadership. In October 1992, when Labor won the election, Rabin returned to power as prime minister. His years of experience in politics enabled him now to view the Israeli-Palestinian situation differently. Rabin chose a path of peace and negotiation.

It is at this point that Itamar Rabinovich, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States and chief negotiator with Syria from 1992 to 1996, became closely associated with Rabin and his government. Rabinovich offers his insights into Rabin’s life in the new biography Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman. According to Rabinovich, Rabin oversaw the complex negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Jordan and Syria. Yearning to find a solution but uncommitted to any specific path, Rabin also engaged Joel Singer, a retired I.D.F. colonel, to explore alternatives to those being more openly discussed. The end result was the Oslo Accords (1993) signed in Washington between Rabin and Yasser Arafat. This created the Palestinian Authority and paved the way for limited Palestinian self-rule and determination. Other agreements followed. In his speech in July 1994, marking the end of decades-long conflict between Jordan and Israel, Rabin declared, “We are launching today a war that has not killed and wounded, no blood and suffering, the war for peace.” In December 1994, Rabin, Peres and Arafat shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their peace efforts.

Not everyone was pleased by Rabin’s efforts. Opposition groups protested, carrying placards that portrayed Rabin wearing a SS uniform and Arab headgear. They also labeled Rabin’s government a Judenrat, echoing the negative label put on so-called compliant Jewish councils in Nazi-controlled ghettos. In particular, Rabinovich focuses on three events that foreshadowed the violence that would later tragically erupt: 1) a protest in March 1994 in Ra’anana near Tel Aviv in which protestors marched with a gallows and a coffin bearing the inscription, “Zionism’s murderer”; 2) a Sept. 10, 1995, assault on Rabin by Rabbi Natan Ophir at the Wingate Institute near Tel Aviv, during a rally of the Association of Immigrants from the United States and Canada; and 3) an Oct. 5, 1995, protest in Jerusalem’s Zion Square following the Knesset’s approval of the Oslo II Interim Agreement. By Nov. 4, 1995, the enmity had reached its apex when Yigal Amir, a 24-year-old law student, fired three bullets into Rabin’s back, killing the prime minister. Rabinovich alludes to the possibility of lax security and the belief that a Jew would never assassinate another Jew. In the 1970s, Rabin had denounced the ideology and violence of extreme groups including the right-wing Gush Emunim as a threat to Israeli democracy but, at the time, feared entities such as the P.L.O. even more. In the end, the enemy came from within.

Rabinovich has produced an immensely engaging study of Yitzhak Rabin. The subtitle, “Soldier, Leader, Statesman,” captures the focus of Rabinovich’s insightful narrative. Little is said about Rabin’s personal side or family life. Nevertheless, the intricate weaving of complex diplomatic and political history in which Rabin was a central figure is extremely well done. Rabinovich’s coverage of Israel following Rabin’s assassination also speculates how the prime minister’s death influenced the current complex situation of the Middle East. It is certainly required reading for anyone interested in Israel and the Middle East today.

This article also appeared in print, under the headline "The spirit of Israel," in the May 29, 2017 issue.

Kevin P. Spicer, C.S.C., is a distinguished professor of history at Stonehill College.


 


 

What actually happened

URI DROMI

THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT (TLS), MAY 31 2017

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 .

 


 

Book Review | Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman

by Neill Lochery

Fathom Journal, Summer 2017

I must warn the reader at the start of this review of a couple of personal points that might be considered by some to distort my viewpoint on this book. I regard Yitzhak Rabin as the most important prime minister in Israel’s short history (or to be precise equal number one with David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first and longest serving leader). This might surprise some readers who would put figures such as Menachem Begin, or even Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel’s second longest serving leader) above Rabin in the ranking order .

In light of this personal perception, it’s worth pointing out that I have always wanted to write my own biography of Rabin. My final admission is that I have always been a little suspicious of diplomatic figures such as Itamar Rabinovich whose careers have straddled both active diplomacy and academia. To me, there is a sense that such figures retain a strong interest in developing particular academic narratives that justify their work and actions as diplomats .

Taking all of the above together, I started reading the book with a degree of scepticism and suspicion at how a book of under 250 pages of text could possibly do justice to the life of such an important Israeli leader. I am pleased to report that all my concerns were misplaced. Rabinovich’s biography of Rabin is masterly and the perfect example of when less is more. It is likely to remain the definitive book on Rabin’s life and career for some years to come .

As the title of the book indicates, Rabinovich divides Rabin’s career into three stages: solider, leader and statesman. The distinction between the last two stages is important as Rabin’s first period as prime minister (1974-77) is widely seen as being very different to his second time as leader (1992-1995). Given the structure of the book and the number of pages that the author (correctly) devotes to Rabin’s time as Israeli Ambassador to the US, he could have added the additional subtitle of ‘diplomat’ to the title of the book .

