So we begin, with two different episodes from Rabin’s life, two episodes that show him in two completely different lights. One as the decisive victor in war, and the other as a stout defender of the systematic suppression of the Palestinian ‘Intifada’.
‘Nasser waits for Rabin. Let him wait!’ was the general theme of the now famous chant the Egyptians made on the eve of the Six Day War. Rabin, who was Chief of Staff at that time, readied and organized the military in preparation for action. Israel’s Air Force was prepared for the massive air strike it launched against the Egyptian Air Force on June 5, 1967. Egypt’s leader Gamel Abdel Nasser had sent a large military force into the Sinai Peninsula bordering Israel, at a time when Israel was engaged in the north against Syrian forces. These Syrian forces had been firing into Israeli territory from strategic positions on the Golan Heights and tension between those two countries were escalating and getting ever more dangerous as the number of clashes increased. A notable spike in these clashes occurred when Israeli Air Force jets engaged and downed six Syrian MiG’s on April 7 of that year. Nasser, known for his tough triumphant rhetoric when it came to Israel’s defeat at the hands of the mighty Arabs, sought to control the situation by demonstrating Egypt’s military might near Israel’s borders. This was an attempt to intimidate the tiny state and possibly even attack it if further skirmishes with Syria escalated into full blown war between the two countries. This move was reminiscent to how Egypt gloated about forcing Israel to stand down on its northern front when it sent several tank columns near the Israeli border in 1960 in the ‘Rotem Crisis’.
It turns out the jeering Arab song regarding Nasser waiting for Rabin was rendered obsolete in a matter of days since, under Rabin, the Israelis got the upper hand over all of their neighbours after a series of operations beginning with the most notable, Operation Focus. Rabin had this vast operation planned, organized and executed. A nervous wreck in the run-up to the war he was smoking several packs of cigarettes a day. Everything had rested on successfully knocking out the Egyptian Air Force and gaining control of the sky. The Israeli Air Force had far less planes than their Arab neighbours, some 200 planes as compared to the combined Arab force of 900 planes. Israel left behind a mere nine planes to defend its air space when it launched Operation Focus. The massive attacking force had trained for months under Rabin’s watch in the Negev Desert, hitting mock runways with precision in order to ensure they were rendered unusable, so that the enemy planes, “even the most sophisticated” as Rabin later recounted “was a sitting duck.” Indeed Operation Focus was a profound success, the Egyptian Air Force was as planned destroyed on the ground. For the rest of that war Israel engaged all its immediate neighbours and seized territory as it did so, taking the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Syria’s Golan Height. It was truly an astonishing victory.
Whilst many of his detractors portrayed Rabin’s near nervous breakdown just before the outbreak of the war as a sign of weakness and ineptitude many of his supporters argue that it showed he understood the immense risks that was being taken. It showed, in their view, that he clearly understood the risks of war and accordingly sought to ensure that it was won as quickly and as decisively as possible. He achieved that by taking a profound but calculated risk that enabled Israel to do what many up until that point in time would have thought to be inconceivable. Nevertheless he remained humble whilst Moshe Dayan, who had only been appointed Minister of Defense some four days before the war, took a substantial amount of the credit. Rabin later recounted why he hadn’t contested Dayan’s claim to fame when it came to the wars resounding success, stating quite eloquently that:
“Whenever there was a success, in the military field, and I had to give credit to somebody, I normally used to ask myself ‘if it would fail, who would I put the responsibility on?’ And to this guy, I gave the credit.”
When Rabin was awarded an honoury doctoral degree by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem following the Israeli victory he made an acceptance speech. In that speech Rabin praised the men and women of the IDF for their heroism and courage. He cited what he saw as ‘spiritual motivation’ which enabled in his eyes Israel to overcome the massive odds and prevail. However he also stressed the cruelty of war, stating that:
“We in the army are not in the habit of speaking in high-flown language, but the revelation at that hour at the Temple Mount was greater that the constraints of habitual language, which brought forth is profound truth. Moreover, the elation of victory has seized the whole nation.
Yet among the soldiers themselves a curious phenomenon is to be observed increasingly. They cannot rejoice wholeheartedly. Their triumph is marred by grief and shock, and there are some who cannot rejoice at all. Those battling in the front lines saw with their own eyes not only the glory of victory, but also its cost — their comrades fallen beside them soaked in blood. I know that the terrible price the enemy paid has also profoundly affected many of our men. Perhaps the education and the experience of the Jewish people has never brought it to feel the joy of the conqueror and the victor, and therefore the matter is accepted with mixed feelings.”
