An arduous road to the top

Yitzhak Rabin: Prime Minister of Israel 1974-1977, 1992-1995 Documents 1922-1967 618 pages (in Hebrew).

By SHIMSHON ARAD
October 9, 2005 12:28
suave itzhak rabin 88

itzhak rabin 88. (photo credit: )

Yitzhak Rabin: Prime Minister of Israel 1974-1977, 1992-1995 Documents 1922-1967 618 pages (in Hebrew). It was said of Yitzhak Rabin that his Hebrew was not especially eloquent, that he was the ultimate personification of the rough Sabra and that he could be blunt and biting. But there are those who remember him as a person who radiated authenticity and authoritativeness, integrity and courage which implies that there was apparently more than one side to him. These diverse qualities stand out in this first volume of documents and correspondence covering his career up to the end of his service as chief of General Staff in December 1967. A second volume dealing with his years as ambassador in Washington (1968-1973) and his two terms as prime minister until his assassination in November 1995 is due to be published at a later date. The present book contains comments and analyses he made at numerous consultations held with his superiors in addition to reflections and pronouncements he presented to his colleagues in the General Staff. The most illuminating documents are probably his letters to close friends in the army and to members of his family. The reader gains the impression that Rabin was endowed with methodical tools of thinking that could be discerned early in his life. This does not mean that he was devoid of shortcomings. Some illustrations of his growing ripeness (and his occasional rash utterances) are cited later. In the 20 years he served in the IDF, Rabin's predominant preoccupations were naturally related to arduous military tasks. The most critical challenge in 1948 was to repel enemy attacks, and at the same time, establish a modern army. His contribution to the organization and the shaping of the IDF was integral. Rabin was supposed to be the brains behind some of the major military offensives of 1948 aimed at eliminating the Egyptian forces in the Negev. In the wake of pursuing the Egyptians, Israeli forces crossed the international frontier into Sinai. While holding part of northern Sinai, Rabin, Yigal Allon and other senior commanders found it repugnant to pull back. Only Ben-Gurion's clear instruction made them obey. At the time, Rabin and Allon naively believed that we could stay at will across an international border. Years later, Rabin grasped the overwhelming significance of internationally recognized boundaries and realized that in the post-colonial era, violating them for a longer period of time would not be tolerated by the international community. Dramatic changes that occurred in late '50s and early '60s in the great powers' relations had their inevitable effects on the balance of politics and weapons in the Middle East. In the course of his responsibilities as deputy chief of General Staff and then, as chief of General Staff, Rabin considered it essential to define Israel's strategy, pointing out situations that would force it to resort to war. Rabin listed these in the following order: an Egyptian attempt to bar passage in the Straits of Tiran, an intrusion of foreign forces into Jordan and a massing of menacing troops along Israel's borders. In order to prevent Israel's neighbors from breaking the status quo, it was incumbent on Israel to daunt any hostile attacks and build a deterrent capability not only for preventing such attacks, but for beating the forces should they dare attack us. In talks held in Washington in late 1963, Rabin drew the attention of US officials to the growing threat of an Egyptian surprise attack, indicating that Israel could deter such a threat by acquiring advanced planes, modern tanks and new naval equipment. In February 1966, Fatah launched attacks on Israel, enjoying Syria's support. In discussions with the General Staff, Rabin proposed to strengthen the defense of the settlements along the border and to upgrade the level of military operations against Syria. Ariel Sharon and Motti Hod (air force chief), argued that we should occupy the parts of Syria from which those hostile onslaughts were perpetrated. Things deteriorated, leading to Syria's attempt on one occasion to prevent the IDF from extricating an Israeli patrol boat in the north-east part of Lake Kinneret. Syrian MiG planes attacked Israeli boats and only the arrival of Israeli Mirage planes forced Syria to accept a UN call for cease fire. Rehavam Ze'evi ("Gandhi") urged escalating our response. Rabin rejected the idea, arguing that militarily we could occupy Syrian territory, but politically we could not hold it. At the beginning of 1967, Rabin and the General Staff believed that the chances of an all-out Arab "war against Israel were not plausible." Rabin warned however, that inter-Arab entanglements could produce "unexpected situations," obliging Israel to build up its arsenal. The erroneous assumption was that as long as Egyptian forces were fighting in Yemen, Egypt wouldn't get involved in a war with Israel. It was speculated that trouble might come instead from Syria. Prime minister Levi Eshkol was deeply concerned and cautioned the General Staff to cool off. He did not want a war with Syria. Egypt's moves to expel the UN observers from Sinai, dispatch its forces there and block free passage through the Straits of Tiran definitely constituted a casus belli that would oblige Israel to go to war. In the wake of public tumult, Eshkol gave up the Defense Ministry and Dayan replaced him. All this resulted in Rabin's diminished scope of involvement in the "decision-making" process, though he was still entrusted with directing the daily operations of the war. That part, of course, was superbly performed, and added new luster to Rabin's name.


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