Reviewing the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin, warts and all

MIDDLE ISRAEL: In stark contrast to the boastful leadership style with which Israel has become familiar in recent decades, Rabin never flaunted his personal achievements.

RABIN CONFERS with then-security advisor Ariel Sharon (left) as then-defense minister Shimon Peres reads on the right. (photo credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)
RABIN CONFERS with then-security advisor Ariel Sharon (left) as then-defense minister Shimon Peres reads on the right.
(photo credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)
“I am an introverted man,” said Yitzhak Rabin to Ezer Weizman after summoning him to his house at a late evening hour, shortly before Rabin collapsed under the pressure of rapidly unfolding events, two weeks before the outbreak of the Six Day War.
“I wanted to pour my heart out to him,” Rabin later reconstructed the dramatic hours when he shared with his deputy the anxiety that gripped him, and his fear that he had led Israel into a war which by that point seemed inevitable. “I think he who made the mistake must go,” he said of himself to Weizman, and then turned to him: “Are you prepared to be chief of the General Staff?” (Yossi Goldstein, Rabin: Biography, 2006, p. 152)
Much has been said and debated concerning that drama’s other meanings, but morally speaking it meant two unambiguous and very simple things.
First, Rabin was a humanist, a soldier for whom the thought that he may have unleashed a war that would involve thousands of fatalities was cause for a mental breakdown. And second, Rabin was humble. Power was not an aim for him, and when he thought circumstances demanded his departure he was willing to clear the stage, whether as IDF commander in May ’67 or as prime minister in May ’77.
To begin with, Rabin reached power accidentally. He had no ambition to be a general, much less a politician. His plan was to be a hydrologist. Only an external event, the War of Independence, led him to a military career, just as another external event – the Yom Kippur War – made him prime minister.
Even Golda Meir’s resignation in 1974 did not make him announce his intention to succeeded her, until the Labor Party’s kingmaker, then-finance minister Pinchas Sapir, decided Rabin should be Israel’s next leader. Rabin was thus crowned by someone else, the way the biblical Samuel anointed Saul, who was also a bashful and anonymous man before he became a war hero, an unassuming villager on whom power was thrust without him having sought it.
In stark contrast to the boastful leadership style with which Israel has become familiar in recent decades, Rabin never flaunted his personal achievements, and shunned phraseology like “I brought” or “I decided” or “I concluded,” not to mention “I won.”
Even the one famous statement that did center on him, “I will navigate” – as he said in his victory speech after his 1992 landslide – was not meant to celebrate his past achievements, but to assume responsibility for the future.
Even when he found himself surrounded by microphones, cameras and adoring soldiers at the freshly liberated Western Wall while the world suddenly counted him among history’s greatest military leaders, Rabin was not tempted to make vainglorious statements like “Soldiers! You have decorated your eagles with eternal glory!” as Napoleon said after Austerlitz. Instead, Rabin quoted Isaiah’s timeless words of human compassion and Jewish memory, “Comfort, oh comfort my people.”
The magnitude of Rabin’s humanism became manifest 18 days after the war’s end, in a famous speech delivered on the Hebrew University’s newly liberated Mount Scopus campus.
The IDF, he said, owed its victory not to its weaponry or tactics, but to “moral values piled on spiritual reservoirs.” That is why the victory’s cheers were overshadowed by grief over the fallen, he said, before adding what no other victorious general is known to have ever said: “I know that the horrible price the enemy paid touched also the hearts of many among them.”
Surely, at a time when Israeli democracy faces the worst attack in its history, Rabin’s personality looms as an antithesis to the current leadership’s arrogance and self-aggrandizement. This does not mean that Rabin was the perfect leader some of his eulogizers sculpt.
For his assassination to be etched in Israeli memory as the terrible crime that it was, it is the duty of those who backed Rabin, like this writer, to count not only his achievements but also his failures. Otherwise, the leaders of the future will repeat the mistakes of the past.
