Joe Beare

The Rabin Delusion

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (left) and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat (right) shake hands at the White House in front of President Bill Clinton in September 1993. The new play OSLO is a dramatization of events that led to a historic agreement
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (left) and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat (right) shake hands at the White House in front of President Bill Clinton in September 1993. (via X)

If there was one person who truly personified the spirit and story of Israel, it was Yitzhak Rabin. He fought for Israel’s independence in 1948 and the army he prepared for war achieved a stunning victory in 1967. Less than 30 years later, Rabin parted with these same territories under the assumption that Israel ought to separate from the Palestinians or else jeopardise Israel’s standing in the international community, as well as its status as a Jewish democracy. A pragmatist to his core, he did not harbour an ideological attachment to the West Bank and understood that territorial compromise with the Palestinians would serve Israel’s long-term security needs, which was always his guiding light. 

Imperfect as he was, Rabin held the elusive quality that sustained Israel during its earliest decades. Unlike today’s leaders, he was not obsessed with his political (and legal) future and did not shy away from difficult decisions when Israel’s strategic needs demanded them. Guided by a sense of duty, Rabin recognised the PLO and ceded portions of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to the autonomous Palestinian Authority (PA).  So too, he did so with the broad-based endorsement of Israel’s citizens. Thomas Friedman put it most succinctly when he described Rabin as the “only leader who embodied a vision of reconciliation and the hard-headed toughness to persuade a majority of Israelis to follow him.” 

Indeed, the tragic circumstances of Rabin’s death have certainly provided the materials for the creation of a myth, with some even claiming that he could have secured a final-status agreement with the PLO—and the broader Arab world—had he lived. Amongst others, President Bill Clinton has been quite adamant on what he perceives as the political implications of Rabin’s murder: “Had he not lost his life on that terrible November night, within three years we would have had a comprehensive agreement for peace in the Middle-East.” Historians are less certain. 

To be sure, Rabin was perhaps the only leader who held both the political will and capital necessary to make historic compromises. Though he never publicly supported Palestinian statehood, he knew that Israel had to reach a modus-operandi with the Palestinians. He would not let Israel slide into a binational reality—one state for two peoples, the antithesis of a Jewish democracy. The inevitable corollary of this move was the entrenchment of the PLO in the disputed territories—a source of great emotional pain for Rabin—and the deepening of the divide between the Labor leadership and the virulent settler movement. Placards of Rabin dressed in a keffiyeh, and even Nazi garb, were common-place and messianic rabbis throughout the country chastised the prime minister as a heretic. Like any great statesman, Rabin was willing to assume this burden of peace.

When Yigal Amir pulled the trigger on that fateful night in early November 1995, he believed that he was acting under divine instruction to kill a “moser” (namely, someone who hands over Jewish property to a Gentile authority and is therefore deserving of death). In reality, he denied his country one of the only leaders who could make difficult, but necessary, territorial concessions with the acquiescence of the security-minded Israeli public. In the aftermath of the assassination, Rabin’s successor Shimon Peres failed to leverage the national trauma to his political advantage. Instead of calling for an early election, he kept the original date for general elections in May 1996 and ran on the policy decisions he made in the intervening months. This decision cost Peres and the Labor party. The lack of progress on the Syrian front and a series of deadly Palestinian suicide bombings in February and March of 1996 paved the way for the election of the Likud and Binyamin Netanyahu, whose commitment to the Oslo paradigm was tenuous at best. It is in the context of this political turnaround that many peaceniks rue Rabin’s death as the denouement of the peace process.

But did the two bullets that struck Rabin in downtown Tel Aviv truly deny Israel a comprehensive peace with the Arab world? In the final analysis, no. The idealist who believes that peace is possible with the Palestinians would argue in the affirmative, but the reality is much more sobering. Indeed, for Israel to make peace it needed (and will need) a genuine negotiating partner on the other side of the aisle—that is, a Palestinian leader who accepts Israel’s existence on at least part of Eretz-Yisrael. Yasser Arafat was no such leader. 

If Rabin was apprehensive to the idea of an independent PLO state on Israel’s doorstep, Arafat did almost nothing to alter his mindset. As Israel conceded areas of the West Bank, the PLO Chairman continued to promote hostility toward Israel. Only a week after the signing of the Oslo II Accord, Arafat, unaware that he was being recorded, told an audience in a Johannesburg mosque that the agreements the PLO had just signed were tantamount to the pact signed by the prophet Mohammad with a Jewish tribe in Hijaz in 628 AD: a tactical move that the Muslims reneged on a few years later. Worse still, Arafat failed to confront the Hamas movement and quash violence emanating from the territories. In October 1994, twenty-two Israelis were killed by a suicide attacker on a bus in central Tel Aviv; in January 1995, twenty-one Israeli soldiers were killed when two bombs were detonated at a bus station; and in July of the same year, five Israelis were killed in another suicide attack on a bus in Ramat Gan. Between 1993 and 1996, close to three-hundred Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks. The uptick in violence made it difficult for Rabin to deal with the PLO Chairman — and impossible for him to even consider entrusting Arafat with a state in such close proximity to Israel. It also laid the foundation for the resurgence of the Israeli right, the assassination of Rabin himself, and the election of Netanyahu, who staked his claim on reversing the Oslo process and curbing terrorism from areas under the PA’s jurisdiction. 

