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:
Why are you putting my friends and me, who have remained in the army, in an embarrassing dilemma between our wish to maintain discipline and our debt of friendship, brotherhood in arms and partnership to the people with whom we have walked a long way? Why are you forcing us to choose between two evils: either to participate in the gathering and thus to disobey orders, or not to participate and thus to violate the rules of friendship—to be considered a traitor in our friends’ eyes?
Ben-Gurion did not answer, and Rabin went to the meeting. Ben-Gurion did not forget this, but Rabin’s friends from Ha-Kibbutz Ha-Me’uhad did not forget it either. During the 1960s Ben-Gurion held up Rabin’s appointment as chief of staff, giving as one of his reasons that Rabin had disobeyed an order not to attend the Palmach’s farewell party. The people of Ha-Kibbutz Ha-Me’uhad, on the other hand, have always supported Rabin against Peres within the Labor Party as “one of us.”
From the beginning, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were divided into two rival factions: people who had been in the British army on the one hand, and, on the other, former members of the Palmach. The former British army members were noted for their rigid hierarchy of rank, their discipline, and their “army bullshit,” while the youth movements that had made up the Palmach had a looser system of command, more in the style of a guerrilla movement. Rabin was allowed to recruit some former Palmach officers to serve on the teaching staff of the course for battalion commanders, the most advanced course then given. This gesture toward Rabin and other former Palmach members was made by General Hayyim Laskov, whom they considered their principal enemy from the “British school,” but who had a reputation for being exceptionally decent and honest. Rabin got along with him well, and served as his deputy when Laskov was chief of staff.
By contrast, Rabin’s relationship with Moshe Dayan was cold to the point of hostility, partly because Dayan considered Rabin to be loyal to Alon. Alon was Dayan’s closest rival, and Dayan had upstaged him on several occasions—he took over from Alon as chief of the Southern Command when the Palmach was disbanded, and he was appointed defense minister instead of Alon on the eve of the 1967 war. The rivalry between Dayan and Alon recalls Plutarch-like clashes between leaders—Dayan and Alon as Marius and Sulla. Both were sabras and both were commanders of the earliest Palmach companies; in their struggle for power, they neutralized each other, with the result that neither of them ever became prime minister of Israel. The rivalry between Rabin and Peres is full of resentment and malice, but they seem no more than pale replicas of Dayan and Alon. They do not have the depth, the charm, the charisma of the originals.
The rivalry between Rabin and Peres is personal, but there is more to it than that. Peres, for years a high defense department bureaucrat, is the founder of Israel’s military-industrial complex, and Rabin, as a general, was in the position of being Peres’s customer. Rabin was strongly opposed to the megalomaniacal attempt to produce all of Israel’s military equipment within the country so that Israel could be self-sufficient in case of an arms embargo. This notion of self-sufficiency has led to extremely expensive small-scale production lines on the one hand and to the sale of arms to despicable foreign regimes on the other. Rabin was also opposed to Peres’s purchases of arms largely from Europe during the Fifties and Sixties: he would have preferred American weapons. Not only militarily but politically, Peres wanted to link Israel with Europe, especially France and Germany, in contrast with Rabin, who did not know much about Europe and had no particular respect for it. For Rabin the outside world has always meant the United States.
But the political and ideological differences between Peres and Rabin should not be exaggerated. Over the years they have agreed on many issues, such as preferring to deal with Hussein instead of the Palestinians, and the antipathy between them is in the last analysis much more personal than public. Nahum Barnea, a journalist who is a shrewd observer of the Israeli scene, noted that Rabin, despite the woodenness of his speech, has a talent for nastily labeling his rivals. In his book he calls Peres “an indefatigable underminer,” and this phrase has stuck to Peres in the public mind—partly because accusations tend to stick to Peres, who does not have Rabin’s “Teflon” qualities, and partly because Peres is in truth indefatigable in undermining his opponents.
During the Suez conflict of 1956, Rabin was the chief of the Northern Command, on the Syrian border, while the main action of the war was directed against Egypt in the Sinai. Rabin’s principal activity was to expel Arabs from northern Israel: “I solved one problem in the North,” he wrote, “by taking advantage of the fighting in Egypt and in coordination with the United Nations: We transferred about two thousand Arabs—who constituted a serious security problem—from the places where they lived in the central demilitarized zone (south of Lake Huleh) to the eastern side of the Jordan.” What he means by “coordination” with the UN is unclear.