THE FIRST mistake many make in assessing Rabin’s political record is focusing on his second premiership, and thus ignoring his six years as defense minister and his first stint as prime minister.
As defense minister in the 1980s Rabin had two great achievements and two harsh failures.
The first achievement was the deepest cut ever made in Israel’s defense spending which he delivered in 1985.
It was a pillar of the rescue plan that saved the economy from its worst crisis ever, when inflation crossed 400% while foreign currency reserves and the (old) shekel were plummeting so fast that Israel was but several months away from losing the ability to buy abroad even one barrel of oil. Rabin’s imposition of the budget cut on the generals saved the economy from collapse.
The second achievement was the cancellation of the Lavi fighter-jet project, an effort that was financially unaffordable and strategically unnecessary.
However, as has often happened with generals, both affairs indicate that Rabin, like most generals, was better at reading situations than detecting processes. Originally, he resisted the cutback in defense spending, and changed his mind only after realizing he might damage his delicate relations with then-prime minister Shimon Peres.
Concerning the Lavi, Rabin was guided, justly, by its costs and by its potential damage to relations with the US. Historically, however, he failed to see that the conventional war with which he was so familiar was in decline, as was the need for astronomical investments in its tools.
Israel learned this painful truth with the outbreak of the First Intifada, less than four months after its decision to cancel the Lavi project.
THE PALESTINIAN violence surprised the defense establishment on two levels: in terms of intelligence, it did not fully appreciate Palestinian wrath, and therefore also its ability to spark popular revolt; and militarily, it did not prepare for mass riots and regional terrorism, because the system remained mentally shackled to the wars of the past, the massive confrontations of conventional armies, not realizing those were about to make way for confrontations with terrorists and guerrillas.
As Rabin’s biographer asserted, the Intifada caught him by complete surprise (pp. 360-1). That is why the defense system arrived at that challenge with the IDF unorganized, unequipped and untrained for the type of war that occupying a hostile nation entailed. And since by that time Rabin had headed the system for more than three years; and since a defense minister’s task is first and foremost to set the defense establishment’s goals – that failure was wholly his.
Rabin displayed in those days the same historic shortsightedness in another arena – South Africa.
The issue was not Israel’s attitude toward the apartheid policy, which Rabin loathed. At stake were Israel’s arms exports to South Africa. Those who saw where history was heading, like then-Foreign Ministry director-general Yossi Beilin, demanded that Israel stop all arms sales to Pretoria. Rabin resisted that effort, assuming Israel could continue to have its cake and eat it, too.
Just as he did not feel the tectonic movement that would soon shake Gaza and the West Bank, Rabin didn’t see, even in 1987, that the apartheid regime was ready to collapse.
The same historic blindness also helped end the historic alliance between the Labor Party and religious Zionism, during Rabin’s first premiership.
What began with an air force ceremony that started on a Friday afternoon and then lingered into the Sabbath, and thus challenged his cabinet’s religious ministers, was followed by their dismissals because they voted against Rabin in the no-confidence vote that the ceremony caused. The religious ministers were thus pushed into the opposition, while Rabin used the crisis to impose an early election.
The National Religious Party’s veteran leaders, Yosef Burg and Yitzhak Rafael, had actually been critical of messianic Zionism. They sought cooperation with Rabin, and Rafael also held a big meeting in his house between Rabin and leading Modern Orthodox intellectuals.
Rabin was unimpressed with what he saw, did not understand what he heard, and developed no curiosity toward the Jewish faith, of which he knew little, and whose messianic fringe would produce his assassin.
Rabin’s move isolated the National Religious Party’s moderates. Rafael was ousted, the messianic wing took over, and religious Zionism soon arrived in the Likud’s bosom, where it remains to this day.
RABIN RETURNED to the premiership after 18 years in politics. He arrived experienced, resolute and full of plans, and his subsequent contribution to Israeli life is both palpable and visible to this day, though many don’t know, or don’t understand, just how big the reforms he led those years have been.
