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The General’s Main Chance


Rosa Cohen, Yitzhak Rabin’s mother, was a daughter of the Russian Revolution, a non-Zionist socialist. She arrived in Palestine from Odessa having originally hoped to go to Scandinavia, remained there as a member of Kibbutz Kinneret, and took part in its life with immense revolutionary zeal. She had an uncle in Palestine—the distinguished Zionist publicist Mordechai Ben Hillel Hacohen (1856–1936), who had given the first speech in Hebrew at the founding Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897—a memorable accomplishment, since Hebrew was not a living, spoken language at the time. If Rabin’s great-uncle was capable of reviving a dead language, Rabin himself can cause severe injury to a living one. Rabin was brought up speaking Hebrew, but the Hebrew he speaks is wooden and full of embarrassing errors.

Rabin’s father, born in the Ukraine, emigrated to the United States as a young boy. During World War I he came to Palestine to join the Jewish Brigade, which included David BenGurion and Ze’ev Jabotinsky among its famous members. A friendly, tender-hearted man, he married Rosa Cohen in 1921, and their son Yitzhak was born in Jerusalem in 1922. The family moved to the first Jewish city in Palestine, Tel Aviv. There, in the Labor movement school, Rabin was strongly attracted to the idealistic Zionism of his teacher Eliezer Smoli, the author of Frontiersmen of Israel, a saga of agrarian Jews working with their hands to create a just, communal farm life out of the hostile Palestinian swampland, and fighting with treacherous Arabs, much as Western frontiersmen once fought with the Indians.

When he was fifteen Rabin was accepted as a student at the Kadoorie agricultural school near Mount Tabor. Just as Wellington claimed that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” the Israeli War of Independence, one could claim, was won on the fields of Kadoorie. The first members of the elite fighting force called the Palmach—an abbreviation of the Hebrew term for “assault companies”—which did much to win the war in 1948, were recruited from the Kadoorie school in 1941. The Palmach was the most effective and professional branch of the Haganah, the Zionist underground military organization. Rabin was invited to join it that year by Yigal Alon, who had been in the first class to graduate from Kadoorie, and went on to become the Palmach’s commander in 1945. Rabin acted as Alon’s deputy in the War of Independence, and Alon was eventually appointed foreign minister in Rabin’s government.

Rabin was the outstanding student in his class at Kadoorie—a not inconsiderable achievement—and he won the British High Commissioner’s prize for academic excellence, as well as a scholarship to Berkeley to study hydraulic engineering. He might well have had a successful career in many fields, but he was unable to take advantage of the scholarship because of his commitment to the Palmach, and since he is too opinionated to be an autodidact, the result is that he is strangely ignorant and lacking in culture.

In September 1969 Golda Meir offered Rabin the post of minister of education in the government she planned to set up following the November elections. In his autobiography he describes his reaction as follows:

The idea of education was very exciting. I had not aspired to be a professional educator, but I believed that my background in the Palmach and in the army included, in a broad sense, extensive dealings with education for positive values.1

He had, he says, serious criticisms of the educational system because “the official study program allotted more hours to Madame Pompadour than to all the underground fighting units of Israel—the Haganah, Palmach, Irgun and Lehi.” The truth is that Madame Pompadour is allotted not even one minute in the Israel school curriculum. Rabin apparently uses the name “Madame Pompadour” to stand for the entire French Revolution, as well as the ancien régime; and the Israeli schools could, in fact, profitably devote more time to the French Revolution than to the study of Zionist underground movements. It is not the excessive interest of teachers in “Madame Pompadour” that poses a problem for Israelis today but the limitations of Rabin’s own education, which ended at Kadoorie, and which since then has been concerned only with “positive values.”

The first Palmach operation in which Rabin took part, in June 1941, was directed against the Vichy regimes in Syria and Lebanon. During 1941 and 1942, when Nazi forces were advancing toward Palestine, the Palmach mounted guerrilla attacks that were intended to help the British army. Moshe Dayan recruited Rabin to take part in the campaign against the Vichy French. (Later the same day, fighting in a village several miles away from Rabin’s unit, Dayan lost his left eye.)

In October 1945 Rabin was appointed deputy commander of one of the Palmach’s more ambitious and successful missions, an attack on a British army camp at the foot of Mount Carmel, which was intended to liberate hundreds of illegal immigrants, Holocaust survivors who had been arrested by the British. This operation had to be conducted with great care, not only to avoid excessive British casualties but to protect the Holocaust survivors, who refused to be separated from the bundles of possessions they had brought with them.

At the end of June 1946 Rabin, together with his father, was among the many arrested on “Black Saturday,” the day that the British rounded up and imprisoned many of the leaders of the Yishuv, the Jewish settlement in Palestine, and members of the Haganah. Rabin himself used the British tactics of “Black Saturday” against the intifada, when, as Israel’s defense minister in 1987, he arrested tens of thousands of intifada activists and put them under administrative detention.