In January 1964 Rabin was appointed chief of staff of the Israeli army, and in 1967 he was military commander of the Six Day War. Rabin bears considerable responsibility for the escalation of tensions with Arab nations that led to that war. During a meeting of the Knesset Security and Foreign Affairs Committee that took place during the tense weeks before the 1967 war, Dayan, who was not a member of the government at the time, addressed Rabin directly, saying: “You carried out ill-considered operations. You flew over Damascus. You attacked Samoa in broad daylight.”
Dayan was referring here to Israeli planes that had shot down six Syrian planes in a premeditated aerial ambush in April 1967, and also flown over Damascus. He was referring as well to the Israeli armored convoy that, in November 1966, entered the village of Samoa on the West Bank, which was under Jordanian rule, and during a clash with the Jordanian army, killed scores of Jordanians. This operation, which took place during the day, was described as a reprisal for Jordanian-sponsored attacks, but it was quite different from the nighttime attacks by Israeli commandos that had become customary under Dayan’s command. In this case Jordanian sovereignty was openly violated and by large forces.
When Rabin arranged a meeting with Dayan after his testimony, Dayan told him that it was a mistake to put Nasser’s leadership to the test in the Arab world, and that the operations against Syria and Jordan pushed Nasser into a position where he had no choice except to take aggressive action: “Thus we forced him to defend his prestige in his country and in the Arab world and this led to a serious escalation in the Middle East.” No doubt Dayan had his own ambitious motives for attacking Rabin, but his criticisms were plausible nonetheless.
The period between mid-May and the outbreak of war on the sixth of June was called “the waiting period” in Israel. During that time Rabin met not only with Dayan but also with Ben-Gurion, who, making some of the same criticisms as Dayan had, told him: “You have brought the country into a very serious situation. You bear the responsibility.” The word “you” referred to Rabin as well as the prime minister, Levi Eshkol. Moreover, the interior minister, Moshe Shapira of the National Religious Party—at that time one of the moderate parties in Israel—accused Rabin of having caused “Israel’s plight.” Then, on May 23, Rabin had a nervous breakdown that lasted for two days, which was concealed for years, although he has acknowledged that he had been in a state of “mental and physical exhaustion.” He attributed his physical state to nicotine poisoning (he was a compulsive chain smoker) and overwork, but he admits in his memoirs that he had “strong guilt feelings. I couldn’t forget Shapira’s remarks. I had dragged Israel down into its plight.” At the time of his collapse Rabin called Ezer Weizmann, then the general in charge of operations, and told him in confidence what had happened. Years later, just before a vote between Peres and Rabin on who would succeed Golda Meir, Weizmann, who wanted to help Peres, wrote an article telling the story of Rabin’s breakdown.
Although Rabin was partly responsible for the escalation that led to the war, he was also responsible for preparing the army for, and planning, the most brilliant success in its history. Rabin has solid claims to being Israel’s best chief of staff. That the photogenic Dayan stole most of the spotlight from him during the war—especially in the foreign press—has obscured the fact that Dayan took command of troops who were ready to fight. In Rabin’s opinion Dayan’s contribution consisted mainly of raising morale and giving the army and the Israeli public a sense of confidence. But that public, as opposed to the foreign correspondents who were drawn to Dayan, saw Rabin as the hero of the war.
Rabin’s most popular moment came just after the Six Day War when he gave a speech at the newly liberated Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus. “I worked for two weeks preparing the speech,” he wrote. “After consolidating the central ideas and the structure of the speech, I was assisted in its formulation by several people, especially my aide at that time, Rafael Efrat.” Rabin has many faults, but lying is not one of them. In this case, however, Rabin is simply not telling the truth. The speech was written for him from beginning to end by Mordechai Bar-On, the IDF’s chief education officer at that time. Rabin merely changed a few expressions because he was afraid no one would believe he had written them.
It’s too bad he didn’t keep this in mind when he hired Dov Goldstein to write his autobiography, since Goldstein produces the kind of kitsch of which Rabin himself has never been guilty; Goldstein puts words into Rabin’s mouth that Rabin could not possibly have written:
We arrived at the Wailing Wall. The stones tell a story. A long story of suffering and pain, of exile and persecution. As if the historical memory of the Jewish people were entirely concentrated in the cracks between the stones of this holy Wall. As if all the tears are trying to burst out while all the hopes are proclaiming that this is not a time for crying. An hour of redemption. An hour of hope. An hour of Jewish unity. An hour of ascension of the soul.
