A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The "What Ifs?" of Yitzhak Rabin, 20 Years Later

Yitzhak Rabin, 1922-1995
Over the past several days Israeli and Western media have been full of appreciations of the late Yitzhak Rabin, shot down by fellow Israeli Yigal Amir 20 years ago tomorrow. Most of what needs to be said has already been said by others, but I want to add a few thoughts of my own.

Speculating about alternative histories, the "what ifs?", is one of the most tempting, but also most futile, of historical enterprises. But in the two decades since Rabin's death, an entire generation of young Israelis and Palestinians has grown up which never knew the heady first years after the Oslo Accords, when so many things seemed possible, even within reach; as opposed to now, when nothing does.

Rabin was an unlikely candidate for peacemaker, but like Richard Nixon going to China or Menachem Begin making peace with Egypt, that may have been an advantage.

Born in Jerusalem in 1922, he would be the first sabra (native-born) Prime Minister (unless one counts a few days Yigal Allon served in an acting capacity between the death of Levi Eshkol and the election of Golda Meir). Chief of Operations for the Palmach during the 1948 War, Rabin soon began to rise through the ranks of the IDF. As Chief of Staff at the outbreak of the 1967 War, an apparent health issue led to controversy, but he overcame it, He served as Ambassador to Washington in 1968-1973, when, as a young grad student, I first saw him speak. In 1973 he was elected to the Knesset and within a year, after Golda Meir's resignation, he was elected leader of the Labor Alignment and found himself Prime Minister.

A religious dispute led to new elections being called in 1977 and a financial controversy saw the victory of Likud under Begin. He returned to office in the 1980s, as Defense Minister in several governments.

During the eighties I was writing on Middle Eastern defense issues and found myself in Israel almost annually and sometimes more. I met Rabin a couple of times and attended several press conferences and may have asked him a question or two, though I surely never "knew" him. He came across as he did to many of his fellow-countrymen: smart and tough but with a rather abrasive personality; crusty, a chain-smoking, raspy-voiced soldier who didn't smile a lot. His personality was a sharp contrast to his longtime Labor rival Shimon Peres, who came across a a nice guy but not that effective, while Rabin was the tough cop who got things done. That may be unfair, but it is how he came across to his audiences.

Rabin won his second term as Prime Minister in 1992 and the following year came the Oslo Accords. The famous handshake between Rabin and Yasser Arafat at the White House says a lot:
Rabin is rather visibly uncomfortable.  In 2013 I compared it to two other uncomfortable Middle Eastern handshakes: that between Generals Giraud and de Gaulle at Casablanca in 1943 and that between Obama and Qadhafi in Italy in 2009.

Oslo seems distant now. The failures which followed, especially the Camp David II collapse, was not one-sided; Arafat and Ehud Barak were both being asked to agree to something neither was ready to do.

What if Rabin had lived? We'll never know. If John F. Kennedy had lived, would he have pulled out of Vietnam as Oliver Stone but few others believe? If Lincoln had lived, would Reconstruction have been different and Jim Crow avoided? If Rabin had, lived, would we have a two-state solution? Thanks to the bullets of Lee Harvey Oswald, John Wilkes Booth, and Yigal Amir, we're never going to know.

Rabin died 20 years ago tomorrow. Oslo died more recently, and many think it's time to take the two-state solution off life support. Would things have been different had he lived? We'll never know, but I want those born or who have come of age since then to know what once, however improbable, once seemed at least possible and even within our grasp. I still want to believe it might have been so.

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