Daughter of an icon

Dalia Rabin keeps the flame of her father’s legacy burning.

Dalia Rabin in her father’s arms circa 1951 (photo credit: COURTESY THE YITZHAK RABIN CENTER)
Dalia Rabin in her father’s arms circa 1951
She has the same facial features as her iconic father, the same slow, rhythmic speech pattern and steely look, but Dalia Rabin, daughter of slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, has none of his introversion or inordinate shyness. Instead, she is warm, friendly and outgoing. Yet, for all of her sanguine appearance, she carries a heavy burden – keeping the flame of her father’s legacy burning brightly in the public’s eye.
So enraptured was the public with Yitzhak Rabin in the days and months following his assassination on November 4, 1995, and so idolized and beloved was the man, that Dalia Rabin should have had little trouble keeping his legacy alive and well. But the problem for her has been that she has had to wrestle with the questions surrounding her father’s legacy. Did he favor a Palestinian state or not? Did he favor a peace process with the Palestinians or mistrust them too much to negotiate with their leaders? How much land was he willing to compromise on and still believe Israel would have safe borders?
Asked to clarify how she presents Rabin’s legacy, she tells The Jerusalem Report, “As a military man, my father was extremely cognizant of Israel’s security needs and would never compromise them. He also understood that if Israel was to remain a viable Jewish and democratic state, we would need to be pragmatic. He wanted to increase the budget for education, infrastructure and employment opportunities – he saw that as our real resource that would ensure our future.”
One indication of the difficulties of perpetuating the Rabin legacy for Dalia is the reputation the Tel Aviv-based Yitzhak Rabin Center, which she chairs, has acquired, much to her regret. “There is a stigma that the Center is left of center; it takes people to come here to realize that what we do here tells a different story. But when you have to fight stigmas it takes time.”
In other words, Rabin’s legacy is pragmatic and flexible, a hybrid hawk and dove, believing that Israel’s greatest resource was human. His approach was neither leftist nor rightist, but middle-of-the-road.
For the first five years after Rabin was assassinated, Dalia’s mother, Leah Rabin, carried the flame of Yitzhak Rabin’s legacy, and a large part of that was creating the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, a $35 million museum that, through text and videos, examines Rabin from childhood to that fatal day at the now-renamed Rabin Square. Some 80,000 people visit the museum every year.
When Leah Rabin died in 2000, Dalia, now 63, took up the torch in a far more activist manner than her brother, Yuval, five years her junior. He serves on the board of the Friends of the Center. Yuval and Dalia have, according to newspaper accounts, kept their distance from one another. In our interview, Dalia was careful to describe her relationship with Yuval in purely neutral terms.
Left on her own to define and promote her father’s legacy, Dalia observes, to her dismay, that the Israeli public, while turning Yitzhak Rabin into an icon upon his death, did not appreciate him enough during his lifetime.
We met at Dalia Rabin’s office in Tel Aviv at the Yitzhak Rabin Center. Photos and paintings of her father adorn the walls. Besides devoting much text and video to Rabin’s life and career, the Center tells the story of Israel during the years of Rabin’s life (1922-1995). A remarkable photo shows Rabin thinly disguised sporting a black wig during a secret visit to Morocco as prime minister on the way back to Israel from the Oslo Accords signing in Washington, in September 1993.
For Dalia, celebrating her father’s life makes her feel awkward. Knowing her father, she is quite aware of how uncomfortable he would have felt at having a museum built to exalt his feats, not to mention how distraught he would have been at all the streets and buildings named in his honor after the assassination.
“He would have been horrified by the whole thing,” she says, with an ironic smile. “While I traveled to raise money, I thought, ‘Oh Abba, please forgive me for doing this.’” After taking over the Center in 2003, Dalia found it a skeleton with no funds available for development.
Despite the adulation of Rabin, fundraising proved to be difficult. Dov Lautman, a leading businessman, helped raise $12 million. Dalia secured another $33 million, including a $5 million US government grant that few thought she would get; but Congress approved the sum.
Because Yitzhak and Leah Rabin had been such prominent figures, they shielded Dalia and Yuval from public exposure. The future prime minister and chief of staff doted on his daughter, but rarely spoke of his work in her presence. The children were rarely seen in public.
After her father’s death, deciding that public exposure was not such a bad thing, Dalia joined the short-lived Center Party in 1999, and was elected to the Knesset that same year, joining Ehud Barak’s Labor-led coalition. She served for the next four years. In March 2001, she formed the New Way faction with two other Knesset Members of the Center Party and joined Ariel Sharon’s coalition becoming the first woman to serve as deputy defense minister (her father had served as defense minister) in his new government, holding that post for two years. Perhaps because of her personal stature, more likely because the defense minister at the time, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, was preoccupied with running for chairman of the Labor Party, Dalia attended most high-level meetings, unlike her predecessor, Ephraim Sneh.
Unwilling to give the male officials the chance to say, “You see, she’s a woman, she does not understand,” Dalia was careful to say little. One issue that she personally focused on was improving the standing of IDF reserve soldiers. Her greatest success came when, despite fierce opposition, she got the IDF for the first time to assign a general to run the reserves. The position still exists today. Growing up in a military environment prepared her for the sensitive post. “I was not afraid of senior army officers. I grew up where this was my natural ambience,” she says.