Rabin, in my view, would have to admit that he did not write this passage. Yet he insists that he wrote the Mount Scopus speech, which, in the heady atmosphere following the victory, sounded modest and humane, with its talk of the army’s need for “moral values”; and, for this reason, had a strong effect. He said, for instance, that Ben-Gurion wrote to him saying: “I am proud of your speech. You have been privileged to be Chief of Staff in the finest hour of our glorious army—and you are indeed worthy of this.” After all that, it would have been hard for Rabin to admit he didn’t write the speech.
Rabin was appointed Israel’s ambassador to the Washington of Nixon and Kissinger. When Nixon had visited Israel, in 1966 and 1967, accompanied by Pat Buchanan, he was thought to have no political future, but Rabin somehow understood that he intended to run again for president and he gave him—in his own words—“the red-carpet. treatment.” Nixon was grateful, and he remembered Rabin and the carpet. As a successful general in Washington, while Americans were unable to boast of any victories in Vietnam, Rabin had everything going for him. It’s true that he is extremely shy, socially awkward, unable to make small talk, and uncouth—in short, the opposite of a diplomat—but in the social atmosphere of Washington at the time a general ranked higher than a diplomat.
While Rabin was serving as Israeli ambassador in Washington, a war of attrition consisting of cross-border raids and artillery attacks was going on between the Israeli forces in Sinai and the Egyptians on the other side of the canal. After the sweeping victory of the Six Day War, the war of attrition was, for the Israelis, a very wearying anticlimax. From Washington, Rabin pressed for an escalation of the war through bombing deep inside Egypt. A telegram from Rabin to the Israeli government stated:
We have achieved a noticeable improvement in the United States position. Continued improvement depends first and foremost upon us—through persistence in aerial bombing of the heart of Egypt.
The bombings he recommended took place and led to an unprecedented Soviet involvement on Egypt’s behalf: the Soviets supplied Egypt with SAM-3 missiles that Israel (as well as the United States at that time) was unable to respond to, and that shot down Israeli Phantom jets and caused Israel serious damage.
Rabin was in a bizarre position as ambassador. A few days after the Six Day War, the Israeli government headed by Golda Meir, of which Menachem Begin was a member, had passed a resolution that is now hard to believe: in return for peace, Israel would be prepared to retreat completely to its prewar borders with Syria and with Egypt—in other words, to evacuate the Golan Heights and Sinai. But Meir’s government later regretted this decision and quietly rescinded it without telling the Americans or even their own ambassador in Washington. During Rabin’s entire term of office the Nixon administration was trying without success to figure out the Meir government’s policy toward Israel’s borders. Rabin himself did not understand the policy and said so. Finally the prime minister cabled him an explanation:
The policy of the Israeli government is striving towards a significant change in the border with Egypt, which means a change in sovereignty and not merely an Israeli presence. We are not using the word “annexation” because of the negative connotations of the term.
Here, in my view, lies a key to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, for this determination to expand Israel’s borders would have become apparent to Sadat. One person who understood the disastrous implications of this policy was George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO and a close friend of Golda Meir. “I know what negotiation is,” he said to Rabin. “I know the rules very well…. I consider the Egyptian position constructive. I cannot understand your position.”
Rabin was the liaison between Golda Meir and the American government, especially Nixon and Kissinger, and also John Mitchell, with whom he became well acquainted. Abba Eban, who was then foreign minister, was disregarded and not consulted. Rabin and Eban despise each other. Eban, the eternal outsider of Israeli politics, ironic (though without self-irony), worldly, intelligent, cultivated, and unwilling to take a stand when it mattered could hardly be more different from Rabin, who is sarcastic but not ironic, a provincial sabra, uncouth, and suspicious.
Rabin writes that his mentor in those years was Dr. Kissinger: “With his characteristic Kissingerian broadness of view he painted before my eyes a picture of international dimensions,” says the excited Kadoorie pupil after his first tutorial with the master. By contrast, “As is well known, it is difficult to have a dialogue with Abba Eban. Anyone who tries to have a ‘discussion’ with him ends up a listener.” Rabin “learned” from Kissinger that one should enter into negotiations only from a position of strength. This is the magic formula of Realpolitik. But it is just about as “realistic” as the formula: “Sell stocks only at their highest price, not when the price is going down.” Even when the price is going down, one may have to sell stocks, either because they may go down even further or because one needs money immediately. The same holds for the relationship between power and negotiations.
