After 20 Years, Rabin’s Leadership Still Sorely Missed

Categories: Israel, Letters From Leadership, Seek Peace and Pursue it
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During the spring of 2014, I finally visited the Yitzhak Rabin Center, near the Tel Aviv University campus.  In the words of the Jewish Virtual Library: “the museum combines state-of-the-art technology with multimedia presentations, visual images and artifacts, incorporating close to 200 short documentary films and over 1,500 still photographs obtained from archives in Israel and around the world.”  It begins starkly with a massive video and audio reminder of the tragic end of his life, the triumphant mass peace rally which he addressed and where he was suddenly shot as he walked to his car on Nov. 4, 1995.

Although many of his speeches were featured in recordings and in written excerpts, I did not see anything on his first speech to the Knesset as prime minister for the second time (July 13, 1992).  I’ve always taken his words then as a stellar expression of Rabin’s motivation as a peacemaker.  He spoke against Jewish pessimism, the deeply engrained view, taken from centuries of persecution, that the non-Jewish world is inherently anti-Jewish:

. . . No longer are we necessarily “a people that dwells alone,” and no longer is it true that “the whole world is against us.” We must overcome the sense of isolation that has held us in its thrall for almost half a century.  . . .

Tragically, the failures of the peace process he led, and of those efforts that have come since — when one ignores complications (as right-wing narratives tend to) and sees only Palestinian misdeeds and none from the Israeli side — reinforce this toxic self-defeating point of view today.

Unfortunately, Rabin did not face down extremist settlers in the wake of the Baruch Goldstein massacre in Hebron.  Even so, the militant settlers viewed him with extreme enmity, with their demonization of him ultimately leading to his murder.  But Rabin did not take the opportunity he had after the Hebron massacre, when the overwhelming public revulsion against Goldstein’s gunning down of 29 Palestinians at prayer opened a wide political window for removing the extremist communities in Hebron and/or Kiryat Arba (the latter being the settlement where Goldstein lived, adjacent to Hebron). 

Laura Wharton — a Meretz member of the Jerusalem city council and an instructor at Hebrew U. — recently indicated to me that Rabin had wanted to remove them, but was discouraged by Hebrew U. scholar Prof. Ehud Sprinzak (1940 – 2002), who advised that it would cause too much of a dangerous reaction.  She told me that in retrospect, Sprinzak regretted this advice.   This is hearsay, of course, but it hints at how close Rabin came to taking that decision.

The Oslo II agreement was signed on Sept. 28, 1995, establishing interim Palestinian rule for most Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; and the Beilin-Abbas letter of understanding, which suggested a general outline for a final two-state peace — even addressing the knotty issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees — was reached days prior to Rabin’s death, but Rabin had not yet approved it.  Then came that fateful peace rally in Tel Aviv on Nov. 4, 1995.

My first reaction to Rabin’s murder was the uneasy realization that Shimon Peres was the new prime minister.  Sadly, whether by dint of bad luck or poor judgment, Peres had a knack for losing elections.  His half-year tenure as Rabin’s replacement was no exception.  About two months after ascending to office, Peres authorized a Shin Bet security service “hit” on Yihyeh Ayyash, the notorious Hamas bombmaker known as “the Engineer,” during a time of substantial quiet.  This killing triggered devestating retaliatory terror attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, during the election campaign against Bibi Netanyahu, from which Peres could not recover politically. 

This is what my friend, Hillel Schenker — a longtime resident of Tel Aviv, and a veteran activist in Meretz and Peace Now who is currently co-editor of The Palestine-Israel Journal — had to say when I recently questioned him on this matter:

A few years after the assassination, Nissim Zvili who was an MK and Chair of the Labor Party at the time of the assassination said that he realized that it had been a tragic mistake to assassinate Yihyeh Ayyash, the act which started the wave of Hamas-led suicide attacks, since it was clear that he had “retired” and was no longer a threat.

I will add that Peres’ major mistake was not immediately calling elections after the [Rabin] assassination, to call for a vote of confidence in Rabin’s path.  It’s clear that he and Labor would have won an emphatic victory if he had done so.  Instead, he waited, preferring to run elections based on his own experience, which unfortunately was filled with suicide bombings, enabling Netanyahu, the self-proclaimed international expert on terrorism, to barely defeat him.

When we look at the history of Israel in the 1990s, we must acknowledge that Rabin was a steadier hand as national leader than Peres.  There’s no certainty that Rabin would have gone the extra mile to hit the sweet spot of necessary concessions to the Palestinians while still ensuring Israel’s secure future as a majority-Jewish society that remains fair and democratic toward its non-Jewish minorities.  But an Israeli Channel 2 television documentary, “Rabin: In His Own Words” — to broadcast on the 20th anniversary of the assassination — suggests that Rabin would have done all he could to achieve a two-state agreement with the Palestinians.  It includes a 1976 interview in which Rabin, during his first stint as prime minister, likens the Gush Emunim settler movement to a “cancer,” and warns of the risk of Israel becoming an “apartheid state” if the settler/annexationist right has its way.  (Click here for the Times of Israel article about this film.)

He had a personal relationship with the Palestinian leadership, and a growing depth of understanding that Netanyahu has never shown, plus a deliberate nature that Ehud Barak lacked during his brief unsteady time in office.  Moreover, Rabin did not have the checkered past that ultimately undermined Ehud Olmert’s term in office.  So he was the indispensable man for peacemaking in his time, and for the 20 years that have followed — but hopefully, not forever.  

About Ralph Seliger

A veteran editor, freelance writer and blogger, I edited the print magazine, "Israel Horizons," from 2003 until 2011; and I've blogged for and edited the Meretz USA and now Partners for Progressive Israel Blog since its inception in 2006 (although I no longer edit the PPI Blog). I've been an active supporter of the Zionist peace camp since 1982. Other print and online platforms where I've been published include: The Forward, The Daily Beast, History News Network, Tikkun, In These Times, Jewish Week, New Jersey Jewish News, Jewish Currents, Huffington Post, and Dissent.
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