by Hillel Schenker
How could a man who resigned from his position as prime minister of Israel in 1977 because of a bank account scandal, whose first term in office (1974 - 1977) was, to put it mildly, considered uninspiring, reemerge to become a statesman who leads his country to major breakthroughs toward peace?
In February 1993 the late philosopher/gadfly Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, was still wondering out loud whether Rabin wasn't "a complete fool," yet one of his last requests before he died was that the negative references to the prime minister in the soon-to-be-published English version of his book be deleted, since he now (in July 1994) considered him "a great leader."
In the same spirit, on October 10, 1994 Sever Plocker wrote an editorial in the mass circulation daily Yediot Achronot, which is read by seventy percent of the Hebrew newspaper-reading public, headlined "The Man of History." In flowery, almost embarrassing language, he wrote: "The world is filled with small and mediocre people. Yitzhak Rabin is a great man. When we count the great Jewish leaders of the twentieth century, three names will come before all others: Herzl, Ben-Gurion, Rabin." Yet Rabin, the Nobel Prize winner, inspires right-wing taunts of "Rabin is a traitor" and lately even cries of "Death to Rabin" have been heard at anti-government demonstrations, the first time that such a murderous phrase has been hurled at an Israeli prime minister. Who could have imagined that minor Labor leader Rosa Cohen's son would ever inspire such emotion, pro and con?
Robert Slater, the longtime resident correspondent for Time magazine in Israel (who has lived in the country since 1971) tries to solve the riddle of Yitzhak Rabin in his book Rabin of Israel, first published in 1977 and updated in 1993. Slater agrees that Rabin "lacks charisma. He's certainly no Ben-Gurion, no Begin, no Golda Meir ... he does not mesmerize ... does not charm ... [he's] almost the last person around whom one could try to form a personality cult."
So just what has made Rabin, the first and so far only native-born Israeli prime minister, "so incredibly popular? .. The people trust him on the only issue that matters to them: national security."
Slater poses an interesting theory as to how Rabin reemerged as the national leader in 1992, overcoming both inflexible hawkish Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir and his perennial Labor Party rival, Shimon Peres. During his first term as prime minister, Rabin was the dove while Peres, his defense minister, was the hawk. "In the ensuing years," writes Slater, "the image¬ makers would increasingly depict Shimon Peres as a political dove - to his detriment. These same image-makers turned Rabin into a political hawk, to his great advantage." According to this theory, only a hawk like Begin, De Gaulle, Nixon and the revamped Rabin could have the security credentials necessary to make peace.
The reader can learn from this book a number of interesting aspects, cardinal to an understanding of Rabin's personality. First of all, any suggestion that Rabin might have left Labor for the Revisionist Likud is belied by his background and by his own statements. His mother, Rosa Cohen, was an activist who originally supported the 1917 Revolution in her native Russia. Disillusionment with the Revolution and anti-Jewish pogroms led her to move to Palestine where she became a Labor leader in Haifa, and later in Tel Aviv. Rosa Cohen dedicated her life to defense and labor, becoming the first commander of the Haifa Hagana (Jewish self-defense force), and later a member of the Supreme Command of the Organization. She was also elected to serve on the Tel Aviv City Council where she was an outspoken supporter of workers' rights in that bourgeois city.
His father, Nehemia Rabin, was active in Socialist-Zionist circles in Chicago for thirteen years, having moved to the U.S. from Russia. In Palestine he became active in the Labor movement, and served in various capacities in the Histadrut (General Federation of Labor). He even carried the red flag at the annual May Day parade.
In 1924 the workers' organization in Tel Aviv organized the first workers' school, known as the Beit Hinuch (House of Education). The Rabins enrolled young Yitzhak in the school, which educated toward "the goals of both the Labor movement and Zionism. The school not only supplied the fundamentals of education, but also furnished the children with an ideology, a direction ... " Yitzhak also naturally joined a Labor-oriented youth movement, Hanaar Haaved (Working Youth) and used to get into street fights with the right-wing Betar youth. Slater notes that Rabin was preparing himself for life on a kibbutz (his sister is a kibbutz member): "he seemed destined for a career in agriculture and would have thought it 'absurd' if the idea of becoming a military figure would have been suggested to him."
This background explains his unequivocal statement in 1975 that "I am a socialist, I believe in the paramount importance of the productive worker," and his advocacy in 1992 of "a change in our national priorities." It also explains why the young Rabin had no qualms about commanding the Palmach's armed confrontation with the Revisionist Irgun ship Altalena which was sunk off the coast of Tel Aviv in September 1948 together with a cargo of 5,000 rifles, 280 light machine guns and a number of anti-tank weapons (which Ben-Gurion feared were to be used against the legal government).
Rabin's pro-American orientation is very evident in the book. "I was brought up on my father's stories about the United States," Rabin told the author. "He always used to say it was the country in which he learned the meaning of freedom, had seen the taste for education, and where organizations existed to fight for workers' rights." For a long time Rabin wanted to spend an extended period in the States. He made his first attempt when, after winning the top scholarship prize at high school, he planned to study water engineering at the University of California.