Rabin adopted what he took to be Kissinger’s conception of the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union and applied it to the relations between Israel and the Arab world. According to this view, there is no chance of peace. The only thing one can hope for is a state of nonbelligerency, anchored in interim agreements made “from a position of power.” In view of the strategic stalemate in the balance of power between Israel and its neighbors, one can only make arrangements to ensure that the present situation will not deteriorate into actual war. Détente, not peace, is all one can realistically hope for. Kissinger, for his part, was able to negotiate unexpected agreements with both the Soviet Union and China. Rabin, it seems clear, would not have been able to negotiate the peace treaty with Sadat as Begin did, since he saw peace with Egypt as an “unrealistic” aspiration. Like many proponents of Realpolitik, Rabin commits the fallacy of identifying an optimistic view of a possible solution with an optimistic view of the chances of achieving it. Some of those who criticize current international arrangements while hoping for a better world have an optimistic view. But this does not mean that they are necessarily optimistic about the chances of achieving a better world; they only believe that it is important to try.
For Rabin, the person who presents an optimistic alternative lacks seriousness and is likely to be a dangerous dreamer. Even now he talks only about an “interim agreement” with the Palestinians, nothing more. He claims that if elected he will reach an interim agreement on autonomy for the Palestinians within six months to a year. I will presently examine what he means by autonomy, but on the whole I believe him. Rabin likes to talk about “marching with two feet,” the military foot and the political foot. This implies the brutal use of force in order to arrive at negotiations from a “position of power.” Rabin’s current popularity with Israeli voters—he leads in all the polls—is based on the fact that he expresses the ambivalence of most of them: they favor his “two-feet” policy—brutality toward the Arabs as well as negotiations.
Rabin returned to Israel from Washington after openly trying to help Nixon win the election against McGovern in 1972. He correctly perceived that a Republican administration would be less likely than a Democratic administration to interfere with Israel’s policy on developing nuclear arms. After the Yom Kippur War, when Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan were forced to resign because of public protest over their responsibility for Israel’s failures, Rabin was elected to the Knesset and found himself a candidate for prime minister, with Shimon Peres as the rival candidate.
Peres invited Rabin for lunch and, according to Rabin’s account, suggested they arrive at an understanding:
Let’s try to learn something from the experience of our senior colleagues: Alon and Dayan fought each other and tired themselves out—and neither of them became prime minister. Let’s make a gentlemen’s agreement to run a fair race. (A little later I found out what constitutes a fair race for Peres and how much value his word has…) Whoever wins, the other will accept the decision and act accordingly.
The kingmaker of the Labor Party, Pinhas Sapir, who was then finance minister, made sure that Rabin would win. This, however, did not ensure that Peres, as defense minister, would obey Rabin.
Gush Emunim was founded after Rabin took office in 1974, and toward the end of 1975 its members settled in the West Bank district of Sebastia in defiance of government policy against settlements in Samaria. Rabin writes that he “considered Gush Emunim a very serious phenomenon—a cancer in the body of democratic Israel.” However, Rabin claims, it was impossible to prevent the Gush Emunim from starting settlements, since Peres supported its members as “true idealists”—and Peres was not the only one in the Labor Party to do so. Rabin, to his credit, never called the settlers pioneers or said their settlements were a contribution to national security. He considered them a heavy burden on the state.
For Rabin the issue of the settlers was a repeat of the story of the Altalena, the ship that arrived in Israel in June 1948 carrying arms that had been bought in Europe for the Irgun. Its members, except for those in Jerusalem, had already been drafted into the IDF, and Ben-Gurion considered the shipment of arms an act of rebellion against the central government he headed. He assigned Rabin to sink the ship, and he did so. The lesson Rabin learned from this event was the need for “one central authority. No more splits, no more civil war between Jews.” Sebastia was Rabin’s Altalena, but he failed to impose the central authority he once claimed was necessary. His authority was seriously undermined as a result. Rabin had been chosen as prime minister by Sapir, not by the people.
