Yitzhak Rabin's legacy is his missed opportunity for peace

Yitzhak Rabin's legacy is his missed opportunity for peace
Comment: Rabin's attempt at rapprochement with the Palestinians was not driven by a desire to right the wrongs of Israel's military occupation, but deep-rooted pragmatism, writes Otman Aitlkaboud.
9 min read
04 Nov, 2016
US President Bill Clinton stands between Yasser Arafat (R) and Yitzhak Rabin (L) 1993 [AFP]

Twenty one years ago, on the night of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, the former military man - who as Israel's Minister of Defence commanded his military to prevent Palestinians from protesting against their military occupation - sang a Hebrew hymn for peace. He was accompanied by 100,000 other supporters of the Oslo Accords who assembled at Tel Aviv's Kings of Israel Square.

This act typified the change in direction of the twice Israeli prime minister, from someone who was obstinate in acknowledging the Palestinians as a national identity, to a person that sought to embark on a path towards peace with them, which began with the signing of the Oslo Accords on the lawn of the White House on September 13 1993.

He won the Nobel Peace Prize a year later with Yasser Arafat, along with his long time political rival Shimon Peres, for what was seen by many as great leaps of faith by the leaders.

Thirty-one years before, it was not the Yitzhak Rabin advocating peace that the Israeli Labour party saw fit to lead them and replace prime minister Golda Meir after she stepped down in 1974, but war-hardened Rabin as tactician. 

Buoyed by his successful command as chief of the general staff during Israel's 1967 "Six Day" war victory against a combined Arab army - and untainted by Israel's calamitous efforts during its 1973 Yom Kippur War - Rabin was considered the ideal steward to navigate Israel in its insecure post-war period.

It was with the acknowledgement of his transformation that Rabin declared on the night of his assassination on November 4 1995, "I was a military man for 27 years. I waged war as long as there was no chance for peace. I believe there is now a chance for peace, a great chance, and we must make the most of it."

For all of Rabin's plaudits, his attempt at rapprochement with the Palestinians - an act that is his abiding legacy - was not commanded by a panglossian desire to right the wrongs of Israel's military occupation of Palestinians, but instead had deeply pragmatic origins.

For him a Palestinian demographic threat was a major source of concern, and if Israel did not end its military control of the occupied territories there would be a substantial Arab majority in Greater Israel that would threaten not only the Jewish nature of Israel but also its democratic nature.

It was his belief that there should be a separation of Palestinians. Falling short of offering the Palestinians a state, Rabin pronounced that, "separation between Israel and the Palestinians is the best solution for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict".

Rabin's utilitarianism extended to his acknowledgment of how Israel's standing in the eyes of the international community was severely affected by its ongoing occupation of the Palestinians, and led to his eventual transformation.

Israel's contrarian position of claiming itself to be the Middle East's sole democracy while simultaneously cracking down on Palestinians became increasingly flawed.

Rabin made attempts to placate Israel's religious right, while Arafat attempted to deliver the terms of Oslo to the various Palestinian factions that had, during the PLO's exile to Tunis, come to back Hamas

The Oslo Accords signed in September 1993 between Rabin and his Palestinian counterpart, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), Yasser Arafat, was Rabin's defining moment, and marked for the first time a change in the dynamic where mutual suspicion between the Palestinians and Israelis was replaced with joint recognition.

Rabin, along with Arafat, was largely successful in navigating a path which saw resolute efforts by both to assuage factions within each of their camps to accept Oslo. 

Rabin made attempts to placate Israel's religious right, while Arafat attempted to deliver the terms of Oslo to the various Palestinian factions that had during the PLO's exile to Tunis come to back Hamas. 

This group were fervently against the Oslo peace process and in the year following its signing actively waged a campaign to trounce any detente between Palestinians and Israelis that the accords may bring - doing so through a spate of suicide attacks against Israelis within Israel and the Israeli Army in Gaza.

Both Rabin and Arafat won international acclaim for what were deemed bold and valiant moves to not only set aside their differences, but to attempt to placate factions within their own camps from which support for Oslo was essential.

For many though, Rabin's peace undertaking with the Palestinians did not go far enough and posed more questions than actual answers. Always considered to be an incremental process, the Oslo accords never spoke of a settlement that would see the establishment of a Palestinian state. Instead it described Palestine as an "entity".

Rabin reiterated this stance in his address to the Israeli Knesset one month before his death, envisioning for the Palestinians "an entity that is less than a state". Nor did Oslo address other fundamental issues crucial to resolving the Israel-Palestine dispute, including the question of Jerusalem's status, the Palestinians' right of return or the issues of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

These questions were to be left for negotiation after a five-year transitionary period.

The Palestinian intellectual and Palestinian National Council member Edward Said spoke of the Oslo agreement as "an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles", in how the accords weakened the national rights of the Palestinians and would prevent self-determination of Palestinians.

