12 Years Later

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The President of the Knesset invited me to take part in the special Knesset session to commemorate the 12th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

I debated with myself whether to accept the invitation.

On the one hand, I would like to honor the man and the achievements of his last years. I liked him.

On the other hand, I had no wish to listen to a eulogy delivered by Shimon Peres, the man who pretended to follow Rabin’s path and who buried the Oslo agreement out of sheer cowardice. And even less to a eulogy from Ehud Olmert, one of the people who led the incitement campaign against the Oslo agreement and its authors. And still less to a eulogy from Binyamin Netanyahu, who stood on the balcony while the picture of Rabin in SS uniform was paraded below.

In the end, I decided to stay away from this orgy of sanctimonious hypocrisy. I did not go to the Knesset. Instead I sat at home watching the sea and thinking about the man.

About the young Yitzhak Rabin, who joined the Palmach (the pre-independence "regular forces"). The commander who drove the Arabs from their homes in the 1948 war. The Chief of Staff who called, on us, after the Six-Day War, to honor the enemy dead. The Prime Minister who did more for education than any of his predecessors or successors. The Prime Minister who allowed me to continue my secret contacts with the PLO leaders, when this constituted a serious crime. The Defense Minister who called on the soldiers to "break their arms and legs", an order that was meticulously carried out. The man who recognized the PLO and shook the hand of Yasser Arafat.

He was all of these, and the list goes on.

More than anything, he was the typical representative of my generation, the "generation of 1948" – and not by accident was this generation defined by a war. It was the era of innocence. The innocence of the fighters and of the Yishuv (the Hebrew society in pre-state Palestine). In retrospect, the events of that time – the actions of the underground organizations, the operations of the war – take on a different aspect, a picture with many shadows. But it must be remembered: that is not how they looked to us when they happened. Not at all.

Rabin personified the innocence of the generation which believed with all their hearts that they were sacrificing their lives for a cause more just than any other – the existence of the Yishuv, the salvation of the Jews of Europe, our fight for national independence. Without this absolute belief, coupled with total ignorance of the other side, we would not have stood the test of 1948 – a test in which a significant proportion of our age-group was killed or wounded.

This generation idealized a certain personality type – the "Sabra" (literally: prickly pear plant), a mythical figure that had an immense influence in shaping the generation. (I myself played some part in nursing this myth). The Sabra was supposed to be upright, both physically and mentally, free of the complexes of the "exile" Jews (the term "exilic" was the most insulting appellation in our lexicon). The "Sabra" was honest, truthful, practical, natural, someone who always comes straight to the point and despises hollow mannerisms, empty talk and histrionic phrases, which we referred to colloquially as "Zionism". Before we knew about the Holocaust, "exile" Jews and everything connected with them were treated with scorn, even contempt.

As if all by itself, a clear terminological distinction appeared: the "Hebrew" Yishuv and the "Jewish" religion, the "Hebrew" kibbutz and the "Jewish" shtetl (in the Diaspora), "Hebrew labor (as in the name of the then dominant trade union, "the General Organization of the Hebrew Workers in Eretz-Yisrael") and "Jewish" luft-gesheften (Yiddish for nebulous transactions), "Hebrew" workers and "Jewish" speculators.

Yitzhak Rabin was the ultimate Sabra: a handsome youngster who sacrificed his private ambition (to study hydraulic engineering) in order to serve the nation, to become a fighter and to command fighters, to act and leave the discussion of ideology to the old people.

He was reputed to possess an "analytical mind", because of his ability to examine a given situation and find practical solutions. The other side of the coin was his lack of imagination. He dealt with reality, and could not imagine a different reality. (Abba Eban, who hated his guts, told me in his malicious way: "Analysis means dissecting. Rabin can take things apart, but he cannot put them together again.")

He was withdrawn, perhaps shy, and drew back from bodily contact, slaps on the back and public embraces. Some called him an "autist’. But he was not overbearing, certainly not arrogant. After a few glasses (always Scotch) he opened up a little, and at parties he could smile his somewhat crooked smile and become quite friendly.

If he had died in 1970, we would remember him only as a soldier, a successful brigade commander in the 1948 war, the best Chief-of-Staff the Israeli army ever had, the architect of the incredible victory of the Six-day War. But that was only one chapter in his eventful life. A rare thing happened: at the age of 70 he did something that even 30-year olds are generally unable to do: he completely changed his world view and abandoned the certainties that had hitherto governed his life.

