The POSTman Knocks Twice: Yitzhak Rabin, man of contradictions

On the outside, this was a gruff and dour man, without a saving social grace; Rabin I see with a cigarette and a scotch and soda and a grim, closed face.

September 11, 2014 22:21
Oslo Accords

Slain Israeli Prime Minister Rabin with former US President Bill Clinton and former PLO President Yasser Arafat after signing the Oslo Accords at the White House on September 13, 1993. . (photo credit: REUTERS)

We have all had enough of war and political analyses. I return to the prime ministers of Israel. But even in this column, wars feature large.

If Dry Bones needed a caricature of the quintessential sabra, “tough on the outside and soft on the inside,” Yitzhak Rabin could have been the model.

On the outside, this was a gruff and dour man, without a saving social grace. Small talk? Forget it. I picture Golda Meir always with a cigarette in her hand and a smile.

Rabin I see with a cigarette and a scotch and soda (since I too appreciate a good drink, that is not a flaw), and a grim, closed face.

Rabin was a walking set of contradictions.

A soldier from age 19 (in 1941) He fought in the Hagana’s shock troop Palmah brigades.

He won major victories in the War of Independence as brigade commander or operations officer – age 26 (1948). A general, a man who led armies, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for signing the peace agreement engineered by Shimon Peres with Rabin’s ultimate approval. From war leader who led IDF to victory in the Six Day War to peacemaker 25 years later with Yasser Arafat – whom he despised. Forced to shake hands with Arafat, knowing how this evil man had ordered murder of civilians, fostered mayhem, bombings, and kidnapping of airplanes, you see the disdain in his face and his reluctant body language as president Bill Clinton pushes the two hands together.

Another contradiction. He was born into the Left. His father was a Labor Zionist who had immigrated to the US and joined the Jewish battalion raised by the British army in the US and Canada in 1917. His mother, known as Red Rosa, was a leader in the Labor movement who was elected to a number of city and national councils. But Rabin’s tennis partners were generally from the moneyed class. These had more influence than perhaps they should have had on economic policies and to my knowledge did not devote too much worry to the less privileged groups.

Yet another contradiction. David Ben-Gurion would not allow the continuation of (that is non-state) political militias. One by one he disbanded them. First Lehi (the Stern Group), next the Irgun, and then – all within a few months of the creation of Israel – the Palmah. Palmah was under the influence of the two parties to the left of the majority Mapai in the kibbutz and labor movements. Most of the Palmah leaders did not stay in the IDF. Yitzhak Rabin did.

Rabin never looked very smart in his general’s uniform. No spit and polish, except for the officers’ cap he preferred to the omnipresent beret. I recall seeing Rabin, slouching, walking in to an eyeball-to-eyeball meeting with his superior, prime minister and minister of defense Levi Eshkol.

This was in 1964 and took place in the modest room in the two-story Templer building in the Kirya defense headquarters in Tel Aviv. Rabin, then IDF chief of staff, opened the door and stood at an uneasy attention, cast a casual salute at Eshkol, seated behind his desk. Why uneasy? Why casual? Because who saluted in the Israeli army, except for at ceremonies of one kind or another? This salute was important, dear reader, because it symbolized the subordination of the military to the cabinet, and its prime minister. For some reason, I found that very moving. In hindsight, I understood why: Within only 16 years of statehood, Israel had firmly established the principle of civilian control of the military. That’s not so usual in so much of the world today.

Yitzhak Rabin left an indelible stamp on the IDF. I leave it to military historians to write about that. I skip to the Six Day War in 1967. Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic were led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. On May 23, he closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli and international shipping, crippling Eilat as an opening to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. This was a casus belli, but the international guarantees regarding the Straits were worthless.

On June 5, Israel launched its lightening preemptive strike. In those critical days Rabin was crushed between his own fear of an Egyptian first strike – a fear shared by a raring-to-go General Staff, which put immense pressure on Rabin and prime minister Eshkol, and Eshkol’s wise and steady policy of making sure Israel had the backing (even if only tacit) of the United States.

Rabin, it is reported, during those weeks hardly ate, smoked 70 cigarettes a day, and countless cups of coffee. He cracked up for a few days just before war broke out.

The cause has been described as nicotine poisoning, and more cruelly as a “nervous breakdown.” He recovered to head the General Staff, and together with Moshe Dayan, who had replaced Eshkol as minister of defense a few days earlier, swept away four Arab armies. (Egypt, Syria, and Iraq which had sent troops in reinforce Jordan. The war ended with Rabin as an internationally famous figure.

For him it marked the culmination of over 30 years in uniform. In 1968, Levi Eshkol appointed him ambassador to Washington.

He was hardly the diplomatic type.

Following the golden-tongued oratory of Abba Eban, and the silver-tongued speeches of the indefatigable Avraham Harman, his predecessors, Rabin spoke English badly.

His deep, radiophonic voice called more attention to the flaws in his speech. Even in Hebrew, he made typical Sabra errors of language.

There was genuineness about Yitzhak Rabin. He could put out his cigarette on the White House floor; interrupt a formal speech by a US president with an out-of-place “big deal” loudly said for all to hear.

Why then was he chosen for Washington, our most important overseas post? There was method in what seems like this most odd choice. Method and wisdom.

That, kind reader will follow in the column to come.

Avraham Avi-hai was secretary for public affairs for prime minister Levin Eshkol. Dr. Avihai’s novel
A Tale of Two Avrahams draws on some of this experience in part one of the book.

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