Rabin had shown all the way through the war and after the war that he comprehended the risks and damage war does, and appreciated, even when victorious, the cost of war, not only to the young soldiers in the IDF, but also to soldiers on the enemies side. This demonstrates quite clearly the profound and encompassing perspective Rabin had on things. However, he would later prove that he was capable of exercising a more narrow and confined realist view when he perceived Israel’s security to be under threat. In his role of Minister of Defense he sought to put down a sudden uprising among the Israeli administrated Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza. The ‘First Intifada’ as it has become known took the Israelis (and the PLO leadership camped out in Tunisia) completely by surprise. Rabin was willing to use any means necessary as Minister of Defence to stop what he saw as blatant subversive actions, an enemy trying to use violence in order to have its demands met. But, in doing so Rabin must have subconsciously downplayed the affect on Israel’s image these policies were having, he underestimated the effect the image that the rest of the world was seeing was having on these policies he was implementing. Images of Israeli Shin Bet security forces breaking the bones of protesting Palestinian youths as well as images of stone throwing Palestinians going against Israeli tanks was something that seriously tarnished Israel’s image and reputation in many peoples eyes. Rabin remained steadfast in his decision to put down the uprising by force, pledging that the Palestinians wouldn’t “achieve anything by violence.”
It soon became clear that the PLO leadership was essentially as taken aback from the beginning of the uprising as the Israelis were. The Palestinian youths had no governing authority, no jobs, no prospects and no real lives. Rabin had to directly talk with these Palestinians when King Hussein of Jordan refused to have any further role in administrating the West Bank. It became clear to him from his own experiences going out meeting and talking to them that they had, in the words of Rabins personal advisor Eitan Haber “nothing left to lose.” On the international stage Israel was seen by a lot of distant observers as an oppressor of an impoverished Palestinian populace. Rabin was even given the title of “bone breaker” for his systematic policy of having Israeli soldiers and security forces beat rioting Palestinians in what was inevitably a futile attempt to curtail the rioting.
The Intifada continued for several more years into the early 1990’s. A major event transpired in the Middle East in 1990-1991. That was Iraq under Saddam Hussein invading and annexing Kuwait and being subsequently forced out by a U.S led military coalition. Yasser Arafat had backed Saddam in his invasion of Kuwait and damaged himself politically. His policies resulted in the Kuwaitis ethnically cleansing its Palestinian population which it accused as being fifth columnists of Iraq. Following these events the Madrid Conference introduced the prospect of a ‘New Middle East’, and the beginning of negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. When Rabin succeeded Yitzhak Shamir and became Prime Minister for his second, and last, time he entertained the idea of negotiating with the PLO through the framework of the Oslo Accords. These accords gave partial control to the newly established Palestinian National Authority to govern the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. This in turn would serve to put an end to the very bitter and embroiling situation that had existed when the territories were essentially policed by IDF soldiers who were facing down rock throwing youths. Whilst Rabin during these years was denounced by various right wing political elements in Israel and abroad (indeed a very right-wing religious extremist did murder him) he remained steadfast in defence of what he was doing. Upon reassessing the situation back then one can safely contend that he calculated quite carefully and aptly the best trajectory Israel could take to survive whilst remaining and strong and resilient in what has proved to be time and time again a rough neighbourhood.
Rabin, upon being criticized for negotiating with the much loathed terrorist that was Mr. Arafat, once stated that “ we can break Arafat, if that’s what you want. But then we’ll be left with Hamas, an intifada and terror.” Those two sentences, uttered in the mid-1990s, essentially summed up what did happen when Arafat was taken out of the picture. Recall that it was on the onset of Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared that the terror Israel was confronting, hence the violence being levelled against Israeli civil society by Palestinian terrorists, was “operated, directed and initiated by one man – Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. Arafat heads a coalition of terror. He operates a strategy of terror. The PA Chairman is an enemy of Israel in particular and the entire free world in general. All those who treasure freedom, all those who were raised on the values of freedom and democracy, must know that Arafat is an obstacle to peace in the Middle East. Arafat endangers the stability of the entire region.”
Would it be glib to ask ‘where is Arafat now?’ In light of the fact that nobody really believed that Arafat’s capture or killing would have completely mitigated the terrorist threat Israel faced from the Palestinian territories?
Indeed after Arafat’s death in 2004 Ariel Sharon did pull out of the Gaza Strip and Israel has been left with Hamas, terror and the threat of yet another Intifada. Rabin recognized that back then and calculated that Palestinian society in general could have potentially served to the deter the rise of such fundamentalists. Hence, if the Palestinians were given something to lose, some chance for a future society could have blossomed that could have actively served to have worked against the fundamentalists, preventing their rise and in turn the hideous and heinous exploits they would go on to carry out against Israeli citizenry. That would have been of great benefit to Israel’s security.