Rabin was the first sabra to become prime minister, and, as such, he raised high expectations that he would move away from Golda Meir’s political immobilism with respect to the Arabs. This hope was dashed. He did not do so partly because Meir, though not officially in power, still was held in awe in the Labor Party. But there was a deeper, “psychological” reason why Rabin deferred to Golda’s will. Many sabra generals of his generation had formidable pioneering mothers, of whom Golda Meir was an archetype. Among them were Dvora Dayan, the mother of Moshe Dayan; Maya Slutsky, the mother of Meir Amit, who was Rabin’s rival for the post of Chief of Staff; Yehudit Simhoni, the mother of Asaf Simhoni, who was chief of the Southern Command in the Sinai campaign; and Rosa Cohen, Yitzhak Rabin’s larger-than-life mother. These were strong-willed and Spartan women, highly ideological and active in public affairs. They devoted very little time to their home and children, and raised sons who made careers as warriors yet were ready to yield to the will of Israel’s founding fathers and mothers.
Lacking in political experience, with the embittered Golda Meir breathing down his neck, he was a mediocre prime minister. His principal failure was his inability to come to an agreement with Sadat, leaving this to Begin. He was also unable to come to an agreement with King Hussein, who demanded a corridor near Jericho as a condition for an interim agreement. He was, however, able to partly rehabilitate the economy, which had been ruined by the Yom Kippur War. He also wisely preserved Israel’s neutrality during the civil war in Lebanon, authorized the Entebbe operation, and relaxed the government’s control over state television and official information available to the press.
In fact Rabin permitted more severe criticism of himself and his government than any other prime minister had done, either before him or after him. He and his government paid a very high price for this tolerant policy, for it allowed a positively suicidal degree of exposure of government corruption. (Rabin’s housing minister committed suicide as a result.) The impression was created that the Israeli government had become more corrupt than ever, while it was actually at its least corrupt during this period. Finally the press revealed that Rabin’s wife had a bank account in the United States—which is against the law in Israel—and he resigned. Peres ran at the head of the Labor Party slate in the 1977 elections, lost, and Begin came to power.
Rabin now became a member of the opposition in the Knesset, but during the 1982 Lebanon war Ariel Sharon, then minister of defense, called upon him to act as an “adviser.” Rabin advised Sharon to “tighten up” the siege of Beirut, which in effect meant entirely cutting off the supply of food and water to the city, while at the same time subjecting it to heavy aerial bombing. “I can live with a twenty-four-hour bombardment of Beirut” he is notoriously remembered to have said. He said nothing about those residents of Beirut who could not live with a twenty-four-hour bombardment of their city.
In the National Unity government that was formed in 1984 Rabin was defense minister, and he held that post again in the 1988 National Unity government. Rabin cooperated fully with Shamir, preferring to work with him rather than with Peres, who was subjected to an astonishing campaign of character assassination by the Likud. At the same time, the Likud was characterizing Rabin as the good guy of the Labor Party. Rabin thus gained a great deal of popularity among Likud voters. (In a survey published in Yedioth Aharonoth on May 1, 1992, about a third of Likud voters said they favored Rabin as prime minister.) Now that Rabin has defeated Peres in the Labor Party’s internal elections, and is running against the Likud, it will be hard for the Likud to do to him what Begin and his cronies did so successfully to Peres.
Rabin, like many other sabras, can be embarrassed by intimacy and often behaves badly toward people who come in direct contact with him. When he was visiting Washington as prime minister, President Carter once invited him, as a gesture of friendship, to come to his daughter Amy’s room to say good-night to her. Rabin just stood there, unable to utter a friendly word. His social nervousness makes people around him cringe, but the voters do not see him close up and so his roughness seems to radiate authenticity. Before the Labor Party elections both Peres and Rabin were asked: “What was the saddest day of your life?” Rabin replied, “The day my mother died.” Peres answered, “The day I heard that Yoni Netanyahu was killed at Entebbe.” Peres’s answer was so phony, so clearly intended to remind the public that Peres had been the defense minister at the time of the Entebbe operation, that it is no wonder he is widely seen as inauthentic, or in Israeli jargon “unreliable.”
The day after the intifada began, on December 10, 1987, Rabin went to the United States on an official visit as Israeli defense minister. Not only had he failed to anticipate the Palestinian uprising, he did not recognize how serious it was, and it took him ten days to return to Israel. As soon as he landed at the airport he made the outlandish and unsupported statement that Syria and Iran were behind the disturbances. Shamir announced, as usual, that the PLO was behind them, although the PLO was no less surprised by the uprising than Shamir and Rabin were. Rabin argued soon afterward that the intifada could not be put down by force and that the “political foot” must be used as well. What he actually did, however, was especially brutal; he said that Israeli soldiers should use their batons to “break the arms and legs” of Palestinians. He then seemed to retract this advice. “But you gave us sticks!” exclaimed one of the soldiers to Rabin. “What did you expect us to do with them?”3 Rabin seemed truly surprised by criticism throughout the world of what he had said. After all, he implied, breaking arms and legs is not as terrible as killing.
