A powerful legacy

The assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin took place 13 years ago. Any attempt to assess its ramifications for the overall course of the peace process ever since is a potentially frustrating exercise in "what if". It also goes directly to the heart of the debate among historians and others regarding the role of individuals in shaping history.

Perhaps the best way to try to assess Rabin’s legacy is to examine what aspects and components of his approach to the peace process appear to remain valid or "operational" today. Rabin, after all, did not originate Israel’s negotiating processes with Jordan, Syria and the Palestinians. That honor fell to his unwilling predecessor, Yitzhak Shamir, within the framework of the Madrid conference and subsequent Washington talks. Rabin, in scarcely three years as prime minister, contributed the Oslo framework of direct talks with the PLO (rather than indirect, as in Washington) and, on the Syrian track, the territorial "deposit". Both concepts remain eminently valid today, some 15 years later. This is no mean feat.

The division of the land that Rabin envisaged as far back as the mid-1970s, when during his first term as prime minister he predicted that eventually the settlers "would need visas" to visit the West Bank, was anchored from Israel’s standpoint in security rather than diplomacy. Rabin also originated the concept of a security fence separating Israelis and Palestinians.

But Rabin was also the first Israeli leader to speak frankly to the nation about its relationship with the Palestinian people. As Prof. Zeev Sternhall noted pointedly a few days ago, the Rabin revolution was based on "the idea that the [1948] War of Independence had ended once and for all and that now there were two peoples living in the land and both had rights to it". This concept, so central to a successful resolution to the conflict, also survived Rabin’s murder, as did his repeated declaration that it was high time Israelis realized that the world is not against us but is prepared to work with us–note the growing readiness of a succession of Israeli leaders to seek out regional and international allies, mediators and peacekeepers in our conflicts with Iran and non-state actors like Hizballah.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Rabin’s peace legacy is the one we take most for granted: peace with Jordan. It is no coincidence that Rabin turned to Jordan’s King Hussein the moment Israel signed the Oslo Declaration of Principles. He recognized that peace with the Hashemite Kingdom offered far more security to Israel on its eastern flank and in its relations with the Palestinians than any potential deal with the Palestinians. Today, with Hamas’ rise to power and the growing threat from Iran to the east, this determination remains as valid as ever.

On the other hand, Rabin’s readiness to trust and work with PLO leader Yasser Arafat did not survive him. Israel’s relationship with the Palestinian leader deteriorated steadily after Rabin’s death until Arafat–isolated by Ariel Sharon, shunned internationally and almost totally discredited in the eyes of the Israeli public by his reliance on violence and drive to undermine Israel–died under murky circumstances.

I recall on September 13, 1993, the day of the Oslo signing on the White House lawn, asking then head of the Jaffee Center Aharon Yariv, a retired general who had served as Rabin’s chief of intelligence during the 1967 Six-Day War, whether he planned to watch the ceremony on television. "I can’t," he replied. "I know how painful it will be for Yitzhak to shake Arafat’s hand and I can’t bear to see it."

The whole world remembers the pained look on Rabin’s face at the moment of that dramatic handshake. What if he had refused? Would we be better or worse off today? What if . . . ?

Finally, 13 years later, Rabin’s assassination continues to symbolize the rise of the violent messianic political right in Israel. They are still among us. They still threaten everything that is dear to rational, peace-minded Israelis. Here is one area where Rabin’s successors have failed miserably.