Rabin expanded education spending, incrementally, by 75%, thus allowing the sharpest-ever rise in teachers’ pay. At the same time he launched an unprecedented infrastructure development drive which included not only the highways and interchanges that were completed in his lifetime, but also the Trans-Israel Highway and the Ben-Gurion Airport upgrade which were completed after his death.
Big as all these were, they dwarfed compared with Rabin’s healthcare revolution.
The 1994 National Health Insurance Act made health insurance universal, and while at it Rabin created the health tax that made the public pay its insurance fees not to the unions but to the apolitical National Insurance Institute.
At the same time, Rabin made the health funds compete with each other, and also with private insurers. The new system was obviously not perfect, but today it is clear that Rabin created one of the most just, accessible, comprehensive and cheap healthcare systems in the world. Twenty-six years on, this massive achievement remains intact and is the envy of many elsewhere in the developed world.
Rabin viewed the betterment of the citizens’ lives his main duty, regardless of their political color. If anything, political favoritism was to him an abomination. That is why he waged war on the Histadrut labor federation, which resisted his healthcare reform. Rabin’s healthcare reform was thus an act of pure faith; faith in the welfare state, and faith in any citizen’s rights.
Such was also the second faith that shaped his second premiership – the faith in peace.
ALL HAS already been said of the successes and failures of the Oslo Accords, and this is not the place to discuss them, other than to mention that Israel’s maturing relations with the Gulf states are a direct result of the Oslo Accords, not to mention the peace treaty with Jordan.
At any rate, Rabin’s leadership test following the Oslo Accords was not about his diplomatic vision or political resolve, but about his national solidarity; about his ability to listen, empathize, share, and hug.
Unlike his healthcare reform, whose stubborn opposition was institutional, the Oslo Accords’ opposition was public. On this front Rabin was confronted not by several hundred union leaders and party hacks, but by a critical mass of the citizenry; a vast, varied, ideologically fueled and emotionally offended population.
And since his policy evoked such massive opposition, his task was to make his policy’s victims feel that their pain is felt, that their plight is shared, and that their mourners are embraced. This didn’t happen.
When terrorists murdered settlers, Rabin condemned “the extremists from both sides”; when thousands protested his policy, he said “I don’t care about them”; and when asked about Golan settlers’ opposition to a territorial deal with Syria, he said that as far as he was concerned “they can rotate like propellers.”
Ordinary politicians in such situations fake; they fake smiles, fabricate hugs and shed crocodile tears. But Rabin was not an ordinary politician. He refused to fake. He said what he thought and thought what he said. Morally, this sincerity was one rung above conventional politics. Emotionally, however, it was one rung under what national leadership demands when faced with a house divided.
A leader launching an ambitious and controversial move must not fake feelings; he must truly feel. He must feel his adversaries’ pain, embrace his policy’s victims, and join them as they mourn its casualties’ deaths. He should visit them in their homes and conduct with them a dialogue; not a political dialogue, but an ideational conversation and a psychological heart-to-heart.
This Rabin didn’t know how to do. He couldn’t share emotions, because he remained the man who back in ’67 said “I am an introverted man.” And an ideational dialogue was beyond him because he was an ineloquent and poorly read warrior who lacked intellectual curiosity.
Rabin was therefore unequipped, both intellectually and emotionally, for the titanic confrontation with messianic Judaism which his big diplomatic move sparked.
In June ’67, when he stood by the Western Wall and said “Comfort, comfort my people,” Rabin was unequipped to detect the seismic waves that were already rustling under his feet.
The humanist whose hands made war while his heart yearned for peace unleashed in his victory the messianic demon whose history he did not probe, whose power he did not understand, and whose followers, to him, did not count; the demon which for centuries disturbed the Jewish people’s soul; the demon that shot the leader of Israel in his back, in the days when war was imposed on peace.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019) is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.