As I tearfully hugged Leah Rabin at the funeral of her husband Yitzhak murdered by an assassin’s bullet, she whispered in my ear “To us, he was a God.” Rabin would not have recognized himself in that description. Unlike all too many heads of state of Middle East nations, he was personally modest without the ego and arrogance attached to power.
Everyone who knew him had endearing examples of this. He much enjoyed playing tennis but continued to use an old fashioned wooden racket until I finally brought him one of the new technologically advanced large faced rackets that he consistently used from then on. And even as Prime Minister, he always reminded Amos Eiran, his former chief of staff and tennis partner, to reserve the court for the next weekend or “we won’t have a court.” Once when I showed up at his office in a blazer, tie and pocket kerchief he noted that he “wasn’t dressed for our meeting.” “When I’m the Prime Minister and you’re visiting me,” I told him, “you can get dressed up properly.”
Fortuitously, I had a date to meet him on the day that the Oslo deal was announced in August 1993. I expected him to cancel our meeting in view of the momentous announcement but instead found him sitting alone in his office willing to share with me his fears about how well the deal was negotiated. But despite his many concerns about the deal, he was willing to move forward with it as part of his overall strategy for Israel’s position in the region. Long before most others, Rabin understood the threat from Iran seeking hegemony over the Middle East. As he explained to me as early as 1993, “If we have nuclear weapons and Iran has nuclear weapons, which one of us will blink? We, who care about life or the mullahs who do not care about life?”
To be secure in the region and prepared to defend against the threat from Iran, he believed that Israel had to have a peaceful relationship with the entities on its borders – Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians. Israel already had a peace agreement with Egypt forged in Camp David by Begin and Sadat. In October 1994, he made a treaty with Jordan, which was built on an ongoing relationship with Jordan’s King Hussein, who had trusted Rabin enough to meet him in secret even while their nations were officially still at war. An essential part of his strategy was also to resolve Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. Those of us who were present at the signing ceremony of the “Declaration of Principles” at the White House saw how reluctant Rabin was to shake Arafat’s hand. Yet, we could not hear his words without being moved: “Enough of blood and tears. Enough.”
From his days as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Rabin was convinced of the importance of Israel’s relationship with America and the role of the American Jewish community as an integral element in that relationship. I was with him one evening when he berated a member of his government for not recognizing that American financial aid to Israel was linked to financial support from American Jews. To implement his strategy of making peace with the Palestinians, he wanted the support of American Jewish organizations, but he was not comfortable relying on the existing American Jewish organizations, particularly AIPAC. During a meeting in his office together with leaders of the Labor Party, we discussed establishing a new American Jewish organization to generate American support and with his backing, some American Jewish leaders and I founded the Israel Policy Forum (IPF) of which I later became Chair. On his first official visit to the U.S. Rabin met with IPF before the Conference of Presidents or AIPAC to signify its high value in his eyes.
In this same connection, Rabin believed that winning the allegiance of the younger generation of American Jews was important to Israel’s future. In a conversation with him in June 1993, a few days before we both were to be awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Bar Ilan University, I presented my view that Israel, at peace with its neighbors and reflecting the vast capabilities of its citizens, could be a beacon for young American Jews looking for a connection with their people. At the open-air award ceremony, with the voices of protestors denouncing him sounding in the background, he went to the podium to accept the awards on behalf of all of us recipients. As he passed me he punched me in the shoulder and said: “Bob. I’m making your speech.” What I didn’t realize then was the ominous quality of the protests; how the extremist religious nationalists were being inflamed by their religious authorities to consider Rabin a criminal and that the political leaders on the right not only made no effort to calm things down but actually attacked Rabin’s peace making efforts. Rabin was assassinated on November 4, 1995, at the end of a rally to support the Oslo Accords by Yigal Amir, a radical Orthodox Jew who had been a law student at Bar Ilan University and who opposed Oslo.
Twenty years after the assassination of Rabin, as Israel and the Palestinians are still mired in the same conflict, hurling the same accusations against each other, once again suffering violence, I keep re-thinking my experiences with him, wondering whether the situation would have been different had Rabin not been murdered that night. I can’t presume to predict how the course of history would have developed but I am convinced that his assassination did change the future dramatically. Rabin’s strategic overview called for peace with the Palestinians to tie in with the Egyptian and Jordanian peace already in place. At the same time, his years in the Israel military, culminating in his position of Chief of the General Staff, earned Rabin the trust of the Israeli public to protect Israel’s security so they would likely follow his leadership. And I think that his innate honesty and sincerity would have influenced the response from any Palestinian leader, as well. I believe that combination of factors would find Israel in a far different – and better – place than it is today.
Robert K. Lifton has served as President of the American Jewish Congress; Co-Chair of the Middle East Project of the Council On Foreign Relations and Chair and presently a Board member of the Israel Policy Forum. He is the author of “An Entrepreneurs’ Journey: Stories From A Life In Business And Personal Diplomacy.”