Arafat was distinct from Rabin insofar as he was unwilling to be anything other than a symbol of unity amongst nationalists in his own camp. For purely strategic reasons, he recognised Israel through the Oslo I Accord and pledged to end Palestinian violence. After all, the Soviet Union’s collapse at around the same time had created a new international reality; Israel’s enemies—namely, Syria and the PLO—were deprived of their largest benefactor and therefore lost their ability to confront Israel militarily. To make matters worse, Arafat had made the strategic blunder of siding with Iraq and Saddam Hussein, the losing side in the 1991 Gulf War. This angered aid-providing Arab states and resulted in a dramatic decrease in funding to the PLO as it faced increasing challenges from within the Palestinian national movement. As Hamas exploited the new power vacuum in the occupied territories, Arafat understood that he needed to secure something tangible for the Palestinians and therefore “accepted” Israel as a means of political and personal survival. 

Yet at the same time, Arafat was never willing to completely give up the military option or to make the requisite compromises for peace with Israel. To do so would require that he confront rejectionists in the Palestinian community and possibly suffer the same fate as former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by an Islamist in 1981 after signing a peace treaty with Israel. American negotiator Dennis Ross put it best when he wrote that peace was not an option for Arafat because “to end the conflict was to end himself.” Fearful of bearing the brunt of Palestinian maximalists (who still form the basis of the Palestinian body-politic), Arafat failed to crack down on terrorist groups such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Even more importantly, he refused a two-state solution once offered it after Rabin’s death.  

Netanyahu may not have supported Palestinian statehood, but his successor Ehud Barak decidedly did. The 2000-2001 Clinton parameters, which have been described as “remarkable” in their generosity by the Saudi Ambassador Bandar Bin Sultan, included a Palestinian state on 95% of the occupied territories, a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, and $30 billion in compensation for Palestinian refugees displaced during a war started by Israel’s Arab neighbours. “I hope you remember sir,” Bandar sternly warned Arafat in January 2001, “what I told you. If we lose this opportunity, it is not going to be a tragedy, it is going to be a crime.” Despite his promises that he would take the deal if provided cover by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Arafat rejected Clinton’s proposal even as his Israeli interlocutors were satisfying almost every reasonable Palestinian condition for peace. In so doing he committed a mistake of historically unforgivable proportions—that is, a “crime” against the Palestinians and the entire region. No better offer from Israel was possible short of national suicide, but Arafat still rejected it. He did not even offer a counterproposal and instead ordered preparation for renewed terrorism, which eventually escalated into a second and even deadlier intifada. In his memoirs, President Clinton confirms that Arafat’s intransigence and failure to crack-down on Hamas doomed Oslo.

There is no logical reason to believe that Rabin would have offered Arafat a better deal than the Clinton Parameters — and there is no logical reason to believe that Arafat would have been more amenable to such a deal had his interlocutor been Rabin as opposed to Barak. However extraordinary in his vision and capacity to bear domestic pressure, no leader could secure a final-status agreement with the PLO because Arafat had never actually reconciled himself or his public with the two-state solution.

Peace required that Arafat stand in front of his own people, particularly the refugees of 1948, and tell them the hard truth: that Israel’s existence was a fait-accompli and that they were not going to return to their homes in Haifa, Yafo and Ashkelon (just as hundreds of thousands of Jewish-Israelis would not be returning to the countries they were displaced from in the 1940s and 50s). He was not willing to do so. In retrospect, his decision to equivocate—and to not accept a Palestinian state that was limited in territory—was a massive miscalculation, a historic blunder which has brought further misery to the region and tragically set the tone for Palestinian leadership. The popularity of Hamas has grown enormously over the past twenty years and ineffectual Fatah leaders in the West Bank regularly deny the Jewish connection to any part of our ancestral homeland. Mahmoud Abbas—the current president of the PA—has never formally recognised Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and he failed to respond to Prime Minister Olmert’s offer of Palestinian statehood in 2008. 

An end to the cycle of violence can only be achieved through Israeli and Arab leaders who both understand the value of compromise and the need to face down inevitable domestic opposition. Rabin fit this mould of heroic leadership, but Arafat did not. Thirty years on from his assassination, the political implications of Rabin’s murder—and his broader legacy—remain contentious. On one hand, he was arguably Israel’s greatest ever prime minister. Rabin satisfied something deep in the Jewish soul: the yearning for peace. Speaking on the White House lawn in September 1993, shortly after the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles, Rabin declared: “Enough of blood and tears! Enough!” After two-thousand years in exile, and nearly a century of conflict with Arab neighbours, he was willing to change his positions and take calculated risks for the sake of future generations. He also embodied a liberal brand of Zionism that is more palatable to Jews in the diaspora who firmly uphold the compatibility of Israel’s existence and Palestinian rights. On the other hand, Rabin was simply not someone who could make peace with a duplicitous bandit such as Arafat. In their not entirely unreasonable attempt to canonise the deceased prime minister, too many commentators have forgotten the confusion of the time and the debilitating red-lines of Israel’s enemies. 

These were the same red-lines that precluded peace and a two-state solution in 1937, 1948, 2000 and 2008. Indeed, the peace process failed not because Israel lost one of its greatest warriors for peace, but because the Palestinian national movement has never truly given up on its aspiration for a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea.” Had Amir not shot two bullets into the prime minister’s back, there was nothing that Rabin could have conceivably offered or done to satisfy this bottom-line. His security credentials and likeable, albeit gruff, personality would not have made a difference. 

About the Author
Joe Beare is an alumnus of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He served as the President of Emory's Meor club and worked with the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel on a range of Israel-related papers, articles and educational initiatives. Along with his commitment to Israel advocacy and scholarship, Beare captained Emory's Varsity Soccer Team and won a gold medal at the European Maccabi Games in 2019.
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