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World & Nation

From the Archives: A general who wanted peace

A soldier who had fought for Israel’s survival for a generation in a hostile Middle East, Yitzhak Rabin had become the engineer of a new era of peace that he believed would bring true security for the reborn Jewish state.

Standing on the White House lawn two years ago with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, the Israeli prime minister summed up his transition and that of his country as he quoted in an emotion-choked, gravelly voice from the Book of Ecclesiastes:

“A time to be born and a time to die, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to love and a time to hate, a time of war and a time of peace.”

Rabin, 73 when he was killed Saturday, had dearly hoped to lead the Jewish state into that “time of peace,” believing this to be his duty as one of the last of the founding generation of modern Israel.

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“Those of us who have fought in our wars, who have lost friends and comrades in battle, who have had to console their parents and children, value peace all the more,” he said earlier this year. “Our security rests not only in the strength of our defense forces but in the peaceful relations we have sought for so long with our neighbors.”

Rabin was a sabra, a term for a native-born Israeli that comes from the name of a local fruit that is prickly on the outside but sweet on the inside. And like the sabra fruit, Rabin was a bundle of contradictions, a study in contrasts. He was a general who came to make peace, a politician who sought a diplomatic avenue to return territory he had conquered militarily, a trusted traditionalist perceived by the Israeli electorate three years ago as the leader who could bring change.

“My goals have not changed--circumstances have,” Rabin said as his Labor Party won the 1992 parliamentary elections on a pro-peace platform. “I don’t see how anyone can say Israel is safe while we are still at war with all but one of our neighbors. . . . Is this our bequest to our children and grandchildren? Is this what we want for our people, our state?”

An ultimate centrist on the Israeli political scene, Rabin was reflecting Israelis’ desire for peace and the determination to achieve it.

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“Our people are an ancient people, but a very young people,” he said over coffee the morning after he received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, in December, 1994, an honor he shared with Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. “That means we have come a long way over more than 5,000 years but have a much longer way to go. One can hardly be complacent with so far to go, so much to do and so little time left to us.”

Where Peres provided the vision and diplomatic brilliance that brought agreements with the PLO and Jordan and brought Israel’s increasing acceptance in the Arab world, Rabin made the decisions and marshaled the political support that made those agreements work.

Rabin’s was a life that encompassed the founding and growth of modern Israel as it sprung from the ashes of the Holocaust, that struggled for survival against enemies on all sides, that has prospered beyond all predictions and that finally has a hope of living at peace.

As the chief of staff of Israeli forces in the 1967 war with Egypt, Syria and Jordan, Rabin captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; as prime minister a quarter-century later, he negotiated the agreements with the PLO to pull Israeli forces back from those territories and to launch the 2 million Palestinians there toward self-determination.

With Jordan, he concluded a peace treaty, the second Israel has signed with an Arab neighbor; with Syria, he was trying to conclude a treaty that would complete a circle of peace around Israel.

“This is not easy--after decades of war, peace does not come quickly--but it is work that I feel I must complete,” he told visitors to his Jerusalem office this year. “That’s my hope--Israel safe, Israel at peace.”

Rabin, however, was never for a peace that put Israel’s security at risk. Presenting his government to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in 1974, at the outset of his first term as prime minister, he declared, “We prefer peace to new military victories, a stable peace, a just peace, an honorable peace, but not peace at any price.”

Rabin was a soldier by profession, a politician through what he called “historical necessity.”

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“I never set out to be a soldier--I wanted to be an engineer, to build things,” Rabin recalled in an interview a few years ago. “And I never wanted to be a politician--I did it out of duty. If I could, I would still be that engineer and bring water to our fields.”

Yet he always remained the general--gruff, tough on his staff, impatient with what he called “the baby-kissing niceties” of politics, a leader who would listen to advisers but who made his decisions alone.

Rabin--short, sandy-haired, blue-eyed--maintained his military bearing; he chain-smoked, enjoyed Scotch, played tennis avidly and made home movies of his family and its vacations. With his wife, Leah, Rabin had two children--a son, Yuval, and a daughter, Dalia.

Born in Jerusalem on March 1, 1922, Rabin belonged to a generation called the “Golden Israelis,” a rugged new breed of Jew who rose, with the state, out of the Holocaust.

He studied at the Kadoorie Agricultural School, a training ground for many Israeli leaders of his generation, and won honors there. He then joined the Palmach, Israel’s pre-independence underground militia. During World War II, his Palmach unit fought alongside the British army against Vichy French forces in Syria.

After the war, the Palmach turned its attention to the struggle for Israeli independence. One successful Rabin mission in 1945 liberated hundreds of Holocaust survivors from a British camp where they had been detained as “illegal immigrants” to Palestine. The British captured him and jailed him for six months in the Gaza Strip in 1946.