In May 2001, she shifted her allegiance to the Labor Party. In August 2002, two years after her mother died, Dalia resigned her deputy defense ministry post and, in 2003, after retiring from politics, she became chair of the Rabin Center.
Born in Tel Aviv in 1950, Dalia Rabin spent most of her childhood living in the nearby suburb of Zahala, a favorite community for army officers.
On May 15, 1967, three weeks before the Six Day War began, a military parade had been planned in Jerusalem, as part of the Independence Day celebrations. Returning to the King David Hotel from the parade on that hot May morning, Chief of Staff Rabin took off his uniform. Suddenly, Dalia, then 17, screamed, “Abba, there are Jordanian soldiers on the wall [of the Old City opposite the hotel] with binoculars and they’re looking this way. They’ll see you in your underpants.” But the Jordanian soldiers were intent on watching the end of the parade.
From 1968 to 1973, while her father served as ambassador to the US in Washington, Dalia stayed behind in Israel in the IDF, serving as a clerk in Sayeret Matkal, the elite IDF special forces unit. “No front lines for me,” she comments with humor in her voice. “There is no militarism in my CV.”
Dalia planned to study English literature and simultaneous translation of English to Hebrew at Tel Aviv University. “Then,” she recalls with no sense of bitterness, “my mother came for a visit and said, ‘You know your father would prefer you to study law.’ I don’t know whether it was my father or my mother who wanted me to study law. I never regretted it because it’s a good background for everything,” she says.
In 1972, Dalia married Avraham Ben- Artzi, a Sayeret Matkal officer with whom she had two children, Yonatan, now 39, and Noa, 36, the same Noa who became internationally famous for the gripping eulogy she gave at her grandfather’s funeral. Dalia graduated with a law degree in 1974 and began working for a private law firm in Tel Aviv.
In 1976, when Dalia was pregnant with Noa, her husband suffered a severe head injury in a training accident in the army. She and Ben-Artzi divorced in 1979. Five years later, Dalia began living with Avi Pelossof, who had been the director of Elite, the candy company. They were married in February 1987, but divorced in 2004.
On June 27, 1976, Israeli passengers aboard an Air France jet were hijacked by Palestinian terrorists and flown to Entebbe, Uganda. Dalia’s father, then the prime minister, had to decide whether to launch a military operation or try to negotiate with the terrorists. Long before the events at Entebbe, Dalia had invited her mother to attend the ceremony inducting her into the Israeli bar, but, knowing how busy her father was, said, “Abba, you don’t have to come.” The prime minister replied, “Dalia, I want to be there.” And, despite the pressures on him from the Entebbe crisis, he showed up, though clearly distracted.
On November 4, 1995, the day her father was assassinated as he was leaving a Tel Aviv rally, Dalia was recovering at home from surgery. She watched the rally on television and once it ended, she turned the TV off. Soon the phone rang; her mother was on the line, her voice betrayed that something awful had occurred. “Did you hear what happened?” she asked with pain in her voice. Dalia replied, “No, what happened?”
“They shot your father,” Leah Rabin told her, “but they say it’s not for real.” In our interview, Dalia said she was not clear on what her mother had meant in saying the event was “not real.”
Dalia caught up with her mother at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, where the prime minister had been taken. Provided with a small room near where doctors worked on her father, she waited, well aware that by now rumors of Rabin’s death had already made it to the radio. An hour later, a physician told the family that indeed the prime minister had died of his wounds.
Was she surprised that Yigal Amir, a Jew, had fired the shots that killed her father, and not an Arab?
“Before my father was killed, we went through tough times of incitement,” she recalls. “I was aware of the fact that my father was in danger, not that he ever thought he was in danger. But I was worried about him. Would I have predicted that a Jew would come and shoot my father? No.”
After the assassination, however reluctant the Rabin family had been to take part in the public’s efforts to memorialize the dead prime minister, Leah felt, and Dalia agreed, that they had to respond to the groundswell of affection felt for Rabin. “As the burden on the family was so enormous,” says Dalia, “we had to step forward. All of our lives, I was kept behind the curtain. I was never exposed to the media. I was never expected to take part in my father’s career or to express support for him. Never. Never.
“But after the assassination, everything was different. Whatever we went to bed with the night of November 4, it was different the next morning. We woke up to another world.”
So, for the next year, she traveled with her mother, both abroad and in Israel, to events paying respect to her father. Dalia stresses, “Nothing was our initiative. The family did not initiate any memorial site. “I was struck at the time that as great a career as my father had, he became a different person in everyone’s eyes after the assassination. Iconic.”
Before he was killed, Dalia suggests, the public did not understand her father, “because he was reserved and shy and did not run after honors. It was always about the agenda, not about himself. Always. He never got into petty party manipulations. He was above all that and he was very focused on what he could do for Israel.”
After he was assassinated, the public took a new look at Rabin. “People needed the shock to gain perspective, to look backwards and understand the enormous change that he had done and was willing to do,” she says. “When such a thing happens, you begin to understand the size of the loss. I think this is what happened. All of a sudden, people understood there’s nobody like him.”
In later years, when the annual memorial event for Rabin morphed into a platform for politicians, when it drew less and less notice and fewer participants, and the effect of the post-assassination period had worn off, Dalia was again reminded of the public’s fickleness toward her father. Fifteen years after the assassination, Dalia decided to stop the annual memorial event.