Yitzhak Rabin considered the likelihood of reaching a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Yasser Arafat to be only “a long shot.” But he attempted it, reluctantly, via the Oslo process, because he recognized that Muslim fundamentalists were gradually winning over the hearts and minds of the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, and that their domination would mean “the certainty of no settlement at all.”

That was the explanation offered by Rabin on Wednesday, November 1, three days before he was assassinated, to Yehuda Avner, his long-time English speechwriter and friend, when Avner met with Rabin in his Jerusalem office ahead of a planned return to the prime minister’s employ. “It is either the PLO or nothing,” Rabin said.

Avner, who worked with prime ministers Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, notably Menachem Begin and, briefly, Shimon Peres, had already worked with Rabin during his first prime ministerial term in the 1970s, and prior to that when Rabin was Israeli ambassador in Washington. As the veteran diplomat, today 81, explains in a new book, he had just completed an ambassadorship to Australia in late 1995 and had been invited by Rabin to rejoin his team.

“I met him at his Jerusalem office on Wednesday, 1 November,” Avner writes in The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership, which is being published this month by Toby Press. “My first question was, ‘Why did you shake Yasser Arafat’s hand?’”

Rabin, in Avner’s account, gave a considered and detailed explanation, which is published here for the first time. It offers a unique insight into Rabin’s thinking and motivations immediately prior to his assassination, and underlines how profoundly Rabin recognized the escalating threat posed by Iranian-spearheaded Islamic fundamentalism to the stability of the region and to the prospects of viable compromise with the Palestinians.

It also makes telling reading on the eve of new “proximity talks” between Israel and the Palestinians, and at a time when Iran’s growing influence in the region, its threats against Israel and its pursuit of a nuclear weapon are regarded by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as an existential challenge to the Jewish state.

Like much of Avner’s book, a narrative woven from his decades at the sides of a succession of prime ministers at some of Israel’s most fateful moments, the conversation is reconstructed from precise notes that he took at the time.

“Number one,” he recounts Rabin as saying, “Israel is surrounded by two concentric circles. The inner circle is comprised of our immediate neighbors – Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon and, by extension, Saudi Arabia. The outer circle comprises their neighbors – Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya. Virtually all of them are rogue states, and some are going nuclear.

“Number two,” the prime minister went on, “Iranian-inspired Islamic fundamentalism constitutes a threat to the inner circle no less than it does to Israel. Islamic fundamentalism is striving to destabilize the Gulf Emirates, has already created havoc in Syria, leaving twenty thousand dead, in Algeria, leaving one hundred thousand dead, in Egypt, leaving twenty-two thousand dead, in Jordan, leaving eight thousand dead, in the Horn of Africa – the Sudan and Somalia – leaving fourteen thousand dead, and in Yemen, leaving twelve thousand dead. And now it is gaining influence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

“Iran is the banker,” Rabin pointed out, “pouring millions into the West Bank and Gaza in the form of social welfare and health and education programs, so that it can win the hearts of the population and feed religious fanaticism.

“Thus,” he continued to Avner, “a confluence of interest has arisen between Israel and the inner circle, whose long-term strategic interest is the same as ours: to lessen the destabilizing consequences from the outer circle. At the end of the day, the inner circle recognizes they have less to fear from Israel than from their Muslim neighbors, not least from radicalized Islamic powers going nuclear.”

Next, Rabin came to the thinking at the heart of his decision to pursue the Oslo process: The Israel-Arab conflict, he said, “was always considered to be a political one: a conflict between Arabs and Israelis. The fundamentalists are doing their level best to turn it into a religious conflict – Muslim against Jew, Islam against Judaism. And while a political conflict is possible to solve through negotiation and compromise, there are no solutions to a theological conflict. Then it is jihad – religious war: their God against our God. Were they to win, our conflict would go from war to war, and from stalemate to stalemate.

“And that, essentially,” the prime minister summed up to his longtime adviser, “is why I agreed to Oslo and shook hands, albeit reluctantly, with Yasser Arafat. He and his PLO represent the last vestige of secular Palestinian nationalism. We have nobody else to deal with. It is either the PLO or nothing. It is a long shot for a possible settlement, or the certainty of no settlement at all at a time when the radicals are going nuclear.”

Avner, who presents this episode as an “Endnote” in his book, concludes by writing: “I made full notes of these words, and I had a lot to chew over. Rabin instructed his chief aide, Eitan Haber, to arrange for a second meeting the following Sunday 5 November – but it never took place. The evening before, as Yitzhak Rabin was leaving a Tel Aviv peace rally, he was murdered by a Jewish nationalist zealot.”

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