The first part of the book offers the traditional narrative of Rabin as the soldier and the officer climbing up the greasy pole of the IDF to reach the position of Chief of Staff. There remains much debate in Israel as to just how successful Rabin was in this position .

Here Rabinovich highlights two important points that are often used against Rabin: his apparent collapse on the eve of the Six-Day War in 1967 and his poor relationship with Abba Eban, Israel’s minister of foreign affairs. Rabinovich largely dismisses the importance of Rabin’s collapse in 1967, arguing that it was only brought into the public domain much later by his political opponents in order to try to damage his character with the Israeli electorate .

Rabin’s poor relationship with Eban was a more dangerous threat as it continued into the early part of Rabin’s post-IDF career. Both men had disagreed with one another over key parts of Israel’s build-up to the Six-Day War and Eban had initially opposed Rabin’s post-war appointment as ambassador to Washington. They clashed again over the War of Attrition (1967-70) and in particular Rabin’s calls for an escalation of the war to try damage President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. As Rabinovich outlines in detail :

The acrimonious debate between the foreign minister [Eban] and the Washington ambassador [Rabin] was yet another turn in a relationship that was going from bad to worse. As we have seen, Rabin and Eban had a sharp disagreement in May 1967 when Eban argued in the Israeli cabinet that the United States did not want to see Israel go to war over the closure of the Tiran Straights. Later when Rabin asked Eshkol to send him to Washington, Eban objected.

Israeli politics is full of stories of such rivalries and problematic personal relationships, but Eban remained a real threat to Rabin’s blossoming career as a diplomat.

In retrospect, Rabin’s time in Washington was important in helping him develop contacts and lasting relationships with key Americans such as Henry Kissinger. It also turned out to be important in distancing Rabin in the public’s mind from the leadership of the Labor Party’s failings for the October 1973 War.

Rabinovich expertly outlines Rabin’s rise to power in 1974, as well highlighting the plusses and minuses of his first government from 1974 to 1977. The resignation of Rabin in 1977 over a scandal involving his wife (Leah Rabin kept an active bank account in the US in violation of Israel’s currency laws) is covered in detail. The dispute between Rabin’s Labor Party and the National Religious Party, which led to the collapse of the coalition government is also explained in depth, as is its long-term consequences for Israeli politics.

After 29 years in opposition, Menachem Begin and the Likud won the resulting election in 1977. Since then, with the exception of two periods (1992-1996 and 18 months from 1999 to the start of 2001) the centre-right in Israel (Likud or Kadima) has enjoyed at least a share of power in Israel. In other words, while few saw it that way back in 1977, the centre-right took over from the centre-left as the natural party of government in Israel.

In 1977, Rabin’s political prospects looked bleak and his chances of getting a second shot at being prime minister were very remote. While his intra-party rival, Eban had long departed the political scene, Rabin’s career became linked to another political opponent from within the Labor Party, Shimon Peres.

Commentators have trawled over almost every aspect of the Rabin-Peres relationship (or running feud, as several refer to it). To his credit, Rabinovich, who clearly leans to the side of Rabin, tries his best to be even-handed on it. In truth, neither Rabin nor Peres covered themselves in much glory with the rivalry coming to dominate many aspects of the centre-left camp in Israel from 1974 until Rabin’s assassination in 1995.

In 1977, Peres succeeded Rabin as leader of the Labor Party and it would take Rabin 15 long years to wrestle back the position from his successor. This despite Peres’s failure to win the 1977 election, or to secure an outright victory in the 1981, 1984 and 1988 elections. Indeed, paradoxically after each electoral failure, Peres was somehow actually able to tighten his control over the Labor Party organs at the expense of Rabin.

In one of the most telling and emotive passages in the book, Rabinovich summarises Rabin’s position in 1977 and his route back to power:

Failed leaders are rarely given a second chance. Rabin was to be an exception. By responding to adversity with tenacity, taking full advantage of his skills, and acquiring the political toolbox he had so glaringly lacked during his term as prime minister, Rabin would first re-establish a leadership position for himself in the Labour Party and then go on to build a stronger persona in the Israeli public mind as ‘Mr Security.’ What Rabin lacked in charisma he compensated for with his authority, directness and integrity. A six-year tenure as a popular, authoritative minister of defence would be the perfect platform for regaining the leadership of the Labor Party and the premiership.