He finally made it in 1969 after completing his triumphant tour of duty as IDF chief of staff. He actually volunteered, and lobbied for the position of Israeli ambassador to the United States. For Rabin, his three years as an envoy were like "a seminar on the problems of the U.S.," and Washington was "the best school in which to learn world politics. I wouldn't have learned what I did in ten years at university," he said.
This American orientation served him well in 1992 when he understood that his readiness for a settlement freeze (which the Likud rejected) would gain Israel $10 billion in loan guarantees and go a long way toward winning the Israeli elections. However, it was Peres's European orientation which enabled the foreign minister to appreciate and exploit the Oslo channel of Israeli-Palestinian talks, while Rabin was focusing on the relatively sterile Washington-based bilateral negotiations.
The third dominant factor in Rabin's life is of course his commitment to national security. Circumstances, rather than conscious intention, led Rabin to take up a military career. He joined the pre-state Palmach when there was a genuine fear of a Nazi invasion of Palestine during World War II. His first mentors were Moshe Dayan and, in particular, Yigal Allon, to whose political principles he tried to remain faithful. He found the Palmach stimulating and it was felt that "here was someone with a bright military future. Rabin's self-confidence stemmed from his uncanny foresight and his own thoroughness."
Rabin went on to playa major role in the 1948 War of Independence and to gain his national reputation as the victor of the Six-Day War. It was the latter which Slater calls Rabin's "calling card for political leadership." Eventually he replaced Moshe Dayan as "Mr. Security." Like Dayan, he possessed "a rare combination for an Israeli politician: the ability to convey toughness in dealing with Arab violence and a sincerity to strive for peace."
Does the book explain how it came about that Yitzhak Rabin would one day take responsibility for the Oslo accords, and shake Yasser Arafat's hand on the White House lawn? While he was serving as defense minister during the stormy days of the Intifada, Ephraim Sneh (then head of the Israeli Civil Administration and today minister of health) "couldn't detect any emotions on Rabin's part toward the Palestinians, not positive, not negative." Rabin initially misunderstood and underplayed the meaning and importance of the Intifada as an assertion of Palestinian national resistance. He thought it could be subdued by physical force, though according to Slater he [Rabin] insists that he never used the phrase "break their bones."
During this period the Palestinians clearly viewed him as a brutal and uncompromising enemy. However, by February 1988 he acknowleded that "I've learned something during the last two and a half months. Among other things, you can't rule by force over one and a half million Palestinians." By 1992 he was saying: "If elected, I will undertake to reach an agreement with the Palestinians within six to nine months," and "I am unwilling to give up a single inch of Israel's security, but am willing to give up many inches of territories - as well as 1,700,000 Arab inhabitants - for the sake of peace." However, in February 1993, when Slater completed the updating of his book, Rabin was still unwilling to negotiate with the PLO.
So what made him change his mind, to assume responsibility for the Oslo accords and to become a key factor in the selling of the Israeli-PLO agreement to the general Israeli public? Perhaps a clue can be found in a quote from Oded Messer, one of Rabin's senior assistants back in 1956: "Some say he is unable to make decisions, but I don't believe this is so. If they mean the ability to make quick decisions, they are right. He is perhaps slow to make a decision. But when he decides, the decision is based on sound judgment. He sticks to the decision and uses every means to carry it out."
Slater concludes that in the 1990s the State of Israel no longer requires "towering figures ...icons ... heroes" who inspire "acts of bravery." It needs pragmatists who can "figure out how to end the state of belligerency with the rest of its Arab neighbors ... [and to] come to grips with the fact that peace has a price, perhaps a heavy one ...It has not been easy, but Rabin has learned how to exhibit the rare combination of toughness and flexibility needed to fulfill this role."
To be forthright, the major value of Rabin of Israel is that it is the only biography of Yitzhak Rabin in existence. Though not the authorized biography, it was clearly written with Rabin's, and his wife's and associates' cooperation. While not devoid of criticism, it is the version of his life that the prime minister would probably want to circulate.
Like the man himself, the book is uncharismatic, and far from being a smooth read. It does touch upon Rabin's collapse on the eve of the Six-Day War and on his bitter rivalry with Shimon Peres, who was ironically to become his co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. The ability of Rabin and Peres to work together today despite their long rivalry is a key to the political success of the current government.
Yet much is left unsaid and unexplained. Perhaps part of the problem lies in Slater's sources. There is no indication that he talked to Shimon Peres in the course of preparing the book. Nor with Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin, an astute observer of Israeli politics whose doctoral thesis was devoted to "Fathers and Sons in Mapai and Mapam." Or even with Knesset Speaker Shevah Weiss, a noted political scientist and member of Rabin's camp.
There are, for example, no quotes from Uri Avneri's iconoclastic Haolam Hazeh magazine, or from New Outlook, both of which observed Rabin and his political environment over the years. Had he read them, Slater would have known that during his first term as prime minister, Gen. (Res.) Mattityahu Peled, who served together with Rabin on the General Staff, always reported directly to the prime minister, at his request, about his meetings in the mid-1970s, on behalf of the Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace with PLO envoy Dr. Issam Sartawi. These discussions were among the first indications of the possibility for serious Israeli-PLO dialogue. In general, Slater seems to have avoided serious conversation about his subject with the Israeli academic and journalistic community.
Yet with all its flaws, it's the only book about Rabin that we've got.