To nationalist hawks who are keen to hold on to the entire Land of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin was the gruff former general who would have seen the error of his ways and reversed years of peacemaking that brought us the Oslo Accords and the birth of Palestinian self-rule.
Israeli doves, on the other hand, are convinced that had right-wing assassin Yigal Amir never entered the national consciousness, Rabin would have followed through on a withdrawal from most - if not all - of the West Bank and delineated a border between Israel and a sovereign Palestinian state, bringing the century-old Zionist-Arab conflict to an end.
So what would have happened had Rabin lived?
Yossi Beilin was deputy foreign minister during the second Rabin administration. In the early 1990s, it was Beilin, who together with a group of Israeli academics and lawyers, initiated the first contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
These informal talks would eventually evolve into full-blown negotiations that yielded the Oslo Accords, a document in which both sides extended mutual recognition while committing to more talks that would presumably lead to a final-status agreement.
Two decades after Rabin’s killing, the peace process appears to be gasping its last breath, while Beilin, who left politics in 2008 after a short, unsuccessful stint as head of Meretz, can only wonder - what if?
For starters, in his opinion, we would have likely seen Rabin sign an agreement with the man who to that point was Israel’s most implacable enemy.
“I think that he really wanted to reach an agreement with the Syrians,” Beilin told The Jerusalem Post. “And I think eventually he would’ve succeeded in making a deal with [then-president] Hafez Assad.”
As for the Palestinian question, Beilin said that he and his staff “essentially did all of the homework” for Rabin in the months leading up to his assassination. It was Beilin who concluded an informal deal with Mahmoud Abbas, then the top deputy to PA chairman Yasser Arafat, that became known as the “Beilin-Abu Mazen understandings,” the non-binding document which contained the provisions of a final-status accord. Rabin, alas, did not live long enough to see it.
“I’m not entirely sure that he would’ve agreed to adopt the Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement before the five-year deadline as indicated in the Oslo Accords,” Beilin said. “That would’ve meant seriously talking about a final-status deal as early as 1996 in the spirit of the agreement that we reached.”
With the recent flare-up in Israeli-Palestinian violence thrusting Jerusalem back into the spotlight, many wonder whether Rabin would’ve agreed to partition the city, despite his longstanding position that the status of Israel’s capital was non-negotiable. Beilin, however, thinks that the man who liberated the eastern half of the city as IDF chief of staff in 1967 would have eventually come around to his view that peace could not be reached without sharing it with a newborn state of Palestine.
“Everybody’s dividing Jerusalem these days,” the former foreign minister said. “[Former prime minister Ehud] Olmert was ready to divide Jerusalem. The same with [Avigdor] Liberman. Everyone understands that it’s simply idiotic to speak of the Palestinian refugee camps as part of Jerusalem.
“Even those who speak about ‘an undivided Jerusalem as the eternal capital’ don’t really mean the Arab streets in the eastern part where barely any Jews go. They are talking about the Jewish parts of Jerusalem that have been built up over the years as well as the Old City.”
A large constituency in Israel doesn’t share Beilin’s view. According to Prof. Efraim Inbar, the head of the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, Rabin’s legacy is not one of “Mr. Peace” but “Mr. Security.”
“I don’t think [Rabin being alive] would have changed much,” he said. “What we are seeing [in the Middle East] are historic forces that have nothing to do with Israel. And if we talk about the peace process - or so-called peace process with the Palestinians - Rabin was very ambivalent about the Palestinian partner.”
“From the very first day [of the Oslo Accords], our intelligence briefed him that Arafat violated the agreement by bringing in weapons. The head of intelligence told Rabin that [the Palestinians] weren’t preparing for peace, but for war. And we all know the jihadist declarations by Arafat. He didn’t turn over terrorists.”
Rabin’s suspicions of the Palestinians and his distaste for Arafat were well known, according to Inbar.
“Rabin’s agreement with Arafat was territories for security, not territories for peace,” he said. “He wanted the same situation [with the Palestinians] that we have with Egypt and Jordan.”
According to Douglas Altabef, an American oleh who serves on the board of the NGO Im Tirtzu, Rabin’s assassination “continues to be a great source of pain, not just because a great man was taken from us but also because it was indicative of the divisions within Am Yisrael, divisions that have not necessarily healed.”
“When you have a little bit of critical distance timewise from seminal leaders, you see that there is a difference between the life that they led and the legacy they enjoyed,” he said. “There’s a lot that is attributed to Rabin that is not necessarily what Rabin was about.”
Even Rabin’s most wide-eyed admirers on the Left would agree that his career as a peacemaker was preceded by years as a defense hawk. As a member of the opposition, he supported the Likud-led government’s decision to invade Lebanon. As defense minister during the outbreak of the first intifada, he famously instructed IDF soldiers to “break the bones” of Palestinian stone-throwers and rioters. It is this image of the surly, suspicious Rabin - the sabra general who conquered territory rather than relinquished it - that those on the Right prefer to remember whenever the anniversary of his death approaches.
“I certainly have great respect for Rabin as a leader,” Altabef said. “Were he alive today, I’m not sure that he would be embracing that which is being said in his name. He was never in favor of dividing Jerusalem, and he was never wildly in favor of creating a Palestinian state.”
“I think the important thing is to recognize that Rabin was a great Zionist, a great believer in the people of Israel, the nation of Israel, the State of Israel, and we are diminished for his loss.”