The loss of an unparalleled leader

"The collective achievements of the past 20 years pale in comparison to what he was able to achieve in his abbreviated three-year term."

Yuval Rabin next to his mother Leah at his father’s funeral on November 6, 1995 (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)
Yuval Rabin next to his mother Leah at his father’s funeral on November 6, 1995
A chronology of the life of Yitzhak Rabin
March 1, 1922 – Born to a Ukrainian father and Belarussian mother in Jerusalem, Mandatory Palestine.
1935 – Attends Givat Hashlosha agricultural school while training with the Hagana.
1941 – Joins the newly formed Palmah.
1948 – Commander of the Harel Brigade during Israel’s War of Independence.
1948 – Marries Leah Schlossberg and later has two children: Dalia and Yuval.
1964 – appointed chief of staff of the IDF; achieves victory over Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the Six Day War.
1968 – appointed Israeli ambassador to the US.
1974-1977 – Becomes prime minister for the first time after resignation of Golda Meir, beating Shimon Peres as head of the Labor Party; however, resigns over illegal US bank account.
1984-1990 – Serves as defense minister in a Labor-Likud unity government.
July 1992 – Labor Party victorious in elections; Rabin, who replaced Peres as party head earlier that year, becomes prime minister.
September 13, 1993 – Rabin, Peres and PLO head Yasser Arafat arrive in Washington to sign Israel-PLO framework, recognizing the Palestine Liberation Organization and implementing autonomy in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
October 26, 1994 – Signs peace treaty with Jordan’s King Hussein in Washington, ending 46 years of a state of war.
December 1994 – Shares Nobel Peace Prize with Peres and Arafat.
November 4, 1995 – The 10th prime minister of the State of Israel, assassinated in Tel Aviv by a Jewish right-wing extremist.
"Israel may have lost the prime minister with a better chance than any other of advancing peace and preventing war.”
Such were my father’s own words upon his 1977 resignation from the office of prime minister, as documented in Erez Laufer’s recently released documentary Rabin in His Own Words.
My father’s tone is characteristically subdued, but to those who knew the reserved Rabin best, the message is uncharacteristically bold. Nearly 40 years after this proclamation, and 20 years after his assassination, his message has also proven to be prophetic.
Not once but twice, Israel lost the opportunity to follow my father toward peace with our neighbors.
The second time may have been for good, certainly for him, increasingly likely for us.
However, the circle of escalating violence and ensuing tragedies is not necessarily our fate. If we can get beyond today’s mutually threatening rhetoric and return to Rabin’s path, there is still hope.
RABIN’S PATH to peace began immediately upon his taking office in June 1974. Recently declassified documents shed light on his pivotal role in establishing early ties with Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat.
He invested in enhancing the dialogue with Jordan’s King Hussein and made a clandestine visit in 1976 to King Hassan II of Morocco. His Moroccan visit was the first time an Israeli prime minister, albeit in disguise, had ever set foot in the capital of an Arab nation.
Interim agreements with Egypt and Syria were signed in 1974, leveraging his strong personal ties with the American Republican administration.
In what would become an all-too-familiar pattern, the Israeli right wing, which was then led by Menachem Begin of the Likud, led violent demonstrations targeting Rabin and US secretary of state Henry Kissinger. They were denouncing the 30- to 40-kilometer withdrawals in Sinai and a few kilometer withdrawals in Syria. Ironically, only three or four years later, Begin himself signed the landmark “land for peace” Camp David Accords, thereby firmly cementing the “full withdrawal for peace” principle and earning himself a Nobel Peace Prize in the process.
In 1977, shortly before my father’s forced resignation, Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as president of the United States. Their first meeting signaled a dramatic change in US policy, which Rabin was to personally reject. These ideas would soon be adopted by the Likud-led government, and would lead to the signing of the Camp David Accords, and would fundamentally change the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
It will surprise many of us to learn that today’s much maligned Oslo Accords are actually a direct descendant of the Likud-sponsored Camp David Accords. It was the Camp David Accords, not the Oslo Accords, which first recognized the “legitimate rights of the Palestinian Peoples and their just requirements” as well as their right to “participate in the determination of their own future.”
