Middle Israel: What legacy?

Rabin's assassination was hardly the first time Jews killed Jews.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Slain leaders are naturally glorified. What fair-minded person won't identify with Julius Caesar, the conqueror, reformer and writer who built an empire only to be gang-stabbed by a band of jealous nobles? Who can fail to admire Abraham Lincoln, the man who saved the union and emancipated the blacks, only to be gunned down by a frustrated actor? Or Anwar Sadat, the man who stood up to Soviet imperialism and Arabist chauvinism, only to be mowed down by Islamist zealots? The temptation to celebrate Yitzhak Rabin's role in shaping Israel's destiny was, therefore, understandable, and hence the decade we have just been through, which was characterized by a relentless effort to portray a local version of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi or Che Guevara. Yet the tragic fact is that Rabin was no luminary, and any fair biographer will have to ultimately concede that he has left no original legacy to speak of. By any yardstick, Rabin was a hero and a patriot. A man of few words who lost his beloved and dominant mother as a teenager, he set aside plans to become a hydrologist and went to fight for his people and country. At the tender age of 28 he commanded some 1,000 poorly armed teenagers who broke the siege on Jerusalem; had it not been for them, the Jewish people might not have had their historic capital. Though he lost hundreds of men in the War of Independence - an experience that must have contributed to his trademark gruffness and introversion - Rabin went on to pursue a military career, even while David Ben-Gurion blocked the promotions of Palmah veterans. His appointment as chief of General Staff was therefore delayed until after B-G's resignation, but when it finally came, in 1964, the most consistent presence in Rabin's career surfaced: luck. Rabin's first big stroke of luck was his having been there in 1967. Just as too much has been made of his collapse on May 23 - which actually spoke volumes of his humanity and realism - too much has also been made of his role in obtaining the victory. Yes, the IDF arrived at that war well equipped, trained and motivated, but no scholar would suggest that the outcome would have been markedly different had any of Rabin's predecessors or successors been there in his place. The war's most decisive factors, namely the destruction of enemy air forces Monday morning and the subsequent armored charges in the Sinai, were no Israeli invention - in fact they were modeled on the German Blitzkrieg - and the IDF's preparation for them was done largely by Ezer Weizman, first during his seven years as air force commander, and then as IDF chief of operations. Just as he was lucky to have been in the thick of things when they went right for the IDF, Rabin was also lucky to have been above the fray when they went wrong in '73. Having just returned from his ambassadorship in Washington, Rabin could not be assigned to a field command, the way fellow retired generals Ariel Sharon and Haim Bar-Lev were. Unwittingly, then, Rabin proved both available and clean just when the public demanded a leader who had had nothing to do with that war's many controversies. That's how he became prime minister - a position for which he proved tragically unequipped. IN HIS first premiership Rabin prudently signed disengagement agreements with Syria and Egypt, while braving a global energy crisis and somehow keeping inflation in the 20-25% range. Otherwise, he failed to even detect, let alone combat, the festering corruption which ultimately led to Labor's demise. At the same time, Rabin made two colossal mistakes that all his four predecessors would never have made. First, he surrendered to religious chauvinism's demand to seed settlements in Samaria; then he provoked modern Orthodoxy by ousting the National Religious Party from his coalition. The combined result of these moves - which effectively emboldened the zealots and weakened the moderates - was the Labor movement's loss, until today, of its historic alliance with religious Zionism. Incredibly, when he returned to power 15 years later, an unreconstructed Rabin repeated that same mistake, ignoring Shimon Peres's advice to include the NRP in his coalition. Not only did Rabin ignore that advice, he appointed Shulamit Aloni minister of education, evidently failing to understand what that sensitive job demanded, and what Aloni embodied for most of the 95% of the electorate who did not vote for her. In fact, Rabin generally failed to communicate with the people. That's how he repeatedly failed to empathize with West Bank terror victims, that's how he could label even the Golan settlers who had voted for him "propellers," and that's how he could rest on political pillars as solid as Alex Goldfarb, an obscure electrician, and Gonen Segev, who is now doing time as a convicted drug smuggler. WHEN SUGGESTING Rabin actually left behind a legacy, people are suggesting he had deep thoughts and far-sighted visions concerning our existence here. Those who witnessed his political career know this is unfounded. The fact is Rabin was a poorly read, shy, tactless and ineloquent technocrat for whom long-term vision, not to mention cultural trends and social undercurrents, were irrelevant enigmas. As late as 1987, a mere three years before Nelson Mandela's release, Rabin disparagingly dismissed then-Foreign Ministry director-general Yossi Beilin's insistence that the apartheid regime was well on its way to history's dustbin, and that Jerusalem had better shrink its ties with Pretoria. The same thing happened with the Oslo Accord, a deal that was conceived by others, who initially did not even inform Rabin about their freelance diplomacy. For his part, while Rabin had believed early on in the merit of territorial compromise, he arrived in Oslo less as a peace enthusiast, and more as a Zionist skeptic. As he himself reportedly conceded in closed forums, his conclusion from the Palestinian uprising of the late 1980s was that Israeli society could not sustain a long-term military struggle. Subsequent events proved that assumption unfounded. Certainly, Rabin did leave some positive, and lasting, imprint on our history. As defense minister in 1985 he made the only significant cut ever made here in the defense budget, thus making a major contribution to the defeat of hyperinflation. Soon after that he vetoed the Lavi fighter plane project, a scheme that was beyond Israel's means and needs. And as prime minister the following decade he upgraded Israel's antiquated road system, thus reminding Israelis that there is more to government than just defense and foreign affairs. Still, these do not add up to a "legacy." Rabin was a hero who paid a horrible price for running ahead of the camp carrying a torch whose light and warmth should be cherished by all of us. However, that torch's flame, and the road Rabin was taking with it, were lit and paved by others, while his original contribution to the state's direction was either technical, as with building highways, or self-destructive, as with his abandonment of religious Zionism. Rabin was therefore neither the Davidic nation builder nor the Solomonic visionary some have made of him. Rather, he was a reincarnation of King Saul, the modest man who ruled in spite of himself after the people demanded a leader who would protect them from the Philistines; the warrior who initially excelled on the battlefield, before prematurely concluding that Israel's wars could be halted, and ultimately losing his life in that stubbornly persisting war. The sages said Saul's rule could not last because he was too modest, and German historian Leopold Ranke said he was history's first tragic figure. Since then, history in general, and ours in particular, has had many more tragic figures. Rabin will always be counted prominently among them.