My Word: The Rabin I remember

In all the time I observed him, I never once thought of him as the leader of a social revolution. I don’t think many of us did.

Yitzhak Rabin 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yitzhak Rabin 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Once a year, around the time of the anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, memories of the late prime minister come to the surface. Every Israeli over a certain age remembers what they were doing the precise moment they heard that Rabin had been shot – by a Jewish assassin – on November 4, 1995. But the collective memory of who Rabin was has faded somewhat. In fact, 16 years after that terrible night, I barely recognized the image of Rabin who was resurrected, figuratively at least, for the memorial events.
In previous years, discussions of Rabin’s legacy have focused on his defense doctrine and diplomatic endeavors. We heard of Rabin the chief of staff in the Six Day War; the defense minister who helped the IDF recover after the Yom Kippur War; and the premier who ordered Operation Entebbe.
We were reminded of his work as the prime minister who signed on the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat and the (far more popular) peace treaty with Jordan.
This year, the focus noticeably moved to his contribution to “the social justice revolution.” As a result, I felt like I was looking at Rabin’s legacy after an extensive Photoshop job. The elements were all there, but the image had been adapted to current tastes and trends.
“The resonating demand for social justice [this summer] took us back to the change that you succeeded in bringing about in national priorities during your second term in office,” wrote Dalia Rabin, the late prime minister’s daughter, in an open letter published in Yediot Aharonot a week ago. She cited changes in education, health, infrastructure and investment in what is known as “the periphery.”
I cannot, of course, compete with Dalia Rabin when it comes to either personal memories or the sense of personal loss, but as The Jerusalem Post’s parliamentary reporter, I often saw Rabin close up.
In those days, before the murder of a prime minister, journalists could get very close. I, too, saw that peculiar half-smile of his; the dismissive hand gesture.
I heard his dry wit and occasionally even felt the sting of his sarcasm.
I was present at the modest ceremony in his office early one Friday morning in September 1993 in which he initialed the First Oslo Accord, recognizing the PLO. Like several journalists at the time, I noted that he used an ordinary Pilot pen. This was not a festive event. The show was kept for the White House lawn.
I saw Rabin the family man, who took his wife and grandchildren with him on a tour of Petra in Jordan in 1995. A keen amateur photographer, he stopped to take photos while Leah reminded him to drink water.
I also saw the chemistry between Rabin and Jordan’s King Hussein, as they strolled together on the grounds of the Winter Palace in Akaba, at ease as old friends.
I remember a tour of the newly renovated Mandate- period Illegal Immigrants Camp at Atlit in 1993 in which Rabin recalled his experiences as the deputy commander of a Palmah operation which helped more than 200 immigrants break out one night. The Palmahniks had to get the newcomers up the mountain to the safety of Kibbutz Beit Oren.
He placed a two-year-old on his shoulders and set off as fast as he could.
“Halfway up I thought, ‘I’m really sweating,’” Rabin recounted. “Then I realized the warm, wet trickle down my back was coming from the toddler. But this is just one of the things I had to do to serve my country,” he added, with that trademark halfsmile.
I recall Rabin joking, in an unusually relaxed mood, at the Labor faction meeting, just days before his murder.
I recall, too, the incredible parade of international leaders who passed by his coffin at the Knesset, paying their last respects to both Rabin the man and Rabin the statesman.
I have mentioned these memories before. They haven’t changed.
But I have changed; the country has changed; the world has changed. And now Rabin’s legacy seems to be changing.
In all the time I observed him, I never once thought of him as the leader of a social revolution.
I don’t think many of us did.
Rabin’s nickname was “Mr. Security,” not “Mr. Social Security.”
Before his murder, it was acceptable to note that the discovery that his wife had a dollar bank account in the US, in violation of Israel’s foreign currency regulations, caused Rabin to resign from the Labor Party leadership ahead of the 1977 elections – the elections which brought the Likud under Menachem Begin into power on a definitely more socially aware platform.
Reporters also felt free to comment on the way that Leah mobilized soldiers to look for her brooch which went missing during the peace treaty ceremony with Jordan in October 1994.
That’s not to say that Rabin’s term was devoid of a social policy. The National Health Law was an obvious positive contribution, and I remember discussions on combating domestic violence, among other things.
It is possible that his dramatic transformation from the hard-liner who expelled hundreds of Hamas members to Lebanon into a Nobel Peace Prize-winning dove was partly caused by the desire for a redistribution of the country’s resources, away from defense and into social needs. But while Rabin’s government promoted aid to “development towns,” he was noticeably dismissive about “settlers.” If he hadn’t died the way he did, his Knesset speech comparing Golan Heights residents opposed to withdrawal to “spinning propellers” would probably still be sounded with a bite now and again.
Strange as it might seem now, Rabin’s last term as prime minister was marked by discussions of leaving the Golan. I even remember a tour by the Third Way party of Jewish communities in Gaza, where residents expressed their solidarity with the residents of the Golan Heights who were the ones who seemed to be under the imminent threat of losing their homes.
Some of my memories might be less sharp: The other day I realized with a shock that I couldn’t remember which of my neighbors in 1996 were killed in the first bombing of the No. 18 bus and which in the second bombing, a week later. Perhaps it’s a coping mechanism.
Putting the bombings to the back of my mind helped me carry on with my life. But they were an undeniable accompaniment to the Oslo process. They were as much a part of the background to Rabin’s assassination as the incitement which was blamed for it.
I am saddened by the feeling that moving the emphasis of Rabin’s work to his socio-economic policy is not a result of mere populism but because it is hard to find many remaining enthusiasts for the Oslo process after it literally blew up in their faces.
Rabin was neither a saint nor Satan – he was a leader of Israel, with extraordinary strengths as well as very human failings, cut down in the most sickening manner.
May his true memory live on.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post. [email protected]