The Camp David agreement is also the agreement that first defined the process of “orderly transfer of authority” that prescribed the five-year interim term within which the final- status negotiation should be concluded.
Lastly, Israel also accepted the associated principle of the agreement that specified that “the principles and provisions described below should apply to peace treaties between Israel and its neighbors – Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
At the time, there is no doubt that Rabin personally disagreed with the inclusion of these principles in the Camp David Accords. He felt that the Palestinian issues would best be negotiated with Jordan directly. Nevertheless, he did vote to support the accords, because he felt that he had no moral right to vote against an agreement achieved by the democratically elected government. Rabin did not want to arm Israel’s most formidable enemies with the ability to label Israel as the refuser.
ALMOST 15 years of failures later, Rabin took office again in June 1992.
His second administration had to rebuild from: a failed Camp David implementation, a failed and demoralizing Lebanon war, a major economic collapse, a narrowly averted Jewish Underground attempt to blow up al-Aksa Mosque, and the first Palestinian intifada.
In 1992 Israel was a nation in desperate need of a structural and fundamental turnaround. There was an urgent need to change the national priorities in the context of a new geopolitical reality. The Soviet Union had dissolved. The US led a decisive victory in the Gulf War in partnership with an international coalition which included Arab members. The Camp David Accords and the Madrid Conference were in our rearview mirror. In this context, Rabin made a campaign commitment to reach an agreement with the Palestinians within 13 months.
In September 1993, the Oslo I Accord was signed and, as noted, was based on the Camp David agreement – with one major difference. Camp David was signed by third parties – it was not signed by the parties themselves. Oslo was signed between Israel and the PLO as the de facto representative of the Palestinians. By signing Oslo, Israel achieved a major strategic goal – with the PLO officially recognizing Israel, a peace accord limited the dispute to the West Bank and Gaza only! Is it a surprise that terrorist attacks didn’t immediately stop after the signing of Oslo? Absolutely not. No one in his right mind expected that the fringe elements of both sides would immediately abide by the compromises that Oslo was foreshadowing. While some would blame the Oslo agreement itself for an eventual uptick in terrorism, they conveniently dismiss the role of the Hebron massacre of February 1994 – when Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Palestinian Muslims, killing 25 and wounding 129 – in fueling a vicious Hamas retaliation.
Do I think Israel and its controlled territories could have remained immune to suicide terrorism forever? No, I do not. Palestinian terrorism is a response to the deteriorating life in the controlled territories, not to the signing of Oslo.
SO WHY do I think Israel missed a major opportunity to change, with the killing of my father? Clearly because of who and what he was. He was a leader of unparalleled integrity, commitment and experience, combined with strong realism and pragmatism.
He had a clear vision, a defined strategy, and set achievable goals. He was capable of looking beyond the here and now – and he was able to lead us.
We just commemorated the 20th anniversary of my father’s assassination.
The collective achievements of the past 20 years pale in comparison to what he was able to achieve in his abbreviated three-year term.
Significant treaties were signed, and let there be no mistake – the Israel-Jordan peace treaty of 1994 would not have happened without the Oslo agreement. Israel opened up previously shut markets, dialogues started with previously unthinkable partners. Opportunities were explored and developed. Some matured to agreements; some were abruptly stopped by three bullets on November 4, 1995.
In a speech 10 years ago, author and former US State Department official Dennis Ross described Rabin as someone who “was incredibly analytic. He was someone who always saw reality as it was. He was the most intellectually honest leader I had ever dealt with.
He was very hard to move when he had thought something through, but if, in fact, reality didn’t fit with what he thought was going to be the case, he would be the first to tell you he was wrong, and he would adjust.”
In a world of volatile reality, this is the only kind of leadership that can combine realism with hope, pragmatism with vision, implementation with a sense of mission.
However, my father was wrong about one thing.
He believed that “Israel may have lost the prime minister with a better chance than any other of advancing peace and preventing war.”
I believe that we did.
The author is the son of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the chairman of the Israel Peace Initiative.