Itzhak Rabin: A Conflicted Legacy

A tug of war between Israel's political Left and Right.

Sixteen years have passed since the shocking assassination of Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin in November 1995.  In Israel, the trauma of the assassination has not completely receded from the public’s mind in large measure because of the media’s sharp focus on the tragedy.  Rabin’s legacy has led to a tug of war between the political left and right, and the issue is how Rabin would have reacted to the subsequent actions of the Palestinians, had he lived.

Rabin’s death occurred two years after the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn in September 1993.  A spate of suicide bombings by Palestinians in 1994-1995 in Israeli cities (Beit Lid massacre, January 22, 1995, 21 Israelis killed; Kfar Darom bus attack, April 9, 1995, 8 Israelis killed; Ramat Gan bus #20 bombing, July 24, 1995, 6 Israelis killed; Ramat Eshkol bus bombing in Jerusalem, August 21, 1995, 4 Israelis killed) made the accords most unpopular.  Moreover, the Palestinian commitment to amend their inherently intolerant and deeply anti-Jewish covenant was ignored.

Had Rabin survived the assassination, he would have abrogated the accords for a very obvious reason - the Palestinian side simply did not adhere to its commitments and responsibilities.

In his last public speech to the Knesset, on October 5, 1995, just weeks before he was murdered, Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin had this to say:

We are aware of the fact that the Palestinian Authority has not - up until now - honored its commitment to change the Palestinian Covenant, and that all of the promises on this matter have not been kept. I would like to bring it to the attention of the members of the house that I view these changes as a supreme test of the Palestinian Authority's willingness and ability, and the changes required will be an important and serious touchstone vis-a-vis the continued implementation of the agreement as a whole.

Unlike his rival to the Labor party leadership, Shimon Peres, Rabin the soldier and “Mr. Security” did not trust Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.). He was reluctant to endorse the secretive Oslo negotiations but was put under tremendous pressure by Shimon Peres, his Foreign Minister, who “cautioned” him not to miss an historic opportunity for peace with the Palestinians.  Peres himself was assured by his deputy Yossi Beilin of the negotiation’s “successful” outcome.

In an interview this reporter conducted with Itzhak Rabin in late1 991, Rabin assured me that he "will not negotiate with the P.L.O.” and that even in the context of peace he “will not give up the Golan to the Syrians.”  In a conversation this past weekend with Ambassador Yehuda Avner who served as an advisor to Prime Minister Rabin, Avner revealed that Rabin had indeed prepared a document, which he saw, that stipulated that the Golan will remain in Israeli hands.

When it came to security, Rabin was a confirmed “hawk” albeit, in his second term as Prime Minister he committed to becoming a peace-maker. His most dramatic speech, delivered on the White House lawn at the signing of the Oslo Accords on September 13, 1993, Rabin declared, “We the soldiers who have returned from the battle stained with blood, we who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today in a loud and clear voice: 'Enough of blood and tears! Enough!”

Rabin told this writer during that 1991 interview that he was willing to take a chance for peace.  He pointed out that should the Palestinians renege and resume their terrorist attacks the IDF could be depended upon to deal with the situation.  Rabin, who received considerable bad press in December 1987 during the first intifada when he served as Defense Minister and ordered the IDF “to break the bones” of the Palestinian rock and Molotov cocktail throwers, was bent on demonstrating more leniency towards the Palestinians as Prime Minister.

By October 1995, Rabin understood that he had been duped by Arafat and the Palestinians.  He was also facing the reality of the upcoming 1996 election campaign and thus returned to his role as “Mr. Security,” declaring in his October 5, 1995 speech in the Knesset, “Here, in the land of Israel, we returned and built a nation. Here, in the land of Israel, we established a state. The land of the prophets, which bequeathed to the world the values of morality, law and justice, was, after two thousand years, restored to its lawful owners - the members of the Jewish people. On its land, we have built an exceptional national home and state.”

Rabin figured out that if the Labor party were to be re-elected, it had to win over the religious parties in order for him to form a coalition government. He thus laid out a vision that was centrist, if not downright nationalistic. He said, "We view the permanent solution in the framework of State of Israel which will include most of the area of the Land of Israel as it was under the rule of the British Mandate, and alongside it a Palestinian entity which will be a home to most of the Palestinian residents living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.”

Repeating what he shared with this reporter four-years earlier, Rabin announced, “We will not return to the 4 June 1967 lines,” and stated that a united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, under Israeli sovereignty, is a first and foremost condition.

In language that would befit a “right-winger,” Rabin declared in the Knesset, “The security border of the State of Israel will be located in the Jordan Valley. The establishment of blocs of settlements in Judea and Samaria, like the one in Gush Katif.”

And, he added, “We…committed ourselves before the Knesset, not to uproot a single settlement in the framework of the interim agreement, and not to hinder building for natural growth.”

Itzhak Rabin was an Israeli patriot who spent his life serving his country and people. Staring into his intense blue eyes, this reporter came away believing in Rabin’s sincerity.  Rabin believed in doing everything possible for peace without endangering Israel’s security. Once he figured out Arafat’s duplicity, Rabin had no illusions about the Oslo Accords.

Itzhak Rabin sought above all the legacy of a peacemaker (He made peace with Jordan on October 26, 1994).  Yet, he will be forever remembered as the Chief-of-Staff that won the Six Day War, and his enduring legacy is that of Israel’s “Mr. Security.”

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