Prime Minister Rabin insisted on defensible borders. He never entertained a return to the 1967 borders nor any territorial swaps.
Prime Minister and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated 25 years ago by a Jewish zealot because he sought peace with the Palestinians based on partition of the Land of Israel (– what has become known as the Oslo process). Each year on the anniversary of this tragedy, debate roils over Rabin’s political legacy.
Only very few deny the fact that overall, the Oslo process was a failure, because the Palestinian national movement was not (and still is not) ripe for historic compromise with the Zionist movement. There is evidence that Rabin came to this realization as well, before he was assassinated. Rabin was skeptical of the Oslo process from the start, and he projected growing ambivalence. He was considering calling an end to the process. Nevertheless, the Oslo fiasco was his responsibility.
In retrospective, perhaps there was no other way to widely bring Israeli leadership and the Israeli public to the conclusion that Israel had no Palestinian peace partner – except to pay in blood along the way.
A close look at Rabin’s core diplomatic and defense views, above and beyond Oslo, does the late prime minister more justice. It is worth remembering that the centrality of Israeli national security in his worldview never wavered.
Rabin was ready for partition of the West Bank, which was the classic Zionist position, but he insisted on defensible borders for Israel. He never entertained a return to the 1967 borders or any territorial swaps. In his last speech to the Knesset (October 5, 1995), he outlined his preferred map. Israel’s defensible eastern border was to be the Jordan Valley (“in the widest sense”). The areas around a united Jerusalem were to be included in Israel. He spoke of a Palestinian “entity” (which he said would “be less than a state”) to run the affairs of Palestinians.
These formulations were (and remain) in sync with the Israeli consensus, and they are quoted in this year’s American administration peace plan (the “Trump Plan”). Indeed, Rabin’s cautious and skeptical attitude toward peace politics is a needed corrective for some of the euphoric thinking on display in Israel these days. Rabin often reminded audiences that Israel is in the Middle East where peace treaties generally are a temporary phenomenon at best.
Rabin also believed that Israel would have to live by its sword for many years. Therefore, he insisted that large defense outlays were mandatory even after the signing of peace treaties. According to Rabin, Israeli military power was a necessary condition in guaranteeing the preservation of treaties with neighbors in a turbulent Middle East. This view is still very relevant nowadays.
Indeed, various aspects of Rabin’s complex personality have become the foci of identification for different types of Israelis. Rabin’s personal traits were admirable! He was an Israeli patriot who unselfishly dedicated his life to the security of Jewish state. He had an impressive analytical mind. He was an honest Israeli, who spoke his mind without varnish.
Some of Rabin’s views changed over time, but the centrality of national security for Israel remained basically unchanged. This is the best prism for understanding Yitzhak Rabin. For most Israelis, Rabin represented “Mr. Security” – definitely not “Mr. Democracy” or “Mr. Peace” as some in Israel have since tried to portray him.
Rabin’s achievements in the area of national security were remarkable. As Chief of Staff he built the IDF into a mighty military machine and led it the victory of 1967, including the liberation of Jerusalem. As Prime Minister he helped rebuild the IDF in the post-1973 period. As Defense Minister he extricated Israel from the Lebanese quagmire in 1985. He managed to fight the intifada tenaciously without leaving too many scars on the IDF and in Israeli society. In 1994, he reached a peace treaty with the Kingdom of Jordan.
The assassin deprived Rabin of the opportunity of coming to come to grips with the failure of the Oslo process; a process which Rabin did not initiate but proudly backed.
The mythology on Rabin is still in the making. As time passes, we should try to remember not only his weaknesses and failures, but also his great achievements.
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.