The twice-murdered national icon, 1922-1995

A retrospective on the achievements and legacy of the prime minister.

US President Bill Clinton shakes the hand of acting prime minister Shimon Peres following his eulogy (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)
US President Bill Clinton shakes the hand of acting prime minister Shimon Peres following his eulogy
What is Yitzhak Rabin best known for? First, for winning the 1967 Six Day War, and second, for being murdered for trying to put Israel on a possible road to peace.
Rabin’s history until 1967 is that of a Sabra poster boy and young fighter and commander who helped shape the state’s 1948 (non-)borders. Less is remembered about his role in arming Israel for peace and for war, as the least diplomatic of men winning some of Israel’s greatest diplomatic victories; and still less about the man himself.
By the time he was 26, Rabin had logged the best part of a decade as a soldier and commander in the Palmah, the Zionist strike force that grew out of the kibbutzim and labor movement and turned the tide of battle on almost every front during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.
Rabin had been chief of operations in the Palmah, No. 2 to Yigal Allon. When the Palmah was incorporated into the newly formed army, the Israel Defense Forces, he commanded the Harel Brigade, which spearheaded the battle for Jewish contiguity with Jerusalem.
When Levi Eshkol became prime minister and defense minister in the summer of 1963, he was to ensure that the IDF was armed with the latest and best arms and aircraft.
Eshkol wanted an experienced and careful chief of staff for the IDF, someone on whom he could rely to make up for the lack of direct contact with the defense establishment outside of budgetary matters. Appointed in 1964, Rabin was not only commander of the military forces but a close partner with Eshkol, filling a role beyond that of previous chiefs of staff.
In 1967, when the Syrians and Israel exchanged mortar and artillery fire over Israel farming the demilitarized zone separating the two countries’ forces, Rabin used a heavy fist. In April 1967, the IAF downed six Russian-supplied MiG-21s, killing six Soviet-trained pilots, some right over Damascus.
On May 18, 1967, Egypt demanded that the UN buffer force on the Israeli border be withdrawn.
Egyptian tanks and soldiers poured into Sinai. Israel’s southern front was on the alert for a possible attack. Reserves were called up.
On May 23, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser 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 made in 1956 that the straits would remain open proved worthless.
In those critical days, Rabin was crushed between his own fear of an Egyptian first strike – a fear shared by his General Staff. Such a strike could create thousands of Israeli casualties, cripple the air force and even try to take out Dimona’s nuclear facilities. The Israeli generals wanted an immediate preemptive strike, as did Rabin at first.
Eshkol had a cabinet that was hesitant to go to war. As the ultimate commander of Israel’s armed forces, Eshkol faced a near revolt by the generals, major powers’ maneuvering, the US waffling.
With iron nerves, Eshkol held out for a clear-cut policy not to go to war without the US – at least tacitly – covering him from Russian direct military intervention against Israel.
During those fateful weeks until Israel launched its lightning first strike on June 5, Rabin hardly ate.
He smoked 70 cigarettes a day and drank 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 pulled himself together to again actively head the General Staff, and swept away four Arab armies (Egypt, Syria, and Iraq which had sent troops in to reinforce Jordan). The Six Day war ended with Rabin as an internationally famous figure.
RABIN NEVER looked very smart in his general’s uniform. No spit and polish, except for the officer’s cap he preferred to the beret. It was different, though, that magnificent afternoon when the Hebrew University bestowed Rabin with an honorary doctorate. He was as usual modest, which was not easy in the company of Leonard Bernstein, who conducted the Israel Philharmonic, and Isaac Stern, who was the violin soloist.
In a historic speech in the amphitheater of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, finally open to Israel after almost 20 years of Jordanian control, Rabin spoke of the blood and pain of war. He began: “I regard myself at this time as the representative of thousands of commanders and tens of thousands of soldiers who brought the State of Israel its victory in the Six Day War....”
His concluding words were: “It all starts and ends with the spirit. Our soldiers prevailed not by their weapons but by their awareness of their supreme mission, by their awareness of the righteousness of their cause, by their deep love for their homeland and by their recognition of the difficult task laid upon them – to ensure the existence of our people in our homeland, to defend, even at the price of their own lives, the right of the Jewish people to live in their own state, free, independent and in peace.
“This army, which I had the privilege of commanding during this war, came from the people and returns to the people – to the people....”
A year later, Eshkol appointed him ambassador to Washington. He was hardly the diplomatic type. Rabin spoke poor English. His deep voice called more attention to the flaws in his speech. He spoke with an unusual cadence, so the words came in slow clusters of phrases.
Why send a man without many social graces, who had no small talk, who chain-smoked and couldn’t care a fig about protocol? Two main reasons and one central purpose.
