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Remembering Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s military hero turned martyr for peace

Nov 4, 2020 | Sharyn Mittelman

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Today, November 4, 2020, marks the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by far-right Jewish extremist Yigal Amir at a peace rally in Tel Aviv. The legacy of Rabin’s life and death have lessons for us today, especially as democracies increasingly grapple with the dangers of rising populism and extremism.

Rabin was killed because of his efforts to make peace with the Palestinians – signing the Oslo Accords with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in a process famously begun with a ceremony and handshake on the White House lawn in 1993. These agreements attempted to set up a framework to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Oslo Accords established the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) to enable interim Palestinian self-government, gave the PA responsibility for the control of areas of the West Bank and Gaza, and created various agreements on Israeli-Palestinian cooperation as a step towards, potentially, establishing a Palestinian state. The Accords were intended to last five years while a permanent agreement would hopefully be negotiated, to deal with the complex issues of the final status of the Palestinian entity, Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, security and borders. In 1994, Rabin won the Nobel Peace Prize together with his Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Arafat.

Despite having the backing of Rabin, one of Israel’s greatest generals, the groundbreaking Oslo Accords seriously divided Israeli public opinion at the time, leading to anger and vituperation on the Israeli right, and outright incitement from some on the far-right.  Many Israelis found it difficult to accept that their Prime Minister was recognising the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), and shaking hands with its leader Yasser Arafat, a terrorist who had organised the murder of so many Israelis. But Rabin famously said, “You don’t make peace with friends.  You make it with very unsavoury enemies.”

Moreover, given Rabin’s military credentials, having served as Chief of Operations during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, and overseen Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, there was clearly a latitude of trust afforded to Rabin that only he, among Israeli pollical leaders, could have received from the Israeli public. He also had a great deal of political experience, having served as Israel’s Prime Minister from 1974 to 1977, as Israel’s Ambassador to the US, and as Minister of Defence during the 1980s.

Rabin was also able to forge a historic peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. Rabin’s personal relationship with King Hussein was considered crucial to the success of the negotiations. Bruce Riedel, a member of President Bill Clinton’s peace process team, wrote in Brookings last year: “Both trusted the other. Hussein saw Rabin as a military man who had the security issues under his command. He was convinced that he had a unique opportunity to get a peace treaty and Rabin was central to the opening.”

Rabin’s leadership provided a generation of Israelis with the belief that peace was attainable. After Rabin’s murder in 1995, Israeli Prime Ministers including Ehud Barak in 2000-01 and Ehud Olmert in 2008 attempted to build on the Oslo Accords by offering the Palestinians a state on nearly all of the West Bank, Gaza and Arab neighbourhoods of east Jerusalem. However, these offers were not accepted by Palestinian leaders Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas.

Many believe that had Rabin lived he would have been able to secure a final agreement with the Palestinians. However, that remains unclear. Rabin laid out his vision for peace in a speech to the Knesset on Oct. 5, 1995, just a month before he was killed. In it he said Israel would retain a “security border” in the Jordan Valley “in the broadest sense of that term”, keep other key settlements east of the pre-1967 armistice line and would also have sovereignty over a united Jerusalem. He also said the Palestinian entity that would be created would be “less than a state and would manage independently the lives of the Palestinians living under it.”  Given that Arafat and Abbas both rejected offers more generous than those proposed by Rabin, the idea that he could have created a two-state peace with the Palestinians if he had lived remains speculative.

Furthermore, it is known that in September 2000, after Barak’s offer, Arafat orchestrated the “Second Intifada” which included Palestinian bombings in Israeli buses, cafes, bars, hotels and night clubs and saw the murders of more than 1000 Israelis by 2005. Palestinians also suffered greatly from Israeli counter-terror responses.

Many Israeli commentators have noted that the trauma of the Second Intifada has had a lasting impact on the Israeli psyche that continues today, as evidenced by the decline of Rabin’s centre-left Labor party, and an electoral shift towards the political right, with its emphasis on security and sceptical approach towards a two-state peace.

By the time the Second Intifada ended in 2005, Israel was well-advanced in constructing a security fence separating the Palestinian communities of the West Bank from Israeli towns, and also was preparing a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza strip, removing all soldiers and settlements there.

This was also arguably in keeping with Rabin’s vision – in early 1995, he proposed a fence separating Israel from the West Bank in response to terrorism, saying, “in principle we should strive for complete separation.” It has also been said that his vision for Oslo was one of separation or “divorce” from the Palestinians (see comments by Rabin’s former press secretary Uri Dromi here), an approach reflected by both the West Bank barrier and the Gaza withdrawal.

Yet the Gaza withdrawal led to thousands of rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza and major Israeli counter-actions again Gaza terror groups in 2008-2009, 2012 and 2014 – creating a whole generation of young Israelis and Palestinians who have no memory of time when a two-state seemed a reasonable prospect in the short to medium term.

Today, many insist that the Oslo Accords are dead, while official Israeli-Palestinian relations are currently almost non-existent. Since US President Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and cut funding to the PA, the Palestinians have stopped cooperating with Israel and the US. The PA is even refusing to accept tax revenues from Israel, which account for around 60 percent of the PA’s budget, to its detriment. The PA is reportedly not paying salaries to its civil servants and experts are concerned it could soon be bankrupt.

Yet despite this low point in Israeli-Palestinians relations, in recent months Israel has managed to conclude normalisation agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, with more nations expected to follow. Until recently, many believed that Arab and Muslim nations would not make peace with Israel until the Palestinian issue was resolved. Significantly this suggests that a new consensus in the Arab world is being forged, one in which Israel is no longer viewed as the “enemy”, but rather as a potential ally  – particularly against increasingly aggressive actions by Iran and Turkey.

While Rabin’s vision of peace with the Palestinians appears distant, during his lifetime many Israelis could not have imagined that Arab nations would be lining up to make peace with Israel in the interests of economic and strategic cooperation.

It was Rabin who started a process in which Israeli leaders repeatedly demonstrated a genuine willingness to accommodate Palestinian demands for self-determination, and to trade land for peace to achieve this. It may have taken decades for this reality to sink in, given the tendency in the region to deny inconvenient truths about one’s ostensible enemies, but there seems little doubt that this history has a lot to do with the recent breakthroughs. Despite Palestinian propaganda and demands for solidarity, these efforts ultimately demonstrated to Arab governments that Israel is not the source of all the region’s problems, nor the party which was preventing genuine Israeli-Arab peace.

Meanwhile, the two-state peace is still popular as an ultimate goal in Israel, even if expectations today are that it is a goal that can be achieved only in the longer term.

Today, there is also the prospect that these new Accords will put pressure on the Palestinians to return to negotiations with Israel, or else they may find themselves left behind as winds of change sweep the region.

Were he alive today, Rabin, as a strategic thinker, would likely have appreciated how these winds of change are transforming Israel’s prospects greatly for the better. And he may have taken a great deal of pride in his own watershed role in bringing this transformation about.

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