To Said, the accords would engender a complete reliance and subservience to Israel at the expense of their freedom and sovereignty. 

The former US Secretary of State James Baker did not believe that Israel conceded anything apart from recognising "PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people".

Others have claimed that the signing of the Oslo accords was an attempt to manage more effectively Israel's occupation of the Palestinians - unable to put an end to the Palestinian intifada uprising, Oslo changed the mechanisms of control. Shlomo Ben Ami, before his postings in 1999 as Foreign Minister and Security Minister in Ehud Barak's One-Israel led government, suggested "the Oslo agreements were founded on a neocolonialist basis".

Their intention was to impose on the Palestinians "almost total dependence on Israel".

The cold-blooded murder of Prime Minister Rabin by Yigal Amir in November 1995, striking in Tel Aviv at the heart of Israel's economic capital, was a direct attempt to derail any attempt at peace

However flawed the settlement may have seemed to the Palestinians, and to some Israelis who were sympathetic towards what they also saw as an imperfect settlement solution for the Palestinians, even the acknowledgment of a Palestinian entity was a step too far for some.

The cold-blooded murder of Prime Minister Rabin by Yigal Amir in November 1995, striking in Tel Aviv at the heart of Israel's economic capital, was a direct attempt to derail any attempt at peace or any change in the status quo between Israel and the Palestinians. It violently stoked the deep divisions in parts of Israeli society first exposed by the terrorism of Baruch Goldstein, who a year before Rabin's assassination attempted to obstruct the Oslo process with his massacre of 29 Palestinian Muslim worshippers in the West Bank town of Hebron. 

In the book Murder in the Name of God: The Plot to Kill Yitzhak Rabin, Michael Karin and Ina Friedman discuss Bar-Ilan, the university in which Yigal Amir studied Jewish religious halacha law, in the mid-1990s - describing it as a hotbed of Jewish fundamentalism and claiming that half of Bar-Ilan considered Rabin a din rodef - a halachic term for traitor.

Suggesting that, although many in the Tel Aviv centre of intellectual orthodoxy believed that signing a settlement deal with Palestinians would endanger Jewish lives, not many would go as far as to openly condone Rabin's murder.

Religious-nationalist views, coupled with the eschatological views held by Amir and Goldstein and some of their sympathisers - previously belonging to a tiny minority - grew following Israel's triumph against Jordan in Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967. Eschatological optimism and expectation was raised with Israel's control of the western wall of the Temple in Jerusalem's Old city and gained support not only among orthodox Jews in Israel and America but among Christian fundamentalist supporters in America too.

Rabin's assassination signalled the death knell for the Oslo peace process, and arguably the attempts at peace that have succeeded it. The Oslo peace accord's real architect, Labour's Shimon Peres, lost out to Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel's May 1996 elections.

Israelis weary from the increased attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad since the signing of Oslo, that culminated in two Palestinian attacks in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem one day after another in March 1996 - chose the politically inexperienced but vocal critic of Oslo to lead them.

Netanyahu reasserted his already known credentials to settlers in the West Bank town of Ariel following his victory telling the town - now with a settler population of 20,000 - "we will be here permanently, forever".

This right-ward turn came to dominate Israeli politics for the next two decades, much of it with Netanyahu at the helm. The backdrop allowed illegal settlements, developed under Labour, to grow exponentially under Likud, from a settlement population of 140,000 during Rabin's government in 1995 to a population of more than 500,000 today.  

It is hard to think of an Israeli leader now making the kind of overtures that Yitzhak Rabin made towards reconciliation between Palestinians and normalisation with the Arab world two decades ago - no matter how limited those terms on offer may actually have been.

It is Rabin's uniqueness as Israeli leader - before him or since - that explains the dearth of proposals to end Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And it was the absence of such serious proposals before 1993 that enabled the elevation of Rabin and the Oslo Accords - which led to seeing Rabin and the accords as being part of a magnanimous act carried out by Israel towards the Palestinians.

That Yitzhak Rabin paid the ultimate price in beginning a path towards appeasement with the Palestinians, no matter how modest that endeavour, only augmented this idea of him as an honest broker.

But the truth is that Rabin negotiated from a position of strength - and his failure to block settlement expansion during negotiations with the Palestinians means that his legacy today is to be found in the building blocks of the settlements - settlements that he once called a "cancer in the body of Israeli democracy".

Today, settlement growth has made a two-state solution almost inconceivable. Following the rebuffing of what was US Secretary of State John Kerry's final push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Kerry declared to a House hearing "I think we have some period of time - in one to one-and-a-half to two years - or it's over."

Kerry's downcast appeal for immediate urgency was now four years ago.

Otman Aitlkaboud is an Executive Committee member of the Arab-Jewish Forum working on improving relationships between Arabs and Jews in the UK and beyond. He formerly worked at conflict resolution think tank Next Century Foundation and for the European Union External Action service in Armenia.

Follow Otman Aitlkaboud on Twitter: @OtmanA

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.