Thursday, October 28, 2010

Reclaiming Rabin’s Legacy

How did the man who declared that he would “break the bones” of the Palestinians become the Mahatma Gandhi of the Israeli Left? Like every year, the commemoration of Yitzhak Rabin’s murder is an exercise in historical falsification and emotional intimidation. It is time to set the record straight.

Rabin grew up in the nationalistic Palmah movement. He was a pure sabra: a Jew from Sparta, not Athens, who was told to fight rather than to think. A talented officer, he followed the ideal career of the Ashkenazi ruling class: IDF Officer, Chief of Staff, Ambassador to the US, Labor MK, Prime Minister —a true WASP (White, Ashkenazi, Sabra Paratrooper).

In his two three-year stints as Prime Minister (1974-1977 and 1992-1995), Rabin was maneuvered into foreign policy decisions he had originally opposed, and in both cases he paved the way to the electoral victory of the Right. In 1975, Rabin was basically coerced by Gerald Ford and Henri Kissinger to withdraw from about 20% of the Sinai Peninsula in order for the US to convince Sadat that abandoning the Egyptian-Soviet alliance made sense. And when Rabin came back to power in 1992, he was not a leader who had “seen the light” as some would have us believe, but rather a man who was manipulated into signing a deal he rightly suspected to be risky.

Rabin wanted to organize elections in the territories to set up a local Palestinian leadership with which Israel would negotiate the interim status of the West Bank and Gaza, as outlined in the 1989 Israeli Peace Initiative. Rabin believed that a moderate, non-PLO Palestinian leadership could emerge in the territories. By contrast, Peres was of the opinion that Israel should establish direct contacts with the PLO and test the seriousness of the Palestinian leadership in Tunis.

Upon the presentation of his government to the Knesset in July 1992, Rabin declared Israel’s commitment to the strengthening of “strategic” settlements in the West Bank (“The Government will continue to enhance and strengthen Jewish settlement along the lines of confrontation, due to their importance for security, and in Greater Jerusalem”). Rabin also ruled out any negotiation over Jerusalem (“The Government is firm in its resolve that Jerusalem will not be open to negotiation;” “whoever believes that any Government of Israel can compromise on united Jerusalem fools himself. We, Israel, the Jewish people, will never negotiate the fate of Jerusalem. It is ours and ours forever”). And he warned that Israel would favor its security over its search for peace (“Security takes preference even over peace”).

After the June 1992 elections, Rabin reluctantly gave the Foreign Affairs portfolio to his rival Shimon Peres. It was agreed between Rabin and Peres that Rabin would be responsible for Israel’s relations with the United States and for the bilateral negotiations with the Palestinian delegation in Washington, and that Elyakim Rubinstein would remain head of the Israeli delegation in Washington. Peres’ role with regard to the peace process was to be confined to the BS “multilateral negotiations.” One month after the formation of his government, Rabin reluctantly agreed to nominate Yossi Beilin as Deputy Foreign Minister.

In September 1992, as Beilin was frustrated with his lack of control over the bilateral negotiations, his Norwegian counterpart Jan Egeland paid a visit to Israel and reminded Beilin about the idea of the secret channel on which he had agreed three months earlier with Yair Hirschfeld, Faisal Husseini and Terje Larsen. Beilin and Egeland agreed to start secret talks between Israel and the PLO in Oslo. Since Rabin had forbidden Peres himself to meet with Faisal Husseini, Beilin could not reasonably expect Peres to allow him to meet with PLO representatives in Oslo. Consequently, Beilin asked Hirschfeld to travel to Oslo and to start secret negotiations with the PLO. Rabin himself was unaware of these secret talks.

When Peres reported to Rabin about the Oslo channel, Rabin was not enthusiastic, and he warned Peres not to torpedo the Washington talks. However, Rabin apparently did not believe that the secret discussions in Oslo would bring substantial results, and so he let Peres go ahead.

During his elections campaign in 1992, Rabin had committed to sign an interim agreement with the Palestinians within nine months. In March 1993 (eight months after the elections), there was no prospect of an interim agreement with the Palestinians through the Washington talks. By contrast, Hirschfeld (together with Ron Pundak) had agreed on a declaration of principles with Mahmoud Abbas, and all they needed was Rabin’s green light.

In early May 1993, Peres managed to convince Rabin that the Oslo track was the Government’s last hope, and Rabin agreed to send the Director General of the Foreign Ministry, Uri Savir, to Oslo. However, a few days later, Rabin sent a letter to Peres, in which he denounced the Oslo process. Rabin claimed in his letter that the secret Oslo talks were actually undermining the peace process and that the PLO in Tunis was manipulating Israel in Oslo in order to torpedo the Washington talks.

Eventually, Rabin gave his green light to Oslo because he had been unable to reach an agreement with the Palestinians in Washington. But he did not initiate this process and he had serious reservations about it.

Rabin was an honest and decent man who cared about the well-being of his soldiers and the safety of his country. He was a talented army officer; as a political leader he was altogether uncharismatic, gauche, and pragmatic. He eventually endorsed and signed an agreement which others had conceived and negotiated without his knowledge and against his electoral platform. The fact that he paid with his life for the controversial Oslo Agreements is a tragedy, and nobody has a monopoly over the pain and shame that fell upon us in November 1995.

Turning Rabin into a born-again peacenik is a factual and historical fraud. The two gigantic doves that ornate the Rabin Center in Tel-Aviv are a mixture of esthetical bad taste and intellectual dishonesty. As we commemorate Rabin’s tragic death, let us honor his memory by respecting him for what he was rather for what he wasn’t.

1 comment:

Love of the Land said...

Excellent piece that's strikes a much needed balance between the two polar opposites that normally overwhelm any other narrative.