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Yitzhak Rabin: Israeli security realist or idealist peacemaker?

Rabin’s assassination at the hands of an ultra-right Jewish fanatic, occurring immediately following a Tel Aviv peace rally, begat the image of the slain prime minster as a martyr for peace.

By MARK REGEV Published: NOVEMBER 3, 2022


The ceremonies to commemorate the day of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination often describe Israel’s fifth prime minister in simplistic warrior-turned-peacemaker platitudes. Such presentations can obscure the authentic Rabin legacy, his national security realism packaged as a hopeful idealism unrelated to who he was.

Born in Jerusalem at the beginning of the British Mandate, Rabin was very much a child of Labor Zionism with its pioneering spirit, collectivist values and patriotic fervor. But despite the movement’s professed egalitarianism, Rabin grew up in the labor elite.

His mother, Rosa, renown as “Red Rosa,” was a prominent activist in the Histadrut labor federation, the Hagana pre-state Jewish defense organization and Tel Aviv politics.

Her son Yitzhak followed in her footsteps. He attended a Histadrut elementary school, was a member of the socialist Zionist youth movement Hanoar Haoved and went to the famed Kadoorie Agricultural High School, where students learned that working the soil was the highest realization of Zionism.

But Rabin was not destined to be a farmer.

The Arab Revolt (1936-39), with its immense security challenges, saw the 14-year-old Rabin receiving paramilitary training in the Hagana. In 1941, he enlisted in the newly created Palmach, the Hagana’s strike force, and by 1947, he was already its chief operations officer.

During the War of Independence (1948-49), Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, dissolved the Palmach. Many believe he did so for political reasons, as the Palmach was identified with the left opposition Mapam (United Workers) party. Yet, unlike many Palmach commanders who departed the IDF, Rabin remained in the military.

He rose through the ranks, becoming a full general at age 32 (1954), head of the Northern Command (1956), and Chief of Staff (1964). The latter appointment was made by Israel’s second prime minister, Levi Eshkol. Some doubt that if Ben-Gurion, had he remained premier, would have promoted a former Palmachnik to the army’s top job.

The climax of Rabin’s military career was Israel’s triumph in the June 1967 Six Day War. Rabin commanded the IDF in the years prior to the conflict, and it was under his leadership that Israel’s armed forces were forged into the formidable military machine that made decisive victory possible. A contemporary soldiers’ ditty, “[Egyptian president] Nasser awaits Rabin” was emblematic of Rabin’s presence in the Israeli psychic.

Following his discharge, Rabin became Israel’s ambassador to Washington (1968-73). He established a reputation as an able diplomat, building strong working relationships with Richard Nixon’s White House – though some American Jews found fault with Rabin for being too close to the much-criticized Republican president.

Henry Kissinger, who served as Nixon’s national security advisor, depicted Israel’s ambassador thus: “Rabin had many extraordinary qualities, but the gift of human relations was not one of them. If he had been handed the entire United States Strategic Air Command as a free gift he would have (a) affected to [an] attitude that at last Israel was getting its due, and (b) found some technical shortcomings in the airplanes that made his accepting them a reluctant concession to us.”

THE FAILURES of the 1973 Yom Kippur War catapulted Rabin to national leadership. Then-Prime Minister Golda Meir had resigned in 1974, and Labor needed a new standard-bearer untainted by the mistakes of the war. Rabin was the party elders’ choice and he defeated Shimon Peres in the internal ballot. Their rivalry would impact Israeli politics over the next 21 years.

Rabin’s first term as prime minister did have its achievements, notably the Israel-Egypt Sinai Interim Agreement (1975) and the successful Entebbe rescue mission (1976), but overall, it was a troubled premiership. There was the “reassessment” crisis with Gerald Ford’s Administration, a series of corruption scandals that plagued the ruling Labor Party, and the endless bickering between Rabin and former defense minister Peres.

Just weeks before the 1977 elections, Rabin resigned as prime minister after revelations that his wife Leah had an illegal foreign bank account. This saved him from having to lead Labor to its first ever defeat at the polls, when it lost to the Likud, 43 seats to 32.

In opposition with Peres as the new Labor leader, and free from the demands of high office, Rabin found time to write a memoir that contained a blistering attack on Peres’s character (which was eagerly exploited by the Likud).

Rabin returned to the cabinet when he was appointed defense minister in the Labor-Likud national unity government that followed the 1984 elections. He held that post for the next six years, cementing his status as “Mr. Security.” Rabin’s blunt straight-talking manner, expressed during the first Intifada when he told troops to “break the hands and legs” of Palestinian rioters, enamored him with many voters while alienating the Left.

With the breakup of the national unity government (1990) and Labor’s return to opposition, Rabin successfully challenged Peres for the Labor leadership, and then led the party to victory in the 1992 Knesset elections. Labor received 44 seats to the Likud’s 32 – the winning jingle “Israel awaits Rabin” paraphrased the 1967 soldiers’ ditty.

The Oslo Accords breakthrough with the Palestinians was the overriding issue of Rabin’s second premiership. Peres, now foreign minister, enthusiastically embraced the process, while Rabin remained healthily cautious and skeptical. In 1994, both were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts, alongside PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

Rabin’s assassination at the hands of an ultra-right Jewish fanatic, occurring immediately following a Tel Aviv peace rally, begat the image of the slain prime minster as a martyr for peace.

Yet Rabin was never a bleeding-heart. He stressed security and the Palestinians’ obligation to fight terrorism. Unlike the IDF, he said, the PA could act ruthlessly without the limitations imposed by the Israeli judiciary and human rights community.

Moreover, in Rabin’s last speech before the Knesset, delivered a month prior to his murder, he articulated a vision for final status peace in which the Palestinians would suffice with “less than a state” and where Israel does “not return to the 4 June 1967 lines.” Israel’s security border would remain the Jordan Valley “in the broadest meaning of the term.”

Rabin called for expanding Jerusalem to include Ma’aleh Adumin in the east and Givat Ze’ev in the north. Settlements in “Gush Etzion, Efrat, Beitar and others” would be incorporated into Israel.

Such positions are consistent with Rabin’s lifelong security-minded, pragmatic Zionism. This, and not some artificial creation, is the genuine Rabin legacy that should be honored on the anniversary of his assassination.

Originally Published in The Jerusalem Post

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