With the slew of events and commentary this week marking that terrible, nation-sobering moment 20 years ago, here are my suggested three lessons to take from Yitzhak Rabin as a leader.
1. Pursue peace
Yitzhak Rabin was elected on a wave of optimism in 1992. His inaugural speech in the Knesset looked to capture the zeitgeist. It was a time of hope in the world, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its dismal totalitarian ideology; communism had been replaced by democracy across the Eastern bloc. Israel’s new Prime Minister called on the country to join this wave of peace and freedom:
We must overcome the sense of isolation that has held us in its thrall for almost half a century. We must join the international movement toward peace, reconciliation and cooperation that is spreading over the entire globe these days – lest we be the last to remain, all alone, in the station.
The new Government has accordingly made it a central goal to promote the making of peace and take vigorous steps that will lead to the end of the Arab Israeli conflict. We shall do so based on the recognition by the Arab countries, and the Palestinians, that Israel is a sovereign state with a right to live in peace and security.
Although the Oslo process began with secret back-channel talks neither initiated nor planned by Rabin, he gave Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin the green light to pursue this covert option, and he – with reservations – signed the Accords with the PLO believing this to be a chance for peace.
The lesson for today is that Israel must always be open to make peace. It may be that our putative partner is neither able nor willing to sign a serious, end-of-claims peace agreement. But it should never be the case that Israel has not done all it can for peace. Our policies should reflect this imperative. With or without peace negotiations, we should be preparing for the day when peace can be reached. There should be a complete freeze on settlement building in areas of the West Bank that will obviously be part of a future Palestinian state. The Knesset should pass a bill encouraging settlers to return to Israel proper, providing adequate compensation and assistance in rehousing.
Israel should be investing in the Israeli Arab sector, working to address the gaps in equality – the Rabin/Peres government of 1992-96 focused attention and resources here in a way no Israeli government has done before or since.
2. Peace cannot come without security
Despite accusations from the Right – and whatever the flaws of the Oslo Accords – Rabin pursued peace with the Palestinians cautiously and without illusions. We can only speculate what his eventual red lines would have been in final status talks, but it is worth noting that his speech introducing the second part of the Oslo framework to the Knesset in 1995 – a month before his death – explicitly referred to an eventual Palestinian “entity which will be less than a state”, with Israel retaining control of East Jerusalem, the settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley. In other words, at no point did Rabin endorse an independent Palestinian state with an Israeli withdrawal to the armistice line of 1949 – the Green Line.
That’s not to say that we are definitively stuck with the formulation from a Prime Minister’s speech 20 years ago (though it is strikingly similar to Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed demilitarized Palestinian state, with an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley) but it points to Rabin’s attachment to the prevailing security orthodoxy and his skepticism that a Palestinian state would be a trustworthy, peaceful neighbor.
A number of articles of the “what if?” variety have appeared in recent days, suggesting that had Rabin lived, he would have signed a final peace deal with Yasser Arafat. This fantasy does not address what we now know to be the case about Arafat; that he was a duplicitous and unrepentant man of violence, who was never reconciled to a Jewish State as a permanent part of the Middle East. Neither do these utopian writers refer to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s peace proposal of 2008, considerably more far-reaching and concessionary than anything Rabin envisaged offering. Mahmoud Abbas – supposedly more ‘moderate’, less intransigent than Arafat – turned it down.
Rabin would not have signed a peace deal that takes potentially ruinous risks with Israel’s security. No Israeli leader can, or should, be expected to do so.
3. Real leadership requires the vision and courage to change the status quo
Rabin came to office in 1992 determined to change what he saw as a destructive status quo. He saw that the continued military occupation of another people was damaging to a democracy; that it was exacting a moral cost on the Israel Defense Forces that he had led with such distinction as Chief-of-Staff, with young soldiers policing a hostile urban population, putting down riots and arresting stone-wielding minors. He also (as his aide Yehuda Avner explained in his acclaimed memoir The Prime Ministers) foresaw the growing threat of radical political Islam, an ideology which would be irrevocably committed to Israel’s destruction, and so sought some accommodation with the secular nationalists in the PLO, with whom there was at least the chance of a pragmatic peace.
This assessment was ultimately proved false – at least under the leadership of Arafat and, so far, Abbas – but the status quo was unsustainable and Rabin saw the bigger picture, not just his own narrow political interests.
We have been blessed with a few such statesmen (David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon), but it’s not at all clear when we will see the next one.