An interview with Itamar Rabinovich, Israeli Ambassador to the US 1993-1996 during Rabin’s tenure as prime minister
Your biography of Rabin opens with a quote from Amos Oz that Rabin was not endowed with Ben-Gurion’s prophetic passion, Levi Eshkol’s warm gracefulness, Golda’s sweeping simplicity or Begin’s populist energy. How then would you characterise Yitzhak Rabin?
Oz’s quote begins with the assertion that Rabin was not a charismatic leader but a cerebral, skilful one. Indeed Rabin did not have the charisma of Dayan or Begin but he did have authority. He was direct, frank, reliable and always willing to take responsibility.
Rabin writes in his memoirs that on the eve of the Six Day War, he succumbed to ‘mental and physical exhaustion’. Others say that he had a complete breakdown, unworthy of the head of the IDF. What do you think happened?
This is an episode I studied closely. I also consulted with psychiatrists who told me that in their profession there was not a term, labelled ‘nervous breakdown’. I ended up using Rabin’s own term ‘acute anxiety’. It was the result of physical exhaustion, too much coffee and cigarettes, a sense of failure and the impact of Ben-Gurion’s dressing down during their meeting. Rabin was sandwiched between a cabinet that could not make a decision and a bellicose General Staff. This episode did not harm Rabin’s career and reputation. In the final analysis, the Israeli public responded positively to the discovery that their leader went through painful soul searching before going to war.
Rabin had a terrible relationship with Shimon Peres. What was the basis for this?
Rabin and Peres reached an accommodation and actually signed an agreement, sorting out their relationship, in 1995. Even so, during Rabin’s first term and sometimes during his second term, their relationship was very difficult. Their rivalry went back to the 1950s when Rabin was a senior army general and Peres, Director-General of the Ministry of Defence. They had policy differences (among other things on the nuclear issue) and belonged to different factions of Labour. There were personality issues: Rabin was the ultimate sabra while Peres retained elements of his Polish diaspora youth. Rabin was a careful, analytical person and Peres, a high flying, imaginative adventurer. In 1974 they contested the leadership of the Labour Party when Golda resigned. Rabin won, but Peres never really conceded. Rabin had to appoint him as Minister of Defence. This saga continued to the very end.
You point out that Rabin as prime minister was adamantly opposed to the PLO, yet was open-minded when other Israelis met it its members. How do you understand this?
Rabin was always willing to explore other options while conducting a certain policy. The first intifada persuaded him that a deal with the Palestinians was inevitable. His policy was focused on an agreement with local leaders in the West Bank and Gaza, but he then realized that they could not and would not stand up to the PLO. Given all this, he enabled different Israelis to talk to the PLO and was happy to meet and debrief them afterwards.
Despite Leah Rabin’s unauthorised bank account in Washington, why did he feel constrained to resign in 1977? After all, many Israeli politicians have brazened out such accusations of impropriety in the public arena.
It would not have been in Rabin’s character ‘to hide behind his wife’s skirt’ and to argue that the bank account was hers alone. Again, the incident did not cause him significant damage in the long term. The public appreciated his willingness to take responsibility and resign. Ironically this also spared him the direct responsibility for Labour’s defeat in the 1977 elections.
In your book, you write that you could hear ‘the wings of history’ flapping about a potential deal with the Syrians. Why then did Rabin opt instead to follow the path that led to Oslo and the difficult handshake with Arafat?
‘I could hear the wings of history’ because in his meeting with US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, Rabin gave him the key for making an Israeli-Syrian deal by depositing a conditional willingness to withdraw from the Golan in return for a package of peace and security. The deposit was not used well by the US and Rabin opted instead to proceed with the Oslo process.
In his Oslo II speech in October 1995, Rabin spoke about a Palestinian entity that would be ‘less than a state’. Was this fixed in stone or a temporary, intermediate position?
Rabin knew when he delivered that speech that in a few months, he would begin a difficult negotiation with Arafat. Recognition of Palestinian statehood would be a trump card in that negotiation. It made a lot of sense to state that statehood was not on the table prior to the negotiations. Deep in his heart, this realistic leader must have known that statehood was inevitable. The nature of that statehood and many other significant issues would have to be negotiated.
You go into detail about the religious and right wing incitement against Rabin in 1995. How did Rabin and his family cope with this?
Rabin kept a calm exterior during the ugly summer of 1995, but he was affected by the vilification. I remember a meeting in his apartment in Tel Aviv with Secretary Christopher when a small group of demonstrators with loudspeakers stood across the street and shouted threats and obscenities. They could be heard clearly inside the apartment. During the fatal rally on November 4, it was evident that he very much appreciated the love and support, conveyed by the audience.
Where were you when you heard about Rabin’s killing?
I had just come off a flight from Boston. I had travelled to Boston to prepare for Rabin’s visit later that month to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.
It is said that had he lived, Rabin would have been defeated by Netanyahu in the 1996 elections and would not be the towering figure that many regard him as today. Is this a fair appraisal?
There is no telling how the 1996 elections would have turned out, had Rabin not been assassinated. I personally believe that he would have won. Clearly, assassinated leaders, like Rabin, Lincoln and Kennedy, are remembered differently. Their life and death are mingled into a single, powerful memory. Still, it is better to die peacefully in your bed.
In any event, there was enough in Rabin’s life, career and achievements over decades to form a powerful legacy without the assassination: his role in 1948, building the IDF for the 1967 victory, two peace deals.
What will be Rabin’s legacy for the twenty-first century?
One of the most important characteristics of the current international scene is the absence of great leadership. Rabin’s style and stature stands out as a model of leadership that is so scarce today. This is true of the international scene and certainly true of Israel. So his most important legacy is undoubtedly his leadership and stature.
Jewish Chronicle 4 November 2020