Remembering Yitzhak Rabin

A year before the Oslo agreement, I had a meeting with Yasser Arafat in Tunis. He was full of curiosity about Yitzhak Rabin, who had just been elected prime minister.

I described him as well as I could and ended with the words: "He is as honest as a politician can be."

Arafat broke into laughter, and all the others present, among them Mahmoud Abbas and Yasser Abed-Rabbo, joined in.

For the sake of proper disclosure: I always liked Rabin as a human being. I especially liked some traits of his.

First of all: his honesty. This is such a rare quality among politicians that it stood out like an oasis in the desert. His mouth and his heart were one, as far as is possible in political life. He did not lie when he could possibly avoid it.

He was a decent human being. Witness the "dollar affair": when his term as Israeli ambassador in Washington, D.C., came to an end, his wife Leah left behind a bank account, contrary to Israeli law at the time. When it was discovered, he protected his wife by assuming personal responsibility. At the time, unlike today, "assuming responsibility" was not an empty phrase. He left the prime minister’s office.

I liked even his most evident personality trait – his introversion. He was withdrawn, with few human contacts. Not a fellow-well-met back-slapper, not one for lavishing compliments, indeed an anti-politician.

Also, I liked the way he told people straight to the face what he thought of them. Some of his expressions, in juicy Hebrew, have become part of Israeli folklore. Such as "indefatigable intriguer" (about Shimon Peres), "propellers" (about the settlers, meaning electric fans which spin noisily without going anywhere), "garbage of weaklings" (about people leaving Israel for good).

He had no small talk. In every conversation, he came to the point right at the start.

One might imagine that these characteristics would alienate people. Quite to the contrary, people were attracted to him because of them. In a world of pretentious, garrulous, mendacious, back-slapping politicians, he was a refreshing rarity.

More than anything else, I respected Rabin for his dramatic change of outlook at the age of 70. The man who had been a soldier since he was 18, who had fought Arabs all his life, suddenly became a peace-fighter. And not just a fighter for peace in general, but for peace with the Palestinian people, whose very existence had always been denied by the leaders of Israel.

The public memory, one of the most effective instruments of the establishment, is trying nowadays to obliterate this chapter. Throughout the country one can buy postcards showing Rabin shaking hands with King Hussein at the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement, but it is almost impossible to find a card showing Rabin with Arafat at the Oslo agreement signing ceremony. Never happened.

As I have recounted before, I was an eyewitness to his inner revolution. From 1969 on, until after the Oslo agreement, we had a running debate about the Palestinian issue – at the Washington embassy, at parties where we met casually (generally at the bar), in the prime minister’s office, and at his private home.

In one 1969 conversation, he objected strenuously to any dealings with the Palestinians. One sentence imprinted itself upon my mind: "I want an open border, not a secure border" (a play of words in Hebrew). At the time, his former commander, Yigal Alon, was spreading the slogan "secure borders," in order to justify extensive annexations of occupied territory. Rabin wanted an open border between Israel and the West Bank, which he intended to give back to King Hussein. After this conversation, I wrote him that the border would be open only if there was a Palestinian state on the other side, because then the economic realities would compel both states – Israel and Palestine – to maintain close relations.

In 1975, after the start of my secret contacts with the PLO, I went to brief him (in accordance with the express wishes of the PLO). In the conversation that took place at the prime minister’s office, I tried to convince him to give up the "Jordanian option," which I had always considered silly. He refused adamantly. "We must make peace with Hussein," he told me. "After he has signed, I don’t care if the king is toppled." Like Shimon Peres and many others, he entertained the illusion that the king would give up East Jerusalem.

I told him that I could not follow the logic of this line of thought. Let’s imagine that the king signed and was then overthrown. What next? The PLO would take over a state extending from Tulkarm to the approaches of Baghdad, in which four Arab armies could easily assemble. Was that, I asked, what he wanted?

In this conversation, too, one sentence imprinted itself on my mind: "I will not take the smallest step toward the Palestinians, because the first step would lead inevitably to the creation of a Palestinian state, and I don’t want that." In the end he told me: "I oppose what you are doing, but I will not prevent you from meeting with them. If these meetings reveal things to you that you think the Israeli prime minister should know about, my door is open." That was Rabin all over. The contacts, of course, broke the law.

After that I brought him several messages from Arafat, conveyed to me by the PLO representative in London, Sa’id Hamami. Arafat proposed small mutual gestures. Rabin refused all of them.

