I saw the new Israeli TV documentary on Rabin at the Manhattan JCC last week. It was a remarkably candid and sensitive portrait of the man, just about entirely in his own words–all the more remarkable for his well-known reticence and gruffness–supplemented with home movies, news footage and stills illustrating his life and times. We came to see the wry humor and charm beneath his gruff exterior, and were not spared scenes of carnage occasioned by terror attacks during Rabin’s term that cost scores of Israeli lives, as Hamas and Islamic Jihad attackers (no doubt acting out personal revenge scenarios for the Goldstein massacre in Hebron and other Israeli misdeeds) did their best to destroy the peace process from the Arab side, and inspired Jews to oppose it from the Israeli side.
We can’t know for sure that peace would have come had he survived in office, but I believe it would have. The important thing is to see what mistakes were made before and after his death, and to rebut the cynical pessimism that motivates right wingers to say it can never happen, and self-professed centrists to say it must happen, but not now because the Palestinians still don’t accept us.
During the post-screening Q & A, a questioner said as much, citing Barak as “giving them so much” (a paraphrase) at Camp David yet resulting in the Second Intifada (an obvious conclusion, but based on a very superficial knowledge of the facts). And to my surprise and frustration, Clyde Haberman, the post-screening expert–based upon his time as the NY Times bureau chief in Israel during Rabin’s 1990s tenure–wasn’t able to respond effectively. There was a surprising lack of appreciation for pivotal events: for example, with J Street colleague Gil Kulick sagely noting that Rabin missed the opportunity to remove the militant settlers from Hebron and Kiryat Arba following the Goldstein massacre. And Haberman didn’t connect the terrorist wave that ultimately doomed Peres and elected Netanyahu in ’96, to Peres’s ill-advised decision to have the Hamas bombmaker Ayyash killed during a time of quiet.
My understanding is that Rabin had earlier nixed a Shin Bet hit on Ayyash, because he was at a family wedding, and this would have cost too many innocent lives. Unlike Peres, Rabin, as the original “Mr. Security,” did not have to act tough to buttress his security credentials. And here, Michael J. Koplow articulates for the Israel Policy Forum much of the reason why I regard Rabin as having been indispensable to the peace process of the 1990s; I abridge as follows:
Yitzhak Rabin … did not believe in the Palestinians’ good intentions. He was convinced that ceding the West Bank to the Palestinians was necessary to preserve Israel as a Jewish state, … .
[In] a much-discussed long piece in Mosaic by Daniel Polisar . . . Polisar cites polls showing large majorities of Palestinians supporting armed attacks against Israeli civilians; justifying and supporting violence as a means to extract Israeli concessions; convinced that Israel wants to annex the West Bank and expel all of the Arabs; asserting that Israel wants to destroy al-Aqsa and replace it with a synagogue; denying Jewish history in the land … . . . . It is not unreasonable to read … Palestinian survey responses about Israel and conclude, as many have, that Israel cannot and should not ever grant the Palestinians a state of their own in the West Bank, ….
However, to reach this conclusion would be the wrong response to this data, and this perhaps more than anything else is the lesson to be gleaned from Rabin’s legacy. There are two basic ways to approach the bleak picture painted by Polisar’s review of Palestinian opinion . . . The first is to say that Palestinian hatred and rejection of Israel is immutable, not primarily driven by anything that Israel has done and implacably unresponsive to anything that Israel will do in the future. …
There is, however, another way to approach this data, which is that Palestinian hatred and rejection of Israel is largely a response to Palestinian historical experience, and while this never justifies the deadly targeting of civilians it has engendered, it suggests that Israeli action can indeed dampen support for Palestinian violence. As a useful exercise, let’s look at another country’s response to the same questions …. In this country, only 9% of non-Muslim respondents had a favorable view of Muslims, and of the 63% of respondents who agreed that some religions were more violent than others, 91% fingered Islam as the most violent. … If you haven’t already guessed which country this is, it is Israel. The overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews, American Jews, and supporters of Israel worldwide … would reject the view that these numbers are driven by anything other than Israel’s experience with Palestinian terror, rejectionism, and violence, but it is always more difficult to see the context on the other side than it is on your own. …
Let’s bring this back to where we started, with the legacy of Rabin. A Rabin approach to the Palestinians – one that looks at the longterm and existential threats to Israel and shapes the strategic environment in the face of those threats – dictates a two state solution and separation from the Palestinians in the face of these survey numbers irrespective of how you interpret them. If you think that Palestinians will eternally hate Israel and want to kill Jews, then deepening a situation where Israelis and Palestinians are intertwined throughout the West Bank is sheer madness, and presents a security nightmare with no permanent solution. The only possible way out is a divorce with a heavily guarded and patrolled border in between Israel and Palestine. Likewise, if you think that Palestinian hatred of Israel is driven in some part by Israel’s presence in the West Bank and the consequent lack of a Palestinian state, then reversing course will indeed have a constructive effect on Palestinian attitudes that support violence against Israelis. Israel cannot be held captive by Palestinian attitudes or wait for them to change, but must act according to its own interests and without regard to what it sees on the other side.
… While Israel may be facing hostile Palestinian public opinion, the fact is that the Palestinian Authority, while far from perfect, has demonstrated its willingness under Mahmoud Abbas to work with Israel and prevent violence from erupting in the West Bank. Prince Turki al-Faisal, who spent a quarter century as the Saudi Arabian intelligence minister and also served as ambassador to the U.S., told IPF last week in a meeting that the Arab world would like to engage Israel, and that the Arab Peace Initiative is not a take-it-or-leave-it offer but one that is open to negotiation and awaiting an official Israeli response. The upshot is that there is an opening here for Israel to do something constructive no matter what Palestinians think. Were Rabin still alive, he would undoubtedly take advantage of this opening and run through it.