Military cemeteries in every corner of the world are silent testimony to the failure of national leaders to sanctify human life. – Yitzhak Rabin, in speech at presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize
Why, asks a colleague, do we continue to mourn Yitzhak Rabin, year after year? There is more than one answer. For the people who place peace above land, it is mourning both the man and a lost opportunity.
For those who respect honesty in government, the mourning is for a state leader who resigned when it was discovered that his wife had a bank account of about $20,000 in Washington, which at the time (1977) was against the law.
For many, we mourn a statesman who had the courage to change his mind as the situation in the area and in the world changed.
We mourn a man who understood how to keep allies and not make them into enemies.
For those who incited against him, not believing it would lead to assassination, it is a mourning of their innocence, lost when the far Right, incited by extreme rabbis, spilt blood.
For those who still fast in mourning of Gedaliah, governor of Judea appointed by Babylonia almost 26 centuries ago, because a Jew killed another Jew, it is natural to mourn when the same happened only 19 years ago.
For those who danced on hearing of his murder, there is no mourning, except for Yigal Amir, the murderer triggered by extremist rabbis who in effect pronounced a death sentence on Rabin, labeling him boged and rodef, a traitorous Jew whose blood is free to be spilled.
For those who respect the rule of law, we also mourn the fact that no attorney-general had the courage to investigate these rabbis, whose statements are a matter of record.
I mourn Rabin, because, in spite of his flaws and errors, he proved to be a statesman.
Politicians cater to their local constituency.
Statesmen rise above this. Statesmen can change their tactics and even strategy when situations change. Politicians are broken records of themselves. They pander to the voters’ lowest common denominator. Too often they are under the influence of a dangerous drug: self-adoration. Some may even be influenced by people who can buy them support systems in the media.
Rabin, the anniversary of whose murder will be commemorated in a few days, built a close relationship with the US, both as ambassador and later as minister of defense and as prime minister. A man who fought and led in every battle from before statehood until 1967, he understood that we needed a clear orientation on the US as our main ally.
Shimon Peres had built a close alliance with the French, and deserves credit for the fruits it bore and still bears. But the alliance with France waned when Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the French president, revealed his innate sharp anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli stance in 1967.
That strategic change in the 1960s, led by then-PM Levi Eshkol and Rabin as IDF chief of staff and later ambassador in Washington, has been decisive in Israel becoming the major power in the Middle East. But not by arms and the defense industry alone does a country live. The US also supplied major diplomatic cover in the UN.
Rabin’s ability to change shows in the way he viewed the Palestinians.
Beginning from a deeply suspicious attitude toward them, and a belief in the use of force as a deterrent to civil unrest and intifadas, he came to realize that Palestinians wanted to be ruled by Palestinians. He recognized that without the consent of the governed, Israel will always live in a state of war, whether in armed conflict or in bursts of civil unrest.
The common belief is that Peres, as foreign minister in Rabin’s government, negotiated the Oslo Accords with the PLO behind Rabin’s back, presented him with a fait accompli, and that Rabin had to go along with it. I have not made a study of this, but my sense of people and experience in government makes me believe that Rabin was either fully informed all along, or was able to keep tabs on what was happening in real-time.
Knowing Rabin, he could be led to water, but certainly could never be made to drink.
When Rabin supported the Oslo Accords, he did so out of a perception of changes taking place in the Palestinian camp and in the US and other world centers. Again, knowing Rabin, he never trusted Yasser Arafat: There were enough exit points along the negotiation route for him to lead Israel in another direction if he deemed it in Israel’s best interests. What would have happened if the accord had been carried out is a moot question. Murder and a different Israeli settlement policy have transformed the facts on the ground.
Under the impact of the terrible night of the assassination, November 4, 1995, I wrote my brother-in-law in Canada an almost delirious email. I hoped that just as the once divided states of the American Union are today bound by the myth of Abraham Lincoln, who is more appreciated as the years pass than he was when he was alive, so too Rabin would become a unifying myth in generations to come. My late brother-in-law tersely responded, “I doubt it.”
So far he has been right.
And meanwhile, the politicians pander, and squander strategic friendships. Never have we reached such a low level in international discourse.
So you ask why we mourn Yitzhak Rabin? Avraham Avi-hai served in the office of prime minister and minister of defense Levi Eshkol when Yitzhak Rabin was IDF chief of staff, and had occasion to work with him when Avi-hai was world chairman of Keren Hayesod-UIA. Avi-hai, who earned his PhD at Columbia University, is author of several non-fiction works and of a novel, A Tale of Two Avrahams, published by Gefen Jerusalem.