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Yitzhak Rabin: MAN OF ISRAEL

11 minute read
Kevin Fedarko

FOR ISRAELIS OF YITZHAK RABIN’S generation, perhaps the single most valued quality an individual can have is summed up by the word dugri. The concept is quintessentially Israeli even though the term itself, somewhat ironically, comes from Arabic. It refers to a manner of behavior that is simple, direct, honest. It conveys the idea of placing substance before style, of stripping away layers of subterfuge, of making no attempt at pretense or deception.

More than anything else, Yitzhak Rabin’s life can be seen as an object lesson in dugri. When Rabin spoke, whether he was being cold or sentimental, he said what he meant. He once expressed a wish that the Gaza Strip would simply drop into the sea and disappear. But he also possessed a simple, human eloquence. Signing the Oslo accords at the Washington ceremony, he addressed the Palestinians with the following words: “We, like you, are people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, live side by side with you–in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free men.” In action too Rabin believed in strongly pursuing a straightforward–if often difficult–policy. When it came to fighting the Arabs, he was prepared to go to great lengths (in 1987, as Defense Minister, he is alleged to have instructed his troops to “break the bones” of Palestinian demonstrators in the intifadeh). But he was likewise willing to go enormous distances in pursuit of peace. Last Saturday pursuit of that goal took him all the way to his grave.

During his lifetime, Yitzhak Rabin stood at the very center of nearly every major event in his nation’s history. For that reason his own story, to a large extent, mirrors that of Israel itself. Four months after his birth on March 1, 1922, in Jerusalem, the League of Nations adopted the British mandate for Palestine, which affirmed Britain’s commitment to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland. At age 15, Rabin entered Kadoorie Agricultural High School, convinced that the best way to serve his country “was to prepare myself to become a farmer.” He graduated with that ambition still intact, but World War II forced him to postpone his plans to study hydraulic engineering at the University of California. Instead he joined the Haganah, the Jewish underground army (to which his mother had also belonged), and was swiftly invited by the swashbuckling Moshe Dayan, then a young commander, to join the Palmach, an elite strike force.

Within a month Rabin was participating in the daring sabotage raids for which the Palmach was renowned. In Syria his job was to slither up telephone poles and cut the wires so the pro-Nazi forces of Vichy France could not send for reinforcements. By 1944 he had been promoted to deputy battalion commander and had developed such a reputation as a shrewd military strategist that senior officers regularly sought his advice or opinions.

After the war the British government prevented the immigration of Holocaust survivors from Europe and forced the return of those who had already entered “illegally,” actions that drew the wrath of Jewish settlers in Palestine. In the fall of 1945, thanks to his growing status in the Palmach, Rabin found himself a key participant in a dramatic raid to rescue 200 Jewish refugees whom the British were holding at the Athlit detention camp.

It took eight months for the British to catch him. Arrested in June 1946, he spent five months in a Gaza detention camp. The British had decided to turn the problem of Palestine over to the United Nations, which in 1947 voted to partition the land into two states, one Jewish, the other Arab. No sooner did Israel declare itself a sovereign state than five Arab nations invaded, touching off the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. During the ensuing struggle, Rabin was given a number of difficult missions. Early in the war he was ordered to break the Arab blockade of Jerusalem and keep the road open to Tel Aviv. The brigade he commanded lost 70% of its members, and to this day, Israel maintains the wreckage of the convoys as memorials along the highway.

In Israel’s early years, Rabin spent several years training, building and equipping the army. By 1964 his career had flowered to the point where he was named army chief of staff, a post that not only placed him at the pinnacle of the military but also ushered him, for the first time, into a position of political leadership. His highly aggressive posturing with the Syrians, however, soon began to draw some harsh criticism. Such tactics had worked well in the Palmach, but matters of state called for more subtlety than the young general yet possessed. Critics–and even his mentors–began to charge that his belligerence was pushing the tiny state to the brink of war. Stung by the accusation and overwhelmed with exhaustion, on May 23, 1967, Rabin succumbed to a nervous breakdown that left him unable to perform his job for 24 hours.

Less than two weeks later, the Six-Day War began as Israel launched pre-emptive strikes against Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria. When he recovered, Rabin prosecuted the war brilliantly, coordinating maneuvers that enabled the army to take so much ground in the Sinai, the western banks of the Jordan river and the Golan Heights that by the time hostilities ended, the territory under Israel’s control had swelled three-fold. The international media seized on the more colorful figure of Dayan, who was then Minister of Defense, but for many Israelis, Rabin had become a true hero.

Just before the war, Rabin had proposed himself to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol as Israel’s ambassador to Washington. Eshkol had a blunt response. “You’re no diplomat!” he told his chief of staff. Nevertheless, in 1968 Rabin was sent to Washington as Jerusalem’s emissary. For the next five years he aggressively cultivated a close relationship with the U.S., pushing for economic and military aid and persuading the Americans to keep pumping a steady stream of Phantom jets, Skyhawk fighter-bombers and sophisticated weapons into Israel. The paramount importance he placed on the U.S. arms pipeline reflected his conviction, as he expressed it years later, that “you can always make peace with an F-16 in your pocket.” Shortly after he returned home in 1973, Egypt and Syria launched surprise attacks that provoked the October War. Israel emerged from that war victorious, and in its aftermath, Rabin ran for parliament, winning a Labor seat in the Knesset.

