With much attention naturally spent on the US presidential elections, many may have overlooked that last week marked the 25th anniversary of the assassination of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Although Rabin will be remembered for many things throughout his life, perhaps his most memorable and contentious decision was the signing of the Declaration of Principles (DOP) – also better known as the Oslo Accords – in 1993.
For the past quarter-century, many have debated not only whether or not Rabin was right to sign the accords, but also whether or not Rabin would have pursued a two-state solution with the Palestinians if he was not assassinated. While it is certainly possible that he would have, in this article, I will discuss the role of one of Rabin’s cognitive traits and how it may have influenced the way he would have gone about the next step in the peace process.
In her book, The Political Psychology of Israeli Prime Ministers, Yael Aronoff offers some insight on the psychological factors that may have influenced Israeli prime ministers’ thinking processes and decision making, including Yitzhak Rabin’s. While there were a variety of factors that influenced Rabin’s thought processes and decision making, one noteworthy trait Aronoff discusses was what she describes as his “time orientation.”
Aronoff defines an individual’s time orientation as “the relative amount of time each leader devotes to thinking about the past, present, or future” (p. 8-9). She then discusses how leaders’ time orientations influence how they view their enemy and their decision making. For instance, leaders who are more preoccupied in the past may be less willing to take risks for peace because they believe their opponent will never change. Leaders who are more focused on the present or future, in contrast, may be more likely to take risks for peace because they are more likely to believe their adversary can change and are more focused on the current facts on the ground or trying to create a more peaceful future rather than dwelling in the past.
Rabin was considered to be a more present oriented individual. He often dismissed the insight of historical scholars, insisting that the present is not the same as the past. He also believed the Yom Kippur War could not have been predicted even two days before it happened and once said that “Israel lives in the short run.”
Indeed, Rabin was someone who was focused on the present and was therefore more willing to change his image of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and take risks for peace than prime ministers like Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu, who were considered to be past oriented. Of course, Rabin’s present orientation also prevented him from changing his perception as quickly as those who were more future oriented, such as Shimon Peres.
In fact, the way Rabin went about the Oslo process may be a good example of how his time orientation influenced his decision making. For instance, although Rabin accepted the Oslo Accords, he did not initiate them and was not always supportive of the idea. For example, in an interview with Aronoff, Rabin’s Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin argued that the prime minister likely would not have supported the Oslo accords when Beilin and his team initiated them behind the scenes. A possible explanation for this is because Rabin may not have believed that an agreement with the Palestinians would have been beneficial for Israel around the time Beilin and his team began the negotiations. However, as things changed, Rabin may have later believed that such an accord would compel the Palestinians to make certain commitments they had never made before. As Aronoff writes, “Although Rabin’s present orientation enabled change…it slowed the pace of change and explains why he accepted, but did not initiate the Oslo process” (p. 109).
Rabin’s style of thinking may also explain how he went about the peace process after signing the accords before he was assassinated. Those who argue that Rabin was not for a two-state solution often reference his last speech in the Knesset when he stated that Israel would maintain security control over the Jordan Valley. However, when considering the role of his present orientation, Rabin may have wanted to preserve control over the Jordan Valley, not necessarily because he was opposed to a two-state solution, but rather because the status of the Jordan Valley and other final status issues had simply not reached that point in negotiations yet. As Aronoff explains, “Immersed in the present, Rabin suppressed any thoughts about the final status issues with the Palestinians” (p. 109).
Like most cases in history, it is difficult to determine what Rabin’s actions would have been if he remained prime minister. However, when considering his cognitive style, it is reasonable to assume that his decisions would have likely depended on how things played out. If terrorism increased during his tenure, he may have refrained from taking the next step in negotiations and preserved Israeli control over the Palestinian Territories. On the other hand, if the peace process went smoothly and security improved, he very well could have taken the next step in agreeing to the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state.