Pragmatic visionary

Yitzhak Rabin knew how idealism was able to change hard reality.

rabin special 298 (photo credit: )
rabin special 298
(photo credit: )
In 1968 Yitzhak Rabin came to Washington as Israel's ambassador to the United States, after serving as chief of General Staff of the IDF for four years. These included the whirlwind victory of the Six Day War, climaxed by the liberation of Jerusalem, where he was born. He could have chosen to capitalize on his renown; instead he embarked on a five-year mission to achieve a dramatic transformation of Israel's international status and to lay the foundations for an American-Israeli defense and political strategy that has been the cornerstone of Israel's successful regional and global policies for more than 30 years. He often remarked to me, when I served under his inspiring leadership in Washington, that he could never forget how Israel had been forced to withdraw from the Sinai Desert in 1956 despite winning the military battle; joint Soviet-American pressure had forced David Ben-Gurion to submit to a devastating ultimatum and cede the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip. Yitzhak, the officer commanding the Northern Command, had been kept in the dark until the Sinai Campaign was launched, and was later astounded to discover how little had been done to secure political support for the operation. Young visionary individuals surrounding Ben-Gurion had assured him of victory and of British and French support in the field; yet little attention was given to the political aftermath. The United States had been deliberately kept in the dark, with disastrous consequences. FROM DAY one in the American capital, Yitzhak absorbed himself in a sustained effort to build the fundamentals of a shared American-Israeli understanding of international and regional realities. He strove to educate himself and his superiors. Yitzhak was an avid student of the complex American political scene and his insights - as well as those of his staff over his five-year tenure - became the textbook for an entire generation of Israeli strategists and intelligence officers. He quickly learned that in order to succeed he would have to invest time and effort in creating credible relationships with the Administration at its highest levels, durable and invaluable friendships on the Hill, and a wide base of dialogue with the all-powerful media. Within a year of his arrival the embassy became one of the most prestigious and influential foreign representations in Washington. Under the leadership of prime minister Golda Meir, Yitzhak strove to consolidate a tripartite system of cooperation: a firm defense understanding at every possible level; a newly created concept of American economic support for Israel; and an ongoing dialogue designed to achieve mutual recognition of the strategic needs of both the US and Israel. Yitzhak also recognized the important role played by the the American Jewish community. He wanted that relationship continued and strengthened. But he concomitantly endeavored to construct a state-to-state relationship founded on common interests and nurtured by mutual strategic investment in its success. Yitzhak labored day and night in pursuit of his target; whether at his desk or at a diplomatic luncheon table. At least once a week he met with his State Department counterpart, Joseph Sisco, and often with our legendary friend Jim Angleton, the CIA counter-intelligence chief and the keeper of the "Israeli file." His tennis matches with senators and major political figures were a Washington fixture and he never let a week go by without tending to the fourth estate. And, of course, there were his constant, often daily chats with Henry Kissinger and others at the White House, that gave him the clout essential to assure desired results. YITZHAK WAS a stickler for intelligence and its details. He was also a tough, highly respected negotiator; he never resorted to humor or to a momentary quip as a substitute - or even as a supplement - to hard-nosed deliberations. Yitzhak attached great importance to both the substance and mechanics of reaching a specific goal. There were times when he was mistaken for a dour, boring conversation partner because he never deviated from his set purpose. He demonstrated that there was no alternative to maintaining a powerful embassy in Washington, led by a high-level ambassador who enjoyed the power and status of a major confidant of the prime minister. Washington was the main battlefield of international relations, and it was there he believed that a powerful and prestigious head of mission should be installed. He followed this pattern when he became prime minister, to Israel's great benefit. WHEN RABIN left Washington, Israel was thinking and speaking in different terms from those used previously; Israel had come of age diplomatically and had begun to perform as a serious player, albeit a junior one, on the international stage. Had this transformation not taken place, I hesitate to think how we could have weathered the Yom Kippur War when the American connection was central in assuring our most painful and costly victory. The 1973 Yom Kippur War strengthened a key leadership trait of his; alongside his resolve and confidence Yitzhak was imbued with a deep sense of fear for the nation, leading him to caution and realism at a time when others were straining at the leash. I well remember the doubt-gnawing hours preceding his final approval of the Entebbe rescue operation: When all around were impatient to take off, he awaited a final piece of intelligence that he considered essential and without which approval would be withheld. And even then, although the US was not apprised of the intention to carry out such an operation, he was constantly aware of the vital necessity of making sure that Washington heard about it from him, and not from anybody else. YITZHAK HAD many friends and admirers; he never mixed personal affections with political alliances. I believe that if he looked down from heaven soon after his cruel and untimely departure, he must have dismissed with his all-too-familiar gesture of the hand those who professed retroactive brotherhood and kinship after his death. Whenever he gazed up to heaven and thought and spoke of his visions and hopes, his feet were always squarely planted on the ground. He knew how to overcome fear and doubt which were his constant companions. His progress from anxiety and uncertainty at the outset to courage and determination at decision-making time was both fascinating and awe-inspiring. This is a part of his legacy that, so I hope, must not be forgotten. The writer served in the Washington embassy during the last three years of Rabin's ambassadorship and as deputy head of the Mossad during his second premiership. He is currently head of the center for strategic and policy studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His book Man in the Shadows: The Middle East Crisis from a man who led the Mossad is due to appear in March 2006.