A few months later, Rabin saw–and seized–a chance to run as Labor’s candidate for Prime Minister. In so doing, he found himself competing against a man with whom he would lock horns for the rest of his career. Although Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin never had significant ideological or political differences (and even lived within two blocks of each other in a Tel Aviv suburb), the hostility between them ran so deep that at times they seemed almost to have difficulty pronouncing each other’s name. During this period, they emerged as the most promising of a new generation of Israeli leaders; their rivalry would color the nation’s politics for the next two decades, eventually turning into something of a national spectator sport, spiced by innumerable tales of barbed exchanges, shouting matches and table thumpings.

Rabin defeated Peres for the party leadership and went on to become Israel’s youngest Prime Minister and the first sabra to hold that post. He won by a narrow margin, however, which meant he was compelled to include Peres in his Cabinet as Defense Minister (a concession he agreed to, he later confessed, with “a heavy heart”). His first term included several significant events, among them his authorization of the dramatic 1976 raid on Entebbe, Uganda–a decision that Peres, in an effort to undermine his rival, later suggested was “forced” upon a reluctant Rabin by the Cabinet. The youthful Prime Minister was finally brought down in April of the following year, after a scandal exploded over the discovery that he and his wife had held a foreign bank account in Washington, a violation of Israel’s unusually strict currency laws. The Labor Party went on to defeat, and the right-wing Likud for the first time gained control of the Knesset.

For the next seven years, Rabin retreated to Labor’s back bench until a national-unity government turned to him as Defense Minister in 1984. In this post, he proved implacable in his determination to suppress the Palestinian intifadeh, the uprising against Israeli rule that exploded across the occupied territories in 1987. When the beatings and deportations he ordered proved ineffectual, Rabin decided that 1.7 million captive people could not be ruled by force, and he made the idea of a negotiated peace the theme of his 1992 campaign against Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. To achieve peace, he told the voters, Israel would have to jettison the siege mentality that had formed such a central part of its identity since the state’s inception.

Rabin’s change of heart was motivated mainly by simple pragmatism. Military rule over the territories would mean endless war, while annexing them wholesale would dilute forever the ethnic character of the Jewish state; a negotiated peace was the only solution. Hard-edged realism was not his only motivation for adopting this approach, however. He also suggested that he preferred it because it was more in keeping with his sense of humanity. In his inaugural speech to the Knesset in July 1992, he argued that it was antithetical to the democratic traditions of the Jews to subjugate another people. Moreover, he took the unusual step, at least by Israeli standards, of addressing the Palestinians directly, talking to them as human beings. “We have been fated to live together on the same patch of land,” he said. “We lead our lives with you, beside you and against you.” He was also characteristically blunt about what each side could expect to achieve. “You will not get everything you want,” he told them. “Neither will we.”

Once in office, Rabin set out to transform his rhetoric into reality, taking his election as a mandate to begin to forge a peace settlement. Secret talks between the two sides took place in Norway in early 1993, and after they achieved a breakthrough, Rabin wrote a note to Yasser Arafat informing him that Israel was prepared to recognize the P.L.O. and begin openly negotiating with it. The talks culminated in the historic signing of a peace accord on the South Lawn of the White House on Sept. 13, 1993.

Of all the moments of Israeli drama in which he took part, this, perhaps, is the one for which Rabin will be best remembered. As he stepped onto the lawn, he was clearly wrestling with the fact that by events of his own making, he was now being asked to shake the hand of Yasser Arafat, a man Israelis had reviled for decades for his role in planning, financing or inspiring hundreds of attacks on Jewish men, women and children. But despite the setting and the players and the audience (the world), perhaps what was most remarkable about the occasion was the expression on Rabin’s face.

He grimaced, he swallowed, he hesitated–and then, glumly, reluctantly, he took Arafat by the hand. Here he was making history, yet he could not simply play the euphoric part that the TV cameras were assigning him. He was, it seemed, performing a difficult but necessary chore. Typically, he made no effort to make his feelings appear anything other than the conflicted jumble they undoubtedly were. “Of all the hands in the world, it was not the hand I wanted or even dreamed of touching,” he said, attesting to the fact that to achieve peace, one must sometimes swallow hard. There was no pretense, no subterfuge, no attempt to convey any false emotion. It was, in short, a perfect expression of dugri, and it seems fitting that, as both a momentous event for Israel and a demonstration of the awkward, rough-hewn nobility that distinguished Rabin’s life, it was the gesture that will also mark his place in history.

–Reported by Lisa Beyer, Johanna McGeary and Robert Slater/Jerusalem

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