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Yitzhak Rabin’s gift

The man who posthumously gave her a birthday present had leadership qualities that are sorely missed today

The commemoration of twenty years since that frightful night when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated and Israeli society was shaken to its core has given rise to a veritable flood of reassessments of the late prime minister and his legacy. A mixture of learned analyses, personal recollections and wistful nostalgia are inundating the media — each in its own way shedding light on various features of the man and his still not fully formed legacy. The renewed preoccupation with the slain prime minister is not just a tribute to his leadership; in many respects it is a reflection on the ongoing quest for a common compass. Three attributes of Yitzhak Rabin — the person and the public figure — are both especially revealing and poignantly relevant.

Yitzhak Rabin was, beneath his gruff veneer and almost bashful demeanor, unusually sensitive to those around him. He did see the human being facing him, even when seemingly totally consumed with august matters of state. One vignette is worth reams of prose in this regard.

Two weeks after that fateful Saturday night, sometime in mid-November 1995, a messenger arrived with a large envelope from the Prime Minister’s office. I opened the envelope gingerly to discover a cover letter from Rabin’s adviser, Eitan Haber, stating that the late prime minister had prepared a birthday greeting and small gift for me in advance and he wanted to make sure I received them on time. The enclosed letter, signed by Rabin with his best wishes, was dated November 18, 1995. A book (The Return from India by A. B. Yehoshua) was attached.

One cannot remain unmoved by this gesture nor receive a more bittersweet reminder of the tragedy that had befallen us. For me, beyond the extraordinarily precious overture, there has always also been something more: a prime minister who — even in the most stressful of political times — could find a moment to do something pleasing for someone he didn’t know particularly well. In his own, sabra, way, Yitzhak Rabin was what Israelis call a ben adam (a mensch) — someone reliable, predictable and loyal. Even when, with a fling of his hand, he appeared dismissive, he never ignored another human being.

His conduct of human relations extended far beyond personal ties. On societal matters too, he exuded a fundamental solidarity that took a broad view of the country’s complex social mosaic. Although he surrounded himself with familiar fellow travelers, he did not engage in the belittlement of the other. While never a cheerleader for human rights organizations, he had no patience for those who incited against minorities or trampled on their basic liberties. Rabin’s Israel had a common core; it was not a compilation of competing groups with little or no adhesive. He would never have countenanced the deliberate fragmentation overseen by his present-day successor.

Yitzhak Rabin was also known for his forthright style: candid to the point of being astonishingly blunt. Another brief tale is illustrative: Not long before his death, concerned about yet another close vote in the Knesset, Rabin paced the floor of the plenary and greeted every late arrival (myself included) with a roar and a diatribe. He didn’t hide his displeasure but also didn’t keep a grudge. For better or for worse, one always knew where one stood with him.

The frank style of leadership which was his trademark was, for many, refreshing. There was no trace of either arrogance or duplicity in his thoughts or in his behavior. There was a direct line between what he believed, what he said and what he did. His mind and his actions were transparently intertwined. In this unusually open way Yitzhak Rabin distinguished himself from many of his political counterparts. He also evoked a trust even among his most implacable rivals.

With Rabin what one saw was what one got; what one heard was what he meant to say. Very few public figures today can lay claim to a similar image, least of all the present prime minister. Doublespeak has been refined into an art form and deception has become the norm. The far more eloquent successor evokes much less confidence than his verbally awkward predecessor.

A larger dose of the Rabin brand of candor would do the country well at this precarious juncture. Leadership does not consist simply of pandering to popular sentiments; it is measured by the ability to expose the public to harsh facts and prepare it for difficult decisions. Both domestically and on the international scene, Rabin succeeded in forming close relationships with power brokers (during his tenure, ties with world leaders — and especially with Washington’s movers and shakers — were at a peak). The current incumbent, with all his linguistic facility and years of American experience, has yet to develop the ability to instill such confidence at home and abroad.

Above all else, however, Yitzhak Rabin was Israel’s definitive realist. Like all true pragmatists (as opposed to opportunists) he had a clear understanding that interests and values went together. Rabin, therefore, was the most relentless of peacemakers; he would never have defined himself as a peacenik. His dedication to the achievement of a lasting solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict was for him a concrete mission and not a naive pipe dream. Peace would secure Israel and assure its physical, material and normative wellbeing.

Like all pragmatists, Rabin understood that compromise was imperative to the success of this project. By carefully distinguishing between what is essential for the maintenance of Israel’s existential and normative being and what can be ceded, he had the courage to move towards a peaceful future. And it is exactly the practical pursuit of this goal which brought about his demise.

Today ideology has replaced realism; obstinacy has become a substitute for action; and hubris reigns where humility prevailed. The current approach to Israel and its environs is thoroughly antithetical to the Rabin vision. It repeatedly and flagrantly negates Israel’s interests and values. By defying his pragmatic course, it renders the country rudderless and profoundly insecure internally as well as externally.

Even those who look back at Yitzhak Rabin with distaste and no small measure of contempt cannot afford to ignore his human face and the concern for social cohesion that came with it. Nor can they avoid  recognizing his leadership style of frankness or the integrity that it generated. Above all else, they would do well to retrieve a bit of that pragmatism that guided the slain prime minister.

Reflecting on Yitzhak Rabin’s life and his legacy is, today, particularly timely and telling. Ultimately, the peace that he sought in his last days is the route to Israel’s salvation; the revival of his capacity to compromise is the road to its realization.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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