Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman
Yale University Press
2017, 272 pp., $25
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.
Rabin was “the quintessential sabra,” with “a rough exterior concealing an inner sensitivity.” He was “a political dove and a military hawk.”
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 in The 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.