After Rabin

Uri Avnery

The speaker of the Knesset invited me to take part in a special session to commemorate the 12th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. I debated with myself whether to accept the invitation. On the one hand, I would have liked to honour the man and the achievements of his last years. I liked him. On the other hand, I had no wish to listen to a eulogy delivered by Shimon Peres, who pretended to follow Rabin’s path but buried the Oslo agreement out of sheer cowardice. And even less to a eulogy from Ehud Olmert, one of the people who led the campaign against the Oslo agreement and its authors. And still less to a eulogy from Benjamin Netanyahu, who stood on the balcony while a picture of Rabin in SS uniform was paraded below. In the end I decided to stay away. Instead I sat at home and thought about the man.

About the young Yitzhak Rabin, who joined the Palmach (the pre-independence ‘regular forces’). The commander who drove Arabs from their homes in the 1948 war. The chief of staff who called on us, after the Six Day War, to honour the enemy dead. The prime minister who did more for education than any of his predecessors or successors. The prime minister who allowed me to continue my secret contacts with PLO leaders, when this constituted a serious crime. The defence minister who called on soldiers to ‘break their arms and legs’, an order that was meticulously carried out. The man who recognised the PLO and shook Arafat’s hand.

More than anything, Rabin was the typical representative of my generation, the ‘generation of 1948’. He personified the innocence of the generation that believed they were sacrificing their lives for the existence of the Yishuv, the salvation of the Jews of Europe, for independence. Without this absolute belief, which was coupled with total ignorance of the other side, we would not have withstood the test of 1948, in which a significant proportion of our contemporaries were killed or wounded.

This generation idealised the ‘sabra’ (literally, the prickly pear plant), a mythical figure that had an immense influence in shaping our characters. The sabra was supposed to be upright, both physically and mentally, free from the complexes of ‘exile’ Jews (the term ‘exilic’ was the most insulting in our lexicon). The sabra was honest, truthful, practical, natural, someone who always came straight to the point and despised mannerisms, empty talk and histrionic phrases, which we referred to colloquially as ‘Zionism’. Before we knew about the Holocaust, ‘exile’ Jews and everything connected with them were treated with scorn, even contempt. A clear terminological distinction appeared: between the Hebrew Yishuv and the Jewish religion, the Hebrew kibbutz and the Jewish shtetl, Hebrew labour (as in the name of the then dominant trade union) and Jewish luft-gesheften (Yiddish for ‘nebulous transactions’), Hebrew workers and Jewish speculators.

Yitzhak Rabin was the ultimate sabra: a handsome young man who sacrificed his ambition to study hydraulic engineering in order to serve the nation, to become a fighter and command fighters, to take action and leave the discussion of ideology to old people. He was said to possess an analytical mind because of his ability to examine a given situation and find practical solutions. The other side of the coin was a lack of imagination. He dealt with reality, and could not imagine a different reality. (Abba Eban, who hated his guts, said to me in his malicious way: ‘Analysis means dissecting. Rabin can take things apart, but he cannot put them together again.’) He was withdrawn, perhaps shy, and shrank from physical contact, slaps on the back and public embraces. Some called him an autist. After a few glasses (always Scotch) he opened up a little, and at parties could smile his rather crooked smile and become quite friendly.

If he had died in 1970, we would remember him only as a soldier, a successful brigade commander in the 1948 war, the best chief of staff the Israeli army ever had, the architect of the incredible victory of the Six Day War. But at the age of 70 he did something that even 30-year-olds are generally unable to do: he abandoned the certainties that had hitherto governed his life. In 1969, when he was serving as Israeli ambassador in Washington, we talked for the first time about the Palestinian issue. He completely rejected the idea of peace with the Palestinians. And whenever we met after that – in his office, at the prime minister’s residence, at his home or at parties – the conversation always returned to the Palestinian question. His attitude remained the same.

He explained to me later that his change of mind had taken the form of a series of logical deductions. When he was defence minister, he met local Palestinian leaders, who were amenable in one-to-one conversations, but when they were in a group were tough and told him they took their orders from the PLO. Then came the Madrid conference. Israel gave in to pressure and agreed to negotiate with a Jordanian delegation that included Palestinian members. Once at the conference, the Jordanians refused to deal with Palestinian issues and so the Palestinians became in practice an independent delegation. Feisal Husseini, their leader, was not allowed into the conference room because he was a Jerusalemite. The delegation members went to consult with him from time to time, and at the end of each day told the Israelis that they had to call Tunis to get instructions from Arafat. ‘This became too ridiculous for me,’ Rabin told me with his usual bluntness. ‘If everything depends on Arafat anyhow, why not talk with him directly?’ That was the background of Oslo.

How did Rabin’s Oslo ship get stuck on a sandbank? Much of the fault lies with Rabin himself. He really wanted to achieve peace with the Palestinians. But he had no route to the objective, and no clear picture of the objective itself. The change was too abrupt. Like Israeli society in general, he was unable to free himself overnight from the fears, mistrust, superstitions and prejudices accumulated during a century of conflict. That is why he did not do the one thing that could have led the ship of Oslo to a safe haven: he didn’t use its momentum to achieve peace in a bold and rapid move. He did not have in mind what Lloyd George said about peace with Ireland: ‘You cannot cross an abyss with two jumps.’ He was by nature cautious, slow, averse to dramatic gestures (unlike Menachem Begin, for example). The result was the fatal weakness of the Oslo agreement. The final aim was not spelled out, the two decisive words – ‘Palestinian state’ – do not appear at all. This omission led to its collapse.

While the two sides wasted months and years haggling over every single detail of the endless ‘interim’ steps, the forces in Israel opposed to peace had time to recover. Led by the settlers and the ultra-right, they fed on the hatreds and anxieties bred by the long war. Rabin had routed them, but then allowed them to regroup and mount a counter-attack. For this he paid with his life.

His murder changed the history of Israel, much as the murder of Franz Ferdinand changed the history of Europe. Rabin wanted to move forward towards peace. Slowly, slowly, with stubborn haggling, but consistently and with persistence. Olmert wants a ‘peace process’ that has no end – babbling, meetings, conferences, without any progress. The Annapolis conference fits perfectly into this scheme. Some say that the most important thing is to talk, because ‘when you are talking you are not shooting.’ But we are talking for the sake of talking while the occupation deepens and despair gains ground. The failure of Annapolis may well trigger the Third Intifada.