He was a flawed hero. No, I’m not speaking about the biblical Abraham, who passed his wife off as his sister, or Jacob, who won his birthright by deception. I am speaking of Yitzchak Rabin, former prime minister of Israel, whose yahrzeit we commemorated this week.
Eighteen years ago, on Saturday night, Nov. 4, 1995, Rabin was murdered by a right-wing extremist. The throngs that filled Israel’s Rabin Square on this anniversary in earlier years have thinned out as time and events have glossed over the horror of that evening. Yet people still come every year to reflect on the life and death of this fallen leader. Many are too young to remember the tragedy, some not even born when it happened. Still they come and sing the “Song for Peace” whose words he carried in his pocket on the night of his assassination.
Being assassinated does not make one a hero. This month also marks the 50th anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy. Although many of us greatly admired that young, dynamic president and the Camelot vision he brought us, most would not label him a hero — perhaps because he held office so short a time. Rabin was a hero because he was able to change his own course and set his nation on a course that changed its history. And he did it only after long, agonizing deliberations.
His flaws were obvious. A painfully shy, taciturn man, he had no patience for small talk or the niceties of diplomacy. He could offend an American Jewish audience that felt itself dedicated to Israel by scolding listeners for not doing enough for the Jewish state. A seasoned soldier, he had a psychological breakdown before the Six-Day War (but went on to lead his nation to victory), and he had to resign as prime minister in 1977 because of a scandal involving his wife’s American bank account. So where was his heroism? It lay in his utter integrity, his pragmatism and his flexibility to do what he felt best for his country even when that meant going against his most deep-seated beliefs.
Like Golda Meir, who preceded him as prime minister, and many of his other contemporaries, he long felt that the answer to the problem of the Palestinian Arabs in the occupied territories was to link parts of the West Bank and Gaza to Jordan, and through negotiations create a Jordanian-Palestinian state. He strongly opposed an independent Palestinian state separate from Jordan. He refused to have any contact with Palestinian leaders, whom he simply considered terrorists. When the Intifada broke out in 1987, he called for the harshest measures to crush it, including “breaking their bones.” But gradually, he began to acknowledge the nationalistic strivings of the Palestinians in the territories, and — more importantly — to recognize that the only way Israel could reach an agreement with them was to deal with their leaders. He also came to believe that the only way his country could achieve peace with the Arab states nearby was to solve its conflict with the Palestinians.
It took courage for him to make those turnarounds and arrive at those conclusions. He worried over every decision, investigated every angle. Once he decided, he followed through determinedly. He sanctioned the Oslo peace talks and forced himself to speak to the PLO and meet with its chairman Yasir Arafat. Anyone who saw the “handshake on the lawn” of the White House on television after the signing of the Oslo Declaration of Principles, will remember the pained look on Rabin’s face as President Clinton nudged him forward to shake Arafat’s hand. He was more comfortable making peace with Jordan’s King Hussein, following the Oslo Accords.
It’s commonplace today to speak of the failures of Oslo, the lack of final status agreements and the conflicts that followed. Yet, at this moment Tzipi Livni and her team, under the direction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are meeting with the Palestinian Authority delegates to negotiate a path to peace. Rabin opened the way for Israel to speak with the Palestinians. There have been many false starts, and today’s talks might not succeed any more than earlier ones. But the two sides are talking, which means that the last word on Oslo has not yet been written.
Rabin had not reached the point of endorsing a two-state solution, but probably would have had he lived. As Henry Kissinger said, he had an analytic mind and an awesome ability to cut to the core of a problem. Methodically and incrementally, he cut through to the idea that peace could come only by speaking to his enemies. With that, he became a fighter for peace, and he died in the fight.
We have not seen the likes of him since.
Francine Klagsbrun’s “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day” is now an E-Book. She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.