Whilst Rabin never compromised any land he did rail against the expansionist settler movement that invokes the Biblical claim of ‘Eretz Yisrael’ to justify settlements in the West Bank. But his policies never saw to him give the Palestinians anything more than a limited form of autonomy and nothing indicates that he would have given them an entire contiguous state if he felt that there was any risk that it could be used as some kind of base or platform for terrorist forces. It was the hawkish Sharon who actually turned out to compromise more land than Rabin ever did. Rabin’s stated contention was that he “ would like Israel to be a Jewish state, and therefore not to annex over 2 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to Israel, which will make Israel a bi-national state.” He also asserted on numerous occasions that “Jerusalem is united, will never be divided again.” He even made clear that Israel would maintain a policy of ‘peace through strength’ when he stated that, “No Arab ruler will consider the peace process seriously so long as he is able to toy with the idea of achieving more by the way of violence.”
The ‘spiritual motivation’ Rabin referred to in his famous ’67 speech is also something that is relevant here. Bogged down in Palestinian territories doing what amounted to rigorous administrative, police work and riot suppression in hostile environments was something that eroded the ‘spiritual motivation’ that had previously allowed the Israeli Army to triumph in a matter of days during that famous war. Autonomy as Rabin calculated could have seen to the fruition of a workable society. The implementation of such autonomy would take the boys and girls of the IDF out of Palestinian neighbourhoods and have them ready mentally and morally to defend their country with resolve and without moral scruple if the need arose.
In his military career Rabin was behind the helm and was responsible for two calculated risks that turned out to be so successful in their implementation that they’re still often cited as prime success stories when it comes to military strategy. They are the aforementioned Operation Focus and the hostage-rescue mission Rabin ordered in 1976 as Prime Minister to Entebbe. That famous operation saw the current Israeli Prime Ministers brother Yonathan Netanyahu lead a team of Sayeret Matkal commandos all the way to Entebbe Airport, Uganda to rescue Jewish hostages being held by brute Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Think for a minute the political ramifications that would have had on Rabin if it had failed, think how those Israelis whose families were down there being held by Palestinian terrorists would feel if they were killed in the course of a botched rescue mission. Families who demanded that Rabin negotiate with the Palestinian captors and meet their demands in order to secure the release of the hostages since they saw no other alternative. Although Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother did die in that rescue mission it was for all intents and purposes a resounding success. But was nonetheless one wrought from its inception with risk. But through the implementation of such a calculated risk Rabin once again presided over a military operation that showed the extent to which good coordination, resolve and strategy enables one to overcome tremendous odds and prevail.
Rabin therefore must have recognized that it is very hard to do that when your army is having moral qualms over acting as essentially riot police in Arab communities. This kind of embroilment has an eroding effect on both morale and the ‘spiritual motivation’ Rabin credited as being a primary factor in the Israeli Army’s triumphant in the Six Day War. The embroilment also saw to the aforementioned Benjamin Netanyahu having to do something that no Israeli premier wants to have to do. That is negotiating with the enemy, in that case Hamas, in order to get Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier Hamas captured in 2006 on the Gaza frontier, back for several thousand prisoners of war Israel had in its jails. Among these prisoners were convicted terrorists that included a perpetrator of the Passover Massacre (a bombing of a Passover Sedar in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya during the ‘Second Intifada’ in 2002) who was released in order to secure Shalit’s release. Whilst that spoke well of Israel in one sense it was seen in the eyes of many of Israel’s enemies as a sign of weakness.
Rabin similarly saw the changing social scenes in the Middle East and beyond and recognized there needed to be a change in the territories. He didn’t see annexation of the disputed territories as a viable option since that could have potentially compromised the Jewish state. Autonomous zones on the other hand was something tenable and would have gradually led to more independence in various towns and villages with minimal Israeli interference. He outlined this vision in a speech to the Knesset in October 5, 1995.
“We view the permanent solution in the framework of State of Israel which will include most of the area of the Land of Israel as it was under the rule of the British Mandate, and alongside it a Palestinian entity which will be a home to most of the Palestinian residents living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
We would like this to be an entity which is less than a state, and which will independently run the lives of the Palestinians under its authority. The borders of the State of Israel, during the permanent solution, will be beyond the lines which existed before the Six Day War. We will not return to the 4 June 1967 lines.”
Rabin clearly saw the changing times, those immediate post Cold War years and the vast geopolitical ramifications that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the neutralization of the Iraqi military had on the region. Egypt was a partner for peace, Jordan had entered into a peace treaty in good faith. In Syria the father Assad, Hafez, was grooming his son Basil for the role of successor — only to be forced to compromise and train Bashar as a secondary choice for that role after Basil was killed in a car crash. Arafat, as was previously mentioned, was struggling to save his reputation as a political player after his endorsement of Saddam. It was the perfect time to try something different, another calculated risk, the kind that Israel has to take in order to ensure its continued survival and security. That is in essence Rabin’s definitive legacy. Throughout his life he registered the changing times and situations on the ground and applied them to how the state conducted itself. This is what he was in the midst of doing before he was killed. Certainly, in a broad encompassing retrospective analysis one can see that he certainly does qualify as an exemplary leader of the State of Israel. One well worthy of admiration and hopefully, in the eyes of up and coming Israeli leaders, emulation.