First, Rabin had a brilliant analytical mind. He was not just the famous victor and thus a Washington celebrity, welcome everywhere, but also a Washington luminary, whose mind was picked by administration figures as well as other ambassadors.
Second, there was genuineness about Rabin. Later in his career, when already prime minister, he captivated president Jimmy Carter, who was taking him on a tour of the White House. Carter asked Rabin if he would like to see the children’s rooms. The deep voice boomed out, “That won’t be necessary.” Carter knew then, he wrote, that this is a man one can trust.
What you see, what you hear, is what you get.
What was the central aim of the Eshkol/Rabin team? In meetings with US president Lyndon B. Johnson, Eshkol had laid the groundwork. After five years as ambassador, Rabin and his tireless and ambitious wife, Leah, returned to Israel. During this period, the US became the major weapons supplier of Israel, including even F-4 Phantom jets.
ON HIS return, Rabin remained “unemployed” for a few months. In his case it was a blessing in disguise.
The Egyptian successes in the first days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War undermined the Israeli government’s credibility. This forced prime minister Golda Meir and defense minister Moshe Dayan to hold elections. Reelected, she appointed Rabin labor minister. Meir was suffering from scathing public criticism – and from terminal cancer. She won the election but had to resign in April 1974. Rabin had not been in uniform for over five years. He was Mr. Clean. Rabin became prime minister.
This was a man who took responsibility for success as well as for failure.
Never did he cast blame on his subordinates.
This won him intense loyalty.
As prime minister and defense minister, Rabin authorized sending Israeli forces to Entebbe, Uganda, to liberate Israeli hostages. When the operation to rescue Hamas-kidnapped Israeli soldier Nachshon Wachsman ended in his death, Rabin took full responsibility.
“I authorized it. I am responsible.”
In March 1977, after three years in office, press reports disclosed that his wife and he had broken foreign currency regulations. At that time, Israelis were not allowed to hold foreign bank accounts. When they returned from Washington, their accounts had not been closed. Even here, he took responsibility and resigned. Menachem Begin then entered office in the historic “overturn” election of 1977 and served until October 1983. The Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir and Labor’s Shimon Peres “rotated” by agreement until 1986, and then Shamir again was prime minister until 1992.
By that election, Rabin had returned as head of Labor. Though his mother had been known in the Labor movement as “Red Rosa” for her strong character, by the time he returned to the Prime Minister’s Office, he was basically centered on one point: How to bring peace to an Israel already expanding rapidly into the West Bank.
Rabin strove to limit settlement budgets, which had ballooned during the Likud’s period in power.
Mass demonstrations sponsored by the Likud very often showed participants waving posters of Rabin in Nazi uniform or wearing a keffiyeh, the cloth symbol of Palestinian nationalism. Violent calls to battle, incitement by rabbis well known for their views to this day, all passed over in deafening silence from the right wing and the Jewish religious leadership.
Undaunted, Rabin recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization, once the PLO officially renounced violence. Ultimately, a series of contacts not initiated by him led to his adoption of the Oslo Accords, laying the basis for a two-state potential peace. This, under pressure by US president Bill Clinton, led by September 1993 to a ceremony on the White House lawn, where the president literally forced Rabin to shake Yasser Arafat’s hand – a man Rabin detested. Clinton called their accord a “brave gamble.”
THIS ALSO led to official peace between Israel and King Hussein’s Jordan in 1994. It seemed to those who wanted peace that messianic dreams of a better world were coming to pass.
Among the Orthodox and right-wing group, whose messianic dream was to settle all of the Land of Israel, it created a frenzy of hatred and vituperation.
The extremist rabbis and settlers began calling Rabin “boged” and “rodef,” a traitor and one who “pursues” Jews end endangers their lives. Excitable youth encouraged by their movement leaders and rabbis came out in the thousands. “Rabin – murderer! – traitor! – pursuer.”
It was a sanction to murder. The clamor of the demonstrators was ear-shattering, but the silence of the Likud and the national-religious leaders was even more deafening.
At a demonstration for peace, a happy and relaxed Rabin joined a crowd of a hundred thousand singing “Hashir leshalom,” “The Song for Peace.” Moments later three shots killed the prime minister.
Rabin was murdered twice. Once by those three shots, once again when the murderer’s pack followed in his steps. Their aim is to dictate Israel policy. Their technique is to fan the flame of Arab hatred by uprooting their trees, burning their crops and finally by burning people, to incite them to kill Jews, and then they shrug, “With people like this you expect peace?” The smell of the assassin’s gunpowder is again in the air.
The writer knew Yitzhak Rabin through his work for prime minister Levi Eshkol, and later in his role as chairman of the United Israel Appeal.