Looking back to this day Seventeen years ago offers a depressingly familiar picture. It was a time where Israel faced one of the worst leadership crises in decades. Security was irregular, the economy untrustworthy, and the Jewish state’s national-identity was worryingly undefined. No one knew what to do with the peace process. Hamas was terrorizing the civilian population and Hezbollah, armed-to-the-teeth, was itching to rain havoc down on Israel’s Northern communities. Iran was looming large in the East and casting a long and foreboding shadow, threatening to destabilize the entire region. The Knesset was a deeply divided place, brimming with hostility and overflowing with mediocre, brash or retiring politicians offering little in terms of hope to a desperate and disillusioned electorate. There was Shimon Peres, pledging that he would not challenge Bibi Netanyahu for the Premiership, and then of course there was Bibi himself, hell-bent on saving Israel from the perils at hand while vowing to stay clear of any room, table, or lawn hosting terrorists committed to Israel’s destruction.
Back then a shocked and depressed Israel did not see many choices before it going forward. People were trying to sort through the confusion in the aftermath of their Prime Minister’s assassination. But now nearly two decades later, it is unacceptable that Israel is still trying to figure out how to carry on the legacy which Yitzhak Rabin abruptly left behind.
Just as recent as this week, both Ruby Rivlin and Saeb Erekat tried to remind us all of just how dead Oslo – the peace Rabin gave his life for – was. While it could be tempting to give credence to their words and dismiss outright old relics of the past like such as zoning, phased withdrawals and confidence building measures, the fact is they are wrong, cynical, or talking out of political interest. The peace process lives on, albeit with the help of life-support. While Rabin did not live to see the totality of his diplomacy, he did midwife a historic change in how Israel and the Arab world prepare for each other. In shaking Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn, Rabin made the world a witness that Arafat would not drag his war out for 1000 years. Despite the roaring you still hear on the Arab street to the contrary, those with the power to bring about peace are not seeking to reverse 1948 by establishing a Palestine from the Jordan to the sea. They’ve accepted, however privately it sometimes seems, that peace with Israel is the only viable option. Rabin understood that time changes perspectives and priorities, and acted to make peace with the moderate, secular PLO in order to deal with the more pressing matters which were developing and needed the attention of the Prime Minister.
Rabin believed that Iran was the greatest threat to the state of Israel, not the irredentist Palestinians. He agreed to advance Oslo in part because dealing with the more resolvable issues such as Syria (in the next term) and the occupation, would ultimately afford him more time to focus on the threat from Tehran. Marginalizing Hamas, cutting off the flow of arms to Hezbollah, and reversing Iranian gains in the region were as much a part of Rabin’s strategy as it is of Bibi’s today.
However the parity between Rabin’s Israel and the one we see today is alarming. Ten years of war, terrorism and stagnation, has provided little enthusiasm to engage with the Palestinians at a time when the status-quo is again unsustainable. But Rabin showed creativity and courage and made his gains in a changing, post Cold-war world, a place where new opportunities were once denied to him. In a world coming together through new alliances, Oslo would allow for new regional forums for Israel to participate in. Security arrangements between neighbors, and joint economic ventures all of a sudden became possible. One could argue that the same opportunities are once again presenting themselves as the Arab Spring takes old countries in new directions. To Bibi’s credit, not all of these changing regimes are safe for Israel and he is smart to stay away from them. Egypt, Libya and Syria seem light years away from real working relationships with Israel, but Jordan, Morocco, and some of the Gulf countries are ready and waiting for the day Israel finalizes the details of its Palestinian divorce so they can pretty themselves up and court the Jewish state. But because the threat from Iran is so serious, there is not enough time left to complete the peace process before the Iranians complete their dash to the bomb. Israel needs to shed some of the burden it is carrying, and therefore a breakthrough, however small, needs to happen in order to line up the international community to Israel’s camp, much like Rabin did.
A natural at making friends is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the gruff and introverted Rabin, but those who worked with him could not help but admire him and work toward a common purpose. He kept relationships healthy, robust, and genuine. Despite his impersonal and hard-headed reputation, he made partners out of very unlikely personalities; Kissinger, Arafat, Shamir, Assad the elder, and most famously Peres. It was his warm relationship with King Hussein of Jordan which allowed him to negotiate the peace which remains a pillar of Israeli national security. It is in that peace that the most important lesson in Middle Eastern diplomacy could be found. He and the king were putting the finishing touches on the final border running through the Jordan valley, when some minor issue seemed to complicate matters. The two old friends cleared the room of aids and negotiators, spread a map on the floor, and went down on their hands and knees to trace the border with a pencil. There is perhaps no better illustration of how friendship can provide the elusive trust and flexibility needed when making peace.
We are still along way off from where Rabin wanted to take us and there is much work to be done, work which needs to be done soon. It is the Husseins, the Clintons, the moderates and the hopeful, who look out on the many challenges still facing the state of Israel, and can’t help but wonder about what might have been. All they could do now is hope to see a glimmer of the former Prime Minister emerge out of the next election, or else wish a very somber and final Shalom, chaver.