During the current election campaign Rabin’s views have been considerably transformed partly because the Labor Party has become more dovish. From his recent pronouncements the following picture emerges. He is willing to offer the Palestinians “autonomy-plus”—the “plus” referring to his readiness to reach an accommodation on the critical issues of water and land, although it is still unclear to what degree Palestinians would have a say over the large proportion of the land that has been acquired either by settlers or the government. Moreover, Rabin distinguishes between “political” settlements, which mostly turn out to have been built by, or under, the Likud and which are not needed for Israel’s security, and “security” settlements, i.e., those built by Labor. However, Rabin has also said: “The security value of Bet Shan”—a small border town inside Israel’s 1967 border—“is many times more than that of Ariel and Emanuel”—the largest towns built in the occupied territories.
Such statements suggest that Rabin also regards as “political” the settlements built within areas that are densely populated by Arabs, which the Palestinians would insist on controlling under any peace agreement. “Security” settlements, on the other hand, are those in areas with relatively few Arab villages, which raises the possibility that in future negotiations the Palestinians would let Israel maintain sovereignty over them. Rabin is ready to freeze all settlement activity immediately, and to channel the huge sums that would thus be saved to absorbing immigrants.
In addition, Rabin, reversing Shamir’s policy, is ready to consider East Jerusalem’s Palestinians as full partners in the peace talks. As for the Golan Heights, his position is that it is possible to reach a compromise on them without wholly abandoning them. Since the Heights are some forty kilometers wide, Israel, in exchange for demilitarization, could withdraw some twenty to thirty kilometers, and still have a presence on the slopes.
Rabin has also changed the political strategy of the Labor Party. Peres never stopped hoping that the religious parties would join a coalition government headed by Labor, and his efforts to win them over were shamelessly corrupt. Rabin, by contrast, assumes that the religious parties belong to the right-wing coalition. If, however, Labor can put together a so-called “blocking bloc,” composed of Labor, the unified small liberal-left parties, and the Arabs, this would prevent Shamir from forming his own coalition government; then and only then, Rabin believes, would the religious parties be willing to join a government under his leadership. (They would do so for the same reason given by Jesse James when he was asked why he robbed banks: that’s where the money is.)
The Israeli Knesset has 120 members. If the Arab parties win seven instead of six seats (which is possible), if the unified list of the liberal left maintains its bloc of ten members (also possible), and if the number of Labor representatives increases from thirty-nine to forty-three (seemingly possible, as I write in early May), Rabin will have his blocking bloc. It is even conceivable that he will end up with a tiny majority of one or more. This would mean accepting as legitimate a government that relies on the votes of the Arab parties to form a majority. Such a majority was unacceptable to Labor in the past, but it is acceptable to Rabin today. Should he achieve it, he would face such fierce opposition to any serious peace initiative that he might well have to resort to a national referendum to approve, for example, a partial withdrawal from the West Bank.
The elections are scheduled for June 23. Israeli voters, writes the journalist Nahum Barnea, tell the truth in opinion polls but lie at the ballot, i.e., they succumb, when they vote, to pressure from their peers. In the opinion polls Rabin is clearly preferred over Shamir, but voters are liable to cling to the more aggressive party when they cast their ballots. And this time the choice is between Shamir, who would have Israel replace South Africa as an apartheid state—he is hardly willing to offer the Palestinians even a Bantustan—and the Labor Party, which is willing to reach some sort of interim agreement. The chances are that the Israelis will be faced with a paralyzed and paralyzing National Unity government. There is also the frightening prospect that the elections will lead to negotiations among the political parties lasting for many months, during which Shamir will head a transition government. It has been said about Rabin’s candidacy for prime minister what George Bernard Shaw said about marriage: “It is the triumph of hope over experience.” But a hope it is.
—May 14, 1992
June 11, 1992
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. ↩
The War of Independence: Out of Crisis Came Decision (Tel Aviv: Zmora-Bitan, 1991), in Hebrew. ↩
Zeev Schiff and Ehud Yaari, Intifada (Tel Aviv: Schocken, 1990), in Hebrew; (Simon and Schuster, 1990). ↩