The 1948 War of Independence began, before the British left Palestine, on May 15 with a fierce battle against Arab forces for control of the roads, and particularly for the road to Jerusalem, which was under siege. The twenty-six-year-old Rabin, by then the operations officer of the Palmach, was given the extremely difficult task of forcing open the road to the city with two battalions, consisting of some 500 men. This was the first attempt by Jewish forces to carry out a relatively large attack. It failed, and the number of casualties was very high. Later, after another battalion joined Rabin’s forces, he was appointed commander of the Palmach’s famous Harel Brigade, which was in charge of defending Jerusalem and the corridor leading to it. Rabin, like the other officers in this war, had to learn how to command in the midst of battle, and the price in casualties was immense: about 70 percent of the Harel fighters were killed or wounded. Whether many of these casualties could have been avoided, as the controversial military historian Uri Milstein has claimed, remains a matter of debate.2

Rabin had an important part in the defense of Jerusalem, particularly because David Shaltiel, the commander of the city, failed to take the initiative when he should have and proved utterly incompetent. One of Israel’s founding fathers, Zalman Arenne, came to see Rabin during one of the most difficult hours of the war, and said, as Rabin recalls in his memoirs, “I’ve known your parents for years…. If the Palmach doesn’t enter the battle immediately the southern part of Jerusalem will be lost.” Anyone who grew up in the Yishuv at the time knows that there was no refusing a request by Arenne put in this way. The Palmach forces took over the main burden of defending the city.

Rabin gave up the command of the Harel Brigade in June 1948 and became Yigal Alon’s operations officer in the battle for the central part of Palestine. Later he joined the staff of the chief of the Southern Command against the Egyptian army. People who knew Rabin at the time have told me he was a superior staff officer, methodical and thorough; and in fact he rose in the army hierarchy exclusively as a staff officer. His record as a commander of troops in the field was limited to the period when he was in charge of the Harel Brigade, and in that capacity his success is less clear.

By the time the war was over and the truce with Egypt was signed on the island of Rhodes—at which Rabin was present as a technical military adviser—Ben-Gurion was disbanding the Palmach. Although apparently only a routine matter of relieving officers from military service, this was actually one of the most severe traumas of the young state, and its repercussions affected Rabin’s subsequent career.

During World War II a split had occurred in Mapai, the Labor Party headed by Ben-Gurion and the leading party in the Yishuv. About a third of its members, most of them from the kibbutzim known collectively as “Ha-Kibbutz Ha-Me’uhad,” as well as a considerable number from Tel Aviv and other cities, formed a group known as Faction B, which was opposed to Ben-Gurion and his associates, and particularly to Ben-Gurion’s “Biltmore plan” of 1942, which stipulated that the Jewish state would be established in only a part of the land of Israel. (This plan, named after New York’s Biltmore Hotel, where the plan had been approved, did not set the boundaries of the state, but it implied that the country would be divided.)

The members of Faction B were opposed to dividing the country, and, being Marxists, they were also against the “reformist” socialism of Ben-Gurion and his allies. They saw the Soviet Union as the model of socialism, and the victorious Red Army as the model of a socialist army. Most of the Palmach supported Faction B. Ha-Kibbutz Ha-Me’uhad was in effect the Palmach’s home base, and nearly all the Palmach’s commanders came from there. Many Palmach members supported themselves by working half the time on the kibbutz and spending the other half in training.

In the early 1940s the members of Faction B were arguing that they should not join the British army but should instead establish a Hebrew defense force that could protect the Yishuv after the war. Ben-Gurion, by contrast, believed that joining the British army was the best way for young Jews to obtain free professional training, and that doing so would also improve the Yishuv’s international reputation as a community that had taken part in World War II. He also saw the Palmach as a threat to his authority, because it had great influence on many of the most capable and committed young men and women. Rabin, for his part, was not politically active during his days in the Palmach. He accepted Faction B’s argument in favor of an independent Jewish force but, so far as we know, he never took part in leftist criticism of the Mapai.

Ben-Gurion did everything he could after the War of Independence not only to disband the Palmach but also to get rid of most of its senior commanders, particularly Yigal Alon, the most senior of them all. Rabin, however, who was not clearly identified with any faction, was allowed to stay in the army and make it his career. The feeling among the Palmach people, who had done most of the fighting during the War of Independence, was reminiscent of the famous line from Schiller’s play Fiesco: “The Moor has done his work, the Moor may go.” A final gathering of the Palmach leaders was arranged, which was partly a farewell party, but also partly a protest by people who felt insulted. Ben-Gurion issued an order that anyone still serving in the army was forbidden to appear at this meeting. The night it was to take place Rabin was with Ben-Gurion and, “sitting on pins and needles,” as he puts it, he asked Ben-Gurion, in one of the more eloquent of his statements, why he could not attend:

  1. 1

    All references (except for the two cited below) are to Rabin’s two-volume autobiography, written with (the Ma’ariv journalist) Dov Goldstein, under the title Pinkas Sherur (A Record of Service) (Tel Aviv: Ma’ariv, 1979). A shorter, one-volume version, The Rabin Memoirs, was published in English by Little, Brown in 1979.

  2. 2

    The War of Independence: Out of Crisis Came Decision (Tel Aviv: Zmora-Bitan, 1991), in Hebrew.

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