As Rabinovich recounts, Rabin’s route back to power was not without self-inflicted wounds. Rabin’s initial support for Ariel Sharon’s Lebanon adventure in 1982 was a case in point. Rabin and the Labor Party found itself out of power for the first time during a major war and their responses to developments were often muddled and hampered by the lack of reliable information from the Likud-led government and from the Ministry of Defence.

Rabin’s second misstep was his handling of the first Palestinian intifada, which broke out in December 1987. Rabin was all too slow to understand the political significance of developments, instead viewing it as simply as another round of violence in the Occupied Territories.

His attempted forceful suppression of the intifada was quite simply wrong on several different levels. Eventually, he came to understand its importance and moved towards trying to start a dialogue with the Palestinians. One of the strangest aspects of this dialogue was Rabin’s secret meetings with the leaders of newly formed Hamas.

Following the failure of the ‘Dirty (or Smelly) Exercise’ in 1990, in which Peres successfully brought down the national unity government but subsequently failed to set up a government led by the Labor Party, Peres’s days as leader were numbered. For once, Rabin was patient and with the help of two spoiler candidates defeated Peres to become leader of the Labor Party in 1992.

Rabinovich’s judgement on the 1992 Israeli election is spot on. Despite Rabin and Labor emerging as the largest party (44 seats to the Likud’s 32) the election result at coalition block level was much closer. Indeed, Rabin had to rely upon the Israeli Arab parties to help give him a blocking majority over the members of the Likud coalition block.

As the author reminds us, this development was vital as it allowed the ultra-orthodox party, Shas, to effectively cross the floor and join a Rabin-led coalition. Without the participation of Shas, Rabin would have in all probability opted for yet another national unity government and the historic developments that took place from 1992 to 1995 would not have happened.

Arguably the most interesting and revealing part of the book comes in its final sections, particularly in aspects of the peace process from 1992 to 1995 that came within the remit of the author during his time as Israel’s Ambassador to the US. Although Rabinovich does not offer anything that is not already known by experts, he does add some meat to the bones about the various offers Rabin made to the Syrians. Some readers might find it shocking that Rabin, who stated so clearly during the 1992 election campaign that Israel would not come down from the Golan Heights, so readily and quickly offered to trade them for peace with Syria, on the condition that Israel’s security interests were protected.

Rabinovich carefully navigates the narrative of the book between the various tracks of the peace process that Rabin instigated: Syria, the Palestinians and the Jordanians. In some respects, Rabin remained a very typical Israeli prime minister. He very much preferred bi-lateral over multi-lateral negotiations with the Arabs and believed that he should only negotiate on one track of the peace process at a time. The political costs and risks of making painful concessions on more than a single track at any given time were simply too great for the cautious Rabin.

Once again, the rivalry between Rabin and Peres raised its ugly head during the peacemaking years of the Rabin-led government. It was in the negotiations with King Hussein of Jordan that the animosity really came to a head. As Rabinovich recounts events:

But Peres, who conducted himself impressively during his meeting with the king, couldn’t resist the urge to assume credit for the unfolding process with Jordan. Peres was on a roll after the Oslo Accords. He was the architect of the agreement, and he asked for and received a lot of credit for the breakthrough. The balance between him and Rabin shifted in his favour, and he was pushing ahead. Peres made no secret of his supposed secret meeting with the king, and in short order the media reported it. The king was incensed and told Rabin that if he wanted to move forward with Jordan, he would have to keep Peres out of the picture. Rabin was quite happy to do so. Here was an opportunity to retake the initiative in leading the peace process.

Things can’t have been easy for Rabin at the time with his long-term political rival vying for credit for the peace process, increased violence in Israel with suicide attacks from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the Americans applying pressure to make additional political concessions to the Arabs. No wonder that the veteran American diplomat, Henry Kissinger, characterised Rabin as being politically lonely.

Rabinovich argues that Rabin, while still cautious and concerned with Israeli security needs, was transformed from a leader into a statesman. This is very much the theme of the final part of the book as Israel became more politically polarised and where radical elements opposed to the peace process gained additional traction and started making plans to end the Rabin/Peres drive for peace, whatever it took.

When I wrote my book on Benjamin Netanyahu, Rabin’s political rival at the time, I was struck by what I saw as an abandonment of the centre-ground by the young Likud leader. Rabin, as Rabinovich points out, was never completely as ease with the leftist element of the peace camp in Israel and emphasises his more pragmatic centrist approach to peacemaking far more than for example, Shimon Peres.

