Israel’s fallen statesman Yitzhak Rabin was a tough, taciturn man who became the Israeli personification of national security, according to a new biography

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, right, lights up with King Hussein of Jordan in 1994. The Americans’ code name for the Israeli prime minister was “the man who smokes.”
Photo by Yaakov Saar/Israel Government Press Office/Flickr

Review

“Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman” by Itamar Rabinovich. New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 2017. 244 pp. $25.

For almost 25 years, I’ve been convinced that Yitzhak Rabin was pulled screaming and squawking into supporting the Oslo peace process. The “puller” of my imagination was none other than Rabin’s decades-long arch-rival, Shimon Peres.

But after reading “Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman” — written by Itamar Rabinovich, an academic and former ambassador to the United States who worked closely with Rabin during his unsuccessful attempt to reach a peace deal with Syria — I have a more nuanced take on the martyred leader.

Rabinovich does nothing to alter my perception of Rabin as a defense establishment “lifer,” a soldier, chief of staff of the IDF and multi-term defense minister, a tough, taciturn man who became the Israeli personification of national security.

But at age 70, when he became prime minister for the second time, the stars were aligned for a Middle Eastern peace breakthrough, and the author shows Rabin not hesitating in the slightest from adopting his new peacemaker role.

“To Rabin, making peace at this point — having reached the peak of his career and as he approached the end of his life — was a natural extension of his early career as a soldier,” Rabinovich writes. “There had been a time for war, and finally there was a time to make peace.”

Nonetheless, the author concedes, despite Rabin’s prominent role in initiating the peace process with the Palestinians, it is wrong to think of Rabin as “a dovish leader.”  (Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was at a memorial for his friend Rabin where speaker after speaker glorified him as an unadulterated peacemaker. Finally, Rabinovich notes, an exasperated Kissinger was heard to say: “Yitzhak was not a flower child.”)

Rabin was “preoccupied with Israel’s security” and the quest for peace and security were intertwined.
“He was willing to make peaceful concessions, but he scrutinized such concessions through a security lens,” the author writes.

Some of the best parts of this very readable biography deal with Rabin’s skirmishes with other Israeli leaders — notably fellow Labor Party stalwart Abba Eban, Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir and, of course, Peres.

The feud with the latter lasted a political lifetime. In 1974, after the Agranat Commission report on the Yom Kippur War was released, demonstrations by reserve soldiers forced Prime Minister Golda Meir to resign. Labor Party leader Pinchas Sapir persuaded Rabin to be a candidate for prime minister against Peres. The contest was to be decided by a vote in the central committee of the Labor Party.
Rabin won, despite his deficiencies as a candidate.

“Peres was a natural politician and a much better campaigner than Rabin,” Rabinovich notes. “Rabin was not fond of the reality of party life or of political campaigning; he was unusually shy and introverted, awkward with unfamiliar people, uncomfortable with small talk and casual cordiality.”

Nonetheless, primarily due to Sapir’s support, Rabin eked out a narrow victory. Political reality forced him to invite Peres to become defense minister in his new government.

“This was the first round of a joint journey between two political Siamese twins that would last for twenty-one years — twins who both disliked and appreciated each other, competed and partnered, eventually realizing they were joined at the hip and bound to collaborate with each other,” the author says.

They were very different people. “Peres was imaginative, creative, restlessly tinkering with new ideas, a natural and seasoned politician. Rabin was cerebral, an excellent analyst of the strategic environment, with his feet firmly planted on the ground.”

The author provides a fascinating insider’s look at the turmoil of Israeli politics in the late 1980s and early ’90s. As defense minister during that period, Rabin used subterfuge to get around Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir — Israel’s “Mr. No” — in trying to set up talks with Palestinians.

Rabin would sometimes go to American Ambassador William Brown’s private residence north of Tel Aviv where there was a secure line to the State Department. The ambassador and Rabin would have a drink, and then Brown would contact Dennis Ross, director of policy planning at State, on that line. When contact was made, he would leave Rabin, whose code name from the Americans was “the man who smokes,” and Ross to talk.

Had Shamir known that a member of his government was acting without his approval and promoting peace talks behind his back, he would have been furious.

Rabinovich does not flinch from the big questions that any biographer of Rabin must ultimately confront: Did his assassination derail a peace process that was on its way to fruition? Had Rabin lived, would there be peace now between the Palestinians and Israelis?

The author is somewhat skeptical of such a happy ending, but does believe that the murder did “inflict a devastating blow on the peace process of the 1990s.”

And, he writes, it was “an important landmark in Israel’s journey toward the right and away from a genuine quest for a two-state solution.”

As such, unfortunately the bullets that cut down Yitzhak Rabin did their job all too well.

Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, “Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family,” which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.

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