By 1948, Rabin was operations officer for the Palmach and led some of its largest units in the struggle against British rule in Palestine. During the war with the Arabs that followed Israel’s declaration of independence, he commanded the Palmach brigade that fought to hold Jerusalem and to keep the road open to the city. It was an experience that shaped his outlook on war and peace.

“In about two months, I lost 200 killed and 500 or 600 wounded out of 1,800 soldiers in my brigade--half my brigade,” Rabin recalled on the eve of the agreement with Arafat, justifying his controversial decision to make peace with the PLO. “Whatever happened was painful, but let’s make it different in the future. Or, at least let’s take a chance, a possibility that it will be different.

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“I am old guy. I served 27 years in the military. My son served. Now my grandson serves. Let’s give a hope that at least my grandson will not need to fight. If there will be a need, I’m sure that a fourth generation will do it. But I feel a responsibility to give a chance that it will not happen.”

In 1963, Rabin became Israel’s chief of staff and reorganized its defense forces, building up both its air force and armored corps and giving them a new fast-attack strategy. Although the reshaping was controversial, Rabin was proven right in the Six-Day War of June, 1967, in which Israeli forces defeated Arab armies in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights--and captured the Old City of Jerusalem.

Although it was Rabin’s greatest battlefield triumph, political opponents charged during the 1992 election campaign that he had suffered a nervous breakdown at the outset of the war and was paralyzed by indecision. He acknowledged that it was true that he had collapsed after nine days of no sleep, little food and chain-smoking but had recovered with a day’s rest. “I believe that wars have to be judged by their results,” he said, and voters agreed.

Appointed Israel’s ambassador to Washington in 1968, Rabin became convinced that relations with the United States were as vital an element to his country’s security as its defense forces, and during the 1973 Mideast War he won vital assistance from the Richard Nixon Administration when Israeli troops were reeling from the Arabs’ surprise attack.

He also studied the diplomacy of Henry A. Kissinger, President Nixon’s foreign policy adviser, who in turn sought Rabin’s advice during the Vietnam War. “He taught me a lot, particularly how to negotiate, when to hold fast and when to compromise,” Rabin said. “He can’t be blamed for my mistakes, but Dr. Kissinger should get credit for some of our achievements.”

Rabin returned to Israel after the 1973 war and succeeded Golda Meir as prime minister. It was not a distinguished term: Rabin’s political inexperience led to much infighting within his Cabinet and economic stagnation.

That term ended in scandal and Rabin’s resignation in 1977 after he and his wife acknowledged they had retained bank accounts in Washington in violation of Israeli law after their return to Israel.

In the election that followed, the Labor Party was defeated by the Likud bloc, the rightist opposition, and it did not return to power until 1992. In the interim years, Rabin battled Shimon Peres, an old rival, for leadership of the Labor Party, a struggle that sapped much of its--and the two men’s--energy.

In 1984, Rabin became defense minister in a national unity government formed by Labor and Likud. He promptly got Israeli forces out of a military quagmire in Lebanon, where they had gone in pursuit of the PLO, but failed to anticipate the intifada, the Palestinian uprising against the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Once he understood the seriousness of the intifada--it eventually forced Israel into peace negotiations with the PLO and other Arabs--Rabin called for a “political resolution” but also ordered soldiers to “break the arms and legs” of stone-throwing, tire-burning Palestinian youths waging the street war against the occupation.

By 1992, Rabin had won control of the Labor Party from Peres, and Labor in turn won the parliamentary elections with its promise of seeking peace and Rabin’s image as “Mr. Security,” narrowly defeating Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Likud.

Initially, he sought to negotiate with Syrian President Hafez Assad, offering to return portions--perhaps all--of the Golan Heights as part of a peace treaty.

But secret negotiations with the PLO suddenly surged ahead in the summer of 1993, and Rabin ordered Israel’s diplomats to pursue the historic Oslo agreement on Palestinian self-rule, a breakthrough that he had trouble believing and even accepting until Arafat signed a letter recognizing the Jewish state.

The accord with the PLO split Israel with a bare majority for it and violent protests against it by settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and their supporters within the country.

This accord was “a dagger pointed at the heart of Israel,” opposition leaders declared, warning of the increase of terrorism that would follow.

Convinced of his position, Rabin replied, “Believe me, more Israelis got killed in wars and clashes with Egypt than by all the organs of terrorism.

“Once the Jewish people decided that here in the Land of Israel we have to establish a Jewish state, we decided also who will be our neighbors--the Arab countries, the Muslim world. . . .

“And there are two ways to deal with this reality: a prolonged war of violence and terror, or to live in peace. There is no third choice.”


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