The final part of the book looks at the lead up to, and the events surrounding the assassination of Rabin. Here the author takes off the gloves and we can feel his anger at the intelligence and security mistakes that characterised the road to the murder. The author poses the key question as to how Rabin’s killer was able to act, but we still do not fully understand the answer to it. He writes:

How could a man like Yigal Amir, known to the GSS [General Security Services – the Shin Bet], get close enough to the prime minister of Israel to assassinate him? Israel is a country deeply familiar with terrorism and violence and well versed in security measures. Amir’s success can be explained by the impact of a mind-set, by a series of accidents and near misses, and by sheer incompetence.

The assassination was one of the most traumatic moments in Israeli democracy. The political judgement of Peres, Rabin’s successor as Prime Minister, is correctly questioned by Rabinovich. Many felt that Peres was wrong not to call a snap election after the assassination.

Such an election would have in all likelihood resulted in a landslide victory for Peres and the Labor Party. It would have also probably ended the political career of Benjamin Netanyahu. Peres, however, as the author points out ‘wanted to be elected on his own terms rather than as Rabin’s avenger’. It turned out to be a tragic mistake for the centre-left in Israel and for the prospects of the Oslo Accords.

As a scholar of the Arab-Israeli conflict the most interesting part of the book was the brief epilogue during which Rabinovich talks of the ‘clash of narratives over Rabin’s legacy, heritage and memory’. The ‘what if’ counter-narrative to Rabin’s death is something that I continue to think about and included in my own book on Netanyahu.

It was by no means certain that Rabin would have won the 1996 election. Israel’s first direct election for prime minister would have been very close. At the time of Rabin’s death, he was trailing Netanyahu in the opinion polls. And had he won, it was also by no means certain that he would have wanted to or been able to conclude a final-status deal with Yasser Arafat.

Rabinovich doesn’t really try to offer definitive answers to the above counter-narratives. It is, however, a fitting way to conclude a wonderfully incisive and informative book on one of modern Middle East’s most important military and political leaders.



 

This review was published in the summer issue of Foreign Policy (No. 2/2017) . Samy Cohen offers an analysis of Itamar Rabinovitch's book Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman (Yale University Press, 2017, 376 pages).

 

Yitzhak Rabin was not a charismatic character like David Ben Gurion or Menahem Begin. He was no less a visionary who understood in 1992 that Israel could not continue to dominate indefinitely another people without losing its democratic character. He was surprised: nothing predestined him to take this path, he the tough Sabra, the conqueror of the Six Day War, the implacable Minister of Defense who severely repressed the intifada of 1987. He courageously opened a new era for his country, and paid for it with his life when he was assassinated by an extremist settler on 4 November 1995.

Itamar Rabinovich, a man of unusual destiny, devotes a finely detailed and well-documented biography. And for good reason. He was close to Rabin, who in 1993 appointed him Israel's ambassador to Washington and head negotiator with Hafez al-Assad’s Syria. Rabinovich retraces Rabin's journey since his birth in Jerusalem in 1922 and his involvement in the Haganah during the War of Independence, where he was appointed as a brigade commander. This shy officer acceded to the post of chief of staff in 1963, not without difficulties, his relations with Ben Gurion and Golda Meir not being excellent. The military successes won in June 1967 earned him an immense esteem among the Israelis. Subsequently, he was appointed to the post of ambassador in Washington, and the resignation of Golda Meir in 1974 propelled him to the head of the government. But the record of this first experience as Prime Minister was not brilliant. He struggled to impose himself in public opinion and in his party. Rabinovich shows his indecision in the face of the rise of religious settlers, whom he nevertheless execrated. The political coalition games placed him at the head of the Ministry of Defense, where he officiated several years, building his reputation of "Mister Security".

The Oslo chapter, probably the most important one, reveals a Rabin "ambivalent by nature" and always suspicious of Shimon Peres, his old rival. Interestingly, the interim agreements were signed by the foreign ministers at the White House, and it was in order to avoid the fact that the rival alone was able to win the laurels of this "breakthrough" that Rabin decided to go there, to the dismay of Peres who considered momentarily to cancel his participation in the ceremony.

Itamar Rabinovich analyzes in epilogue the sequelae of the violent death of Rabin. Likud, his leader Benyamin Netanyahu in the lead, will constantly minimize his work and make him bear responsibility for the attack on the Altalena, the ship that in 1948 carried arms to the Irgun. Ben-Gurion had ordered the sinking to avoid a phenomenon of militias escaping the control of the political power. The unit charged with this task was none other than that of a young captain named Rabin.


The author would like to emphasize, in conclusion, that Rabin was not a "dove leader", that his main concern was the security of Israel, an objective that could only be achieved by peace. Certainly, but the great "doomed leaders" of the Zionist left (like Aryeh Eliav, Matti Peled, Uri Avnery, and many others) have been working since 1967 in the same spirit. Paradoxically it is he, and no other, that the peace camp has chosen as an icon.