Consequently, I was all the more impressed by Oslo. Later Rabin explained to me, one Shabbat at his private apartment, how he arrived there: King Hussein had resigned his responsibility for the West Bank. The "village leagues," set up by Israel as pliant "representatives" of the Palestinians, were a dismal failure. As minister of defense he summoned local Palestinian leaders for individual consultations, and one after another they told him that their political address was in Tunis. After that, at the Madrid conference, Israel agreed to negotiate with a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, but then the Jordanians told them that all Palestinian matters must be discussed with the Palestinian members alone. But at every meeting, the Palestinian delegates asked for a pause in order to call Tunis and get instructions from Arafat. Rabin’s conclusion: if all decisions were made by Arafat anyhow, why not talk with him directly?

It has always been said that Rabin had an "analytical mind." He did not have much of an imagination, but he viewed facts soberly, analyzed them logically, and drew his conclusions.

If so, why did the Oslo agreement fail?

The practical reasons are easy to see. From the beginning, the agreement was build on shaky foundations, because it lacked the main thing: a clear definition of the final objective of the process.

For Arafat, it was self-evident that the agreed "interim stages" would lead to an independent Palestinian state in the whole of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with perhaps some minor exchanges of territory. East Jerusalem, including of course the Holy Shrines, was to become the capital of Palestine. The settlements would be dismantled. I am convinced that he would have been satisfied with a symbolic return of a limited number of refugees to Israel proper.

That was Arafat’s price for giving up 78 percent of the country, and no Palestinian leader, present or future, could be satisfied with less.

But Rabin’s aim was unclear, perhaps even to himself. At the time he was not yet ready to accept a Palestinian state. Absent an agreed destination, all the "interim phases" went awry. Every step caused new conflicts. (As I wrote at the time, when traveling from Paris to Berlin, one can stop at interim stations. When traveling from Paris to Madrid, one can also stop at interim stations – but they will be quite different ones.)

Arafat was conscious of the faults of the agreement. He told his people that it was "the best possible agreement in the worst possible circumstances." But he believed that the dynamics of the peace process would overcome the obstacles on the way. So did I. We were both wrong.

After the signing, Rabin began to hesitate. Instead of rushing forward to create facts, he dithered. This gave the opposing forces in Israel time to recoup from the shock, regroup, and start a counterattack, which ended in his assassination.

Perhaps this mistake could have been foreseen. Rabin was by nature a cautious person. He was conscious of the heavy responsibility that rested on his shoulders. He had no taste for drama, unlike Begin, nor was he blessed with a vivid imagination, like Herzl. For better and for worse, he lived in the real world. He had no idea how to change it, though he knew that he had to do just that.

But these explanations are only the foam upon the waves. Deep under the surface, powerful currents were at work. They pushed Rabin off course and in the end they swallowed him.

Rabin was a child of the classic Zionist ideology. He never rebelled against it. He carried in his body the genetic code of the Zionist movement, a movement whose aim from the beginning was to turn the Land of Israel into an exclusively Jewish state, which denied the very existence of the Arab Palestinian people and whose logic ultimately meant their displacement.

Like most of his generation in the country, he absorbed this ideology with his mother’s milk and was raised on it throughout. It shaped his ideas so thoroughly that he was not even aware of it. At the critical juncture of his life, he fell victim to an insoluble inner contradiction: his analytical mind told him to make peace with the Palestinians, to "give up" a part of the country, and to dismantle the settlements, while his Zionist genetic heritage opposed this with all its might. That manifested itself visibly at the Oslo agreement signing ceremony: he offered his hand to Arafat because his mind commanded it, but all his body language expressed rejection.

It is impossible to make peace without a basic mental and emotional commitment to peace. Impossible to change the direction of a historic movement without reassessing its history. Impossible for a leader to steer his people toward a total change (as Ataturk did in Turkey, for example) if he is not completely devoted to the change himself. Impossible to make peace with an enemy without understanding his truth.

Rabin’s inner convictions continued to evolve after Oslo. Between him and Arafat, mutual respect grew. Perhaps he would have arrived, in his slow and cautious way, at the necessary mental change. The assassin and his handlers must have been afraid of this and decided to forestall it.

Rabin’s failure will find its expression at the memorial rally next week at the very place where we witnessed his murder, 14 years ago. The main speakers will be two of the gravediggers of the Oslo agreement, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, as well as Tzipi Livni and Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who belonged to the forces that created the climate for the murder. Rabin, I assume, will turn in his grave.

Will I be there? Not me, thank you very much.

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Author: Uri Avnery

Uri Avnery is a longtime Israeli peace activist. Since 1948 he has advocated the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. In 1974, Uri Avnery was the first Israeli to establish contact with the PLO leadership. In 1982 he was the first Israeli ever to meet Yasser Arafat, after crossing the lines in besieged Beirut. He served three terms in the Israeli Knesset and is the founder of Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc). Visit his Web site.