Yitzhak Rabin: Arming Israel for peace and war

As a political scientist, I ask which is preferable: a trustworthy straight-talker, or a well-spoken politician and speechifier.

A MAN holds up a flag during a peace rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MAN holds up a flag during a peace rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Yitzhak Rabin was a gruff and dour man, without a saving social grace. A poor speaker. Heavy, ungrammatical English. Why on earth would Levi Eshkol, then prime minister, send such an undiplomatic person to be a diplomat? Ambassador, no less – and, of all places – to the most important post, Washington? There is always more than one reason. I’ll mention the others below, but to me there was one overriding reason.
In Eshkol’s talks with US president Lyndon B. Johnson, Eshkol probably made the greatest contribution to Israel’s security in its history. He created both the personal chemistry and the strategic case for the US to supply arms openly, not through third party subterfuges, but in full daylight. The arms themselves proved to be vital for Israel’s survival. Just as potent was the message to the Arab enemy states and their Soviet patron: Israel is a strategic asset for the United States.
In the savage Left-Right contests of the mud-slinging of today, it seems forgotten by all that the Labor movement was mildly left on social issues and determinedly security- first on defense issues. Ben-Gurion had stated and acted on the principle that national issues take priority over sectoral matters. That was certainly true of defense and defense industries as well as the nuclear option...
Israel’s defense doctrine was and is clear. Qualitative superiority of arms over potential enemies; always to carry potential conflicts onto enemy territory; and never to enter upon hostilities without the open or tacit agreement of a major power. Open arms supply from the US was a corner stone of these policies, and it was the so-called Left of the time which built that policy and effectuated it. So please, let’s stop using the Left-Right slander and stick to facts.
Rabin was sent to the US in 1968 to capitalize on his fame as the architect of Israel’s military victory in 1967.
A handsome war hero, a man who had fought in every war from his adolescence onward carried great prestige, even glamour, and gravitas to his contacts with the US Department of Defense, in the councils of key committees in Congress, as well as greasing an open door to the White House.
Rabin – to change metaphors – carried the ball Eshkol had handed him and ran with it, and with great success.
The gift of the gab and slick TV appearances were then much less important than they are today.
What were the other reasons for his dispatch to Washington? Moshe Dayan, who had displaced Eshkol as minister of defense a few days before the Six Day War, was an opportunist, and mistrusted by all the seniors in Labor, disliked by those who had social principles, and overshadowed the leadership with his charm, charisma and iconic black eye-patch. Eshkol referred to him as Abu Jilda, a fabled Arab highwayman. Young Rabin (as he was in 1968) was 47 years old, trustworthy, a man with presence which commanded respect in any room he entered, with a charisma of his own. Obviously the older generation and some of the former military/defense people who were not all happy with Dayan, wanted to groom Rabin for greater things.
After five years in America, Rabin and his tireless and ambitious wife, Leah, returned to Israel. During this time of his service, the US became the major weapon supplier of Israel; ambassador Rabin had even managed to get the embargo lifted on the supply of F-4 Phantom jets to Israel.
Crowned with the diadem of the Six Day War, and with the diamond of an increasing US-Israel military and diplomatic closeness, his charisma polished with diplomatic experience, Rabin remained “unemployed” for a few months. In his case it was a blessing in disguise.
The fiasco of the first days of the Yom Kippur War was the beginning of the fall of Labor from power. Golda Meir, as prime minister, and Dayan, as minister of defense, were discredited. Losses had been terribly high. Israel’s deterrent power, so visible after the Six Day War, plummeted, though ultimately, Egypt was ignominiously defeated, its Third Army was cut off on the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal. Without immense Soviet and US pressure on Israel, that entire army could have been totally destroyed or captured.
Rabin had not been in uniform for over five years. He was not a member of Knesset or in the cabinet. He thus ended up Mr. Clean. He had not been involved in the military setback of 1973, one so serious that Dayan was on the verge of suicide and of entertaining the use of ultimate weapons. Golda Meir, faithful to the Israeli precedent of “never resign,” ran again as head of the dejected Labor Party. Reelected, she appointed Rabin minister of labor. Golda was suffering from cancer and from public criticism. She won the election of December 1973, but resigned in April 1974. Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister, He had made diplomatic blunders in his service in the US, openly supporting Richard Nixon’s reelection. But he was a man without subterfuges. What you see is what you got.
As a political scientist, I ask which is preferable: a trustworthy straight-talker, or a well-spoken politician and speechifier. The battle for party leadership was fought more than once between Rabin and Shimon Peres. Peres were obviously the man you and I would prefer to spend an evening with. Yet Rabin was always chosen over Peres.
Is there a lesson in that for today? (And, I must ask myself, is that a permissible question on the eve of Kippur? You tell me, dear reader.)
Avraham Avi-hai, journalist and political scientist, has moved from decades of public service to academia and back to writing. His novel A Tale of Two Avrahams, is published by Gefen. [email protected]