To this amazing change I was a witness. In 1969, when he was serving as Israeli ambassador in Washington, we talked for the first time about the Palestinian issue. He completely rejected the idea of peace with the Palestinians. I still remember a sentence of his from this conversation: "I don’t care for secure borders, I want open borders." (In Hebrew, a play on words: batuach means secure, patuach means open.) "Secure borders" was at the time the slogan of annexationists. Rabin meant an open border with Jordan, and once said: "I don’t care if I need a visa to go to Hebron."

After that we met from time to time – in his office, in the Prime Minister’s residence, at his private home and at parties – and the conversation always came back to the Palestinian issue. His attitude remained negative.

So I know how extreme a change it was. I don’t believe that it was I who influenced him – at most I planted, perhaps, a few seeds. He himself explained the change to me later as a series of logical deductions: when he was Defense Minister, he met with local Palestinian personalities. In one-to-one conversations they were amenable, but when they were in a group, they were tough and told him that they took their directions from the PLO. After that came the Madrid conference. Israel gave in to pressure and agreed to negotiate with a Jordanian delegation that included Palestinian members. Once there, the Jordanians refused to deal with Palestinian issues, and so the Palestinians became in practice an independent Palestinian delegation. Feisal Husseini, their real leader, was not allowed into the conference room because he was a Jerusalemite. The delegation members went to the other room from time to time to consult with him, and at the end of every day, they told the Israelis that they had to call Tunis to get instructions from Yasser Arafat.

"This became too ridiculous for me," Rabin told me in his straightforward way, "If everything depends on Arafat anyhow, why not talk with him directly?"

That was the background of Oslo.

How did Rabin’s Oslo ship get stuck on a sandbank?

I believe that much of the fault lies with Rabin himself. He really wanted to achieve peace with the Palestinians. But before his eyes he had no route to the objective, and no clear picture of the objective itself. The change was too sharp. Like Israeli society in general, he was unable to free himself overnight from the fears, mistrust, superstitions and prejudices accumulated over 120 years of conflict.

That is why he did not do the one thing that could have led the ship of Oslo to a safe haven: to use the momentum and achieve peace in a bold and rapid move. He did not know the famous dictum of David Lloyd-George concerning peace with Ireland: "You cannot cross an abyss with two jumps."

The makeup of his personality had a negative impact on the process. He was by nature cautious, slow, averse to dramatic gestures (unlike Menachem Begin, for example). This resulted in the fatal weakness of the Oslo agreement: the final aim was not spelled out. The two decisive words – "Palestinian State" – do not appear at all. This omission led to its collapse.

While the two sides wasted months and years haggling over every single detail of the endless "interim" steps, the anti-peace forces in Israel had time to recover and unite. Led by the settlers and the ultra-right, they were sustained by the hatreds and anxieties bred by the long war.

In military terms: Rabin was like a general who succeeds in breaking through the front – and, instead of pouring his forces into the breach and forcing a decision, hesitates and stays put, allowing the opposing forces to regroup and form a new front. In other words, he routed the forces of war, but allowed them to reunite and mount a counter-attack.

For this he paid with his life.

The murder of Rabin changed the history of Israel, much as the murder of the Austrian crown-prince in Sarajevo in 1914 changed the history of the world.

Nobody is irreplaceable, they say, but no second Rabin has been found – no one with his honesty, with his courage, with his logical mind.

This week, Ehud Olmert declared that he was continuing on the path of Rabin, but he represents the very opposite: the opposite of honesty, the opposite of courage, the opposite of logic (not to mention his propensity for embracing people and slapping them on the back.)

Rabin really wanted to move forward towards peace. Slowly-slowly, with stubborn haggling, but also with consistency and persistence. Olmert’s aims are quite different. He wants a "peace process" that has no end – babbling, meetings, conferences, without any movement, while in the meantime the occupation is continuing, annexation is creeping forward, settlements are enlarging and the hopes and chances for the two peoples are evaporating.

The Annapolis conference fits perfectly into this scheme: hollow declarations, another conference without results, a meaningless exhibition.

Some say that the most important thing is to talk, because "when you are talking you are not shooting." That is a dangerous illusion. In our case, the opposite is true: when you talk for the sake of talking while the occupation deepens, despair is gaining ground and the shooting has never really stopped. The failure of Annapolis may well trigger the outbreak of the Third Intifada.

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