Former Israeli diplomat and Tel Aviv University president Itamar Rabinovich’s new biography of Yitzhak Rabin begins by acknowledging what anyone attempting to demystify the life and times of Israel’s fifth prime minister is up against. “A political assassination…is unlike any other form of death,” Rabinovich writes in the prologue to Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman, part of Yale University Press’s ongoing Jewish Lives series. “An assassination is not only the terminal point of a person’s life but also the starting point of a new reality that the death itself created.”
Rabin’s human proportions are now hopelessly obscured behind layers of political narrative and outright myth. In death, Rabin has been drafted into a simplistic and personality-driven theory of recenet history: He’s a visionary who would have willed Israel and the Middle East into a golden age of coexistence; a martyr to a dying utopian idea as well as the victim of a society that’s proven incapable of ever truly embracing it. At times, Rabin is remembered as the Israeli equivalent of some idealized version of Abraham Lincoln, his life a providential means of herding his country from one historical stage to the next, and at the inevitable expense of his own life.
Rabinovich’s book provides some much-needed clarity, and it begins with a rejection of the Lincoln comparison, which comes slightly later in the prologue. “Lincoln had completed his mission; his assassination was an act of revenge against that achievement,” Rabinovich writes a little later in his prologue. In contrast, Rabin’s accomplishments were incomplete and ambiguous. The Oslo Accords were an era-defining breakthrough, but there’s still no final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and there may not have been one even if Rabin had lived. Both in his book and in a recent interview with Tablet, Rabinovich ominously notes that in his view, the domestic forces responsible for the atmosphere of violence and division in the lead-up to Rabin’s assassination have gone unchecked in the two decades since. “Among the developments that reinforced and accelerated” Israel’s “journey towards the right” and away from a “genuine quest” for peace with the Palestinians, he writes, were the fact that “the Israeli state failed to punish the larger circle that incited and called for the killing of Rabin, that Israeli society did not go through the requisite soul-searching after the assassination… The assassin and his camp were in fact rewarded for the crime.”
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Rabinovich served as Rabin’s (and later Shimon Peres’s) ambassador to Washington and lead negotiator with Syria from 1993 to 1996. Since Rabinovich was a close colleague of the prime minister’s, the Rabin he describes isn’t a reassuring or politically useful abstraction, but an imperfect and never fully-formed political actor. Rabin was “not a jumper off of cliffs,” he explained. “He didn’t look five stations ahead. He always looked at the next station. I don’t think he expected to become prime minister.” At times, Rabin benefited from wild swings of fortune: The aftermath of a war scare stemming from a botched military exercise in 1959 cleared the way for Rabin to become the IDF’s third in command, just as he was planning to travel to the U.S. to study at Harvard University.
As Rabinovich’s book explains, Rabin’s worldview was formed out of experiences from early in his career. During Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, Rabin commanded the division of the Harel Brigades tasked with securing the road between the new country’s Jewish-majority coastal plain and Jerusalem, its besieged inland capital. The division’s casualty rate pushed the 50 percent mark, and Rabin became convinced that Israel had been dangerously ill-prepared to fight off the Arab invasion. “The reason that he decided to stay in the IDF was to make sure that didn’t happen again,” said Rabinovich.
Rabinovich’s book touches on another intriguing detail in Rabin’s early biography: In February of 1949, Rabin attended the conference on the Greek island of Rhodes where Egypt and Israel negotiated their post-war ceasefire agreement. In Rhodes, the young lieutenant colonel Rabin saw that “it was not in Israel’s interest to negotiate with an Arab collective,” and understood that “Israel does better when it deals separately with individual Arab states,” Rabinovich writes—the future prime minister saw that peace was possible, so long as it was done gradually and carefully. Later on, Rabin showed a remarkable ability to learn from both his failures and his triumphs. The scandal and infighting of his first unsuccessful, mid-’70s term as prime minister taught him to be a less domineering and more politically minded leader when he took the reins again 15 years later. And one of the many surprises of Rabinovich book is reading about Rabin’s sense of regret over his role in the multi-year escalation cycle with Egypt and Syria leading up to the 1967 Six-Day War, at time when he served as the IDF’s chief of staff and cemented his later reputation as Israel’s “Mr. National Security.”
Rabinovich describes Rabin as “a military hawk and a political dove,” someone who was widely respected, but lacking in natural charisma. If the IDF ever entered into a conflict, Rabin believed it had to win, regardless of how ill-advised that conflict might be at its core—an attitude that might explain Rabin’s commitment to violently suppressing the first Palestinian uprising when he served as Yizhak Shamir and Shimon Peres’s Minister of Defense in the 1980s. At the same time, he saw the strategic necessity of an accommodation over the status of the West Bank from an early point, telling a group of “young Orthodox Zionists” in 1974 that he was willing to “visit Kfar Etziyon with a passport,” according to Rabinovich’s book.
During his second term as prime minister, which lasted from July of 1992 until his assassination on November 4, 1995, Rabin recognized that the biggest threats to Israel were no longer from Egypt, Syria, or the Palestinians, but from Iraq and Iran, the hostile revisionist states further to Israel’s east. “He believed that Israel had to consolidate its immediate environment in order to deal with these threats,” saidRabinovich. Rabin wanted to put his country on the path to peace with Syria and the Palestinians, and saw an opening for negotiations after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been a patron of Hafez al-Assad’s regime in Syria as well as Yassir Arafat’s PLO. But that doesn’t mean Rabin ever intended to rush towards a final agreement with either. “I don’t think that when he began he was trying to achieve final status peace with all of Israel’s neighbors,” Rabinovich said. “He was an incrementalist by inclination and he always moved step by step.”
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Assassinated leaders leave a trail of “what ifs” in their wake. Rabinovich thinks that Yigal Amir “inflicted a blow” on the peace process on November 4, 1995, without entirely killing the possibility of peace. Still, the former ambassador hinted at what Rabin’s future could have included. According to Rabinovich, Rabin believed that peace with Syria could be possible during a hypothetical third term as prime minister, so long as there was “geopolitical pressure on Assad in order for him to make a deal.”
Rabinovich believes that the biggest missed opportunity of the early 1990s peace process was Rabin’s “deposit” of hypothetical Israeli concessions in a prospective peace deal with Syria, which he communicated to Secretary of State Warren Christopher in August of 1993. At that point, Hafez al-Assad demanded Israel commit to fully withdrawing from the Golan Heights as a starting-point for negotiations. In a characteristically subtle move, Rabin outlined his vision of a generous final agreement for Christopher, with the expectation that the US’s top diplomat would use his knowledge of Israel’s bottom line to carefully guide Assad to the negotiating table. Rabinovich writes that the “deposit” was mishandled: Christopher prematurely revealed Israel’s final status positions during a meeting with Assad that month, leaving Rabin with the feeling that “the rug had been pulled out from under him,” Rabinovich writes. Assad also gave only vague indication that he was ready to call off his conflict with Israel under any circumstances. A settlement with Syria “would have put the whole peace process on a different footing,” said Rabinovich, and even might have prevented Syria’s violent collapse two decades later. Alas, Rabinovich said, “the combination of the mishandling of the deposit and the ambivalence of Assad directed the peace process to the Palestinian track” instead, where it founders to this day.
Rabinovich’s book transports readers back to a time when a much different Middle East seemed possible, an all-too-brief window when regional tranquility wasn’t a far-off notion or a dark punchline. But Rabinovich’s book also makes the important case that nothing was ever as simple or straightforward as it now may seem to have been—starting with Rabin himself.
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Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.