Yitzhak Rabin’s Legacy Is As Contentious As The Conflict He Fought To Resolve

On the 20th anniversary of Rabin's assassination, Israelis and Palestinians debate what might have been if he had survived.
Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin shakes hands with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn on Sep. 13, 19
Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin shakes hands with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn on Sep. 13, 1993. Rabin was assassinated two years later.

WASHINGTON -- The day former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated was the worst day of Bill Clinton’s eight years in office, the former president said last Saturday. Clinton was speaking to a rally of 100,000 people gathered in Tel Aviv to commemorate Rabin, who 20 years ago was murdered by a Jewish Israeli extremist opposed to his push for peace with the Palestinians.  

"He refused to give up his dream of peace in the face of violence," said Clinton.

Now, on the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, the dream for which he lost his life seems less attainable than ever.

Depressed by the present wave of violence and dwindling odds of a two-state solution, veteran analysts and interlocutors on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are debating whether the course of history would have been different, and a just peace more possible, if Rabin had lived.

“What would Rabin have done” is less about finding the truth than it is about determining whether the U.S.-led Israeli-Palestinian process that Rabin embodied remains relevant -- or if, as many Palestinians argue, it has run its course, with the passage of time merely exposing its original flaws.

Rabin has become such a touchstone for divergent views in part because his death marks an apparent turning point in the conflict. 

Under Rabin, Israel finally seemed to be progressing toward resolving differences with its neighbors. Rabin was the first and only Israeli premier to preside over a peace deal with Palestinians in the lands occupied by Israel since the Six-Day War in 1967. He joined then-Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat, once his sworn adversary, in signing the Oslo Accords in 1993 -- shortly after the first Palestinian Intifada. The agreement granted Palestinians limited autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza, and set a timetable for a permanent peace agreement between the two sides.

Rabin also led Israel to make peace with Jordan in 1994. It is an accord that has seen strain over the years, but it remains solid.

But advances toward Israeli-Palestinian peace slowed after his death. In the two decades since then, the prospects for a just peace have faded.

The next step will be determined by whether you decide that Yitzhak Rabin was right, that you have to share the future with your neighbors ... that the risks for peace are not as severe as the risk of walking away from it. Former President Bill Clinton

On one hand, key elements of the Oslo Accords remain in effect. The Palestinian Authority, a governing body created by the deal, remains in control of select areas of the West Bank, where even with the recent uptick in violence, there is close security coordination with Israel.

On the other hand, settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have more than doubled in size since 1993, with the current Israeli population there exceeding half a million. Gaza, the laboratory for Palestinian autonomy in Oslo’s first stages, has been under Hamas control since 2007. Israel, with the cooperation of the Egyptian government, maintains a blockade on the dense strip of land to prevent attacks by Hamas on its civilians -- a blockade human rights groups condemn as an illegal form of collective punishment.

Although analysts stop short of categorizing the latest wave of violence centered in East Jerusalem as a third intifada, it has left dozens of Israelis and Palestinians dead.

"The next step will be determined by whether you decide that Yitzhak Rabin was right, that you have to share the future with your neighbors ... that the risks for peace are not as severe as the risk of walking away from it,” Clinton told the crowd in Tel Aviv. “Those of us who loved him and love your country are praying that you will make the right decision."

Implicit in Clinton’s message was that Israel, under the current leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has strayed from the vision of peace that Rabin had bravely advanced.

Others have more explicitly blamed Netanyahu for the country’s prolonged state of conflict.

“You, sir, Mr. Prime Minister, are responsible for the situation,” said Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog during last week’s special Knesset ceremony in honor of Rabin. “This, specifically, Yitzhak Rabin tried to prevent and for this he paid with his life -- Yitzhak Rabin tried to prevent Israel from becoming Isra-stine,” continued Herzog, referring to the dimming prospects for a two-state solution, and the inevitable alternative of a binational state with a Muslim-majority population.

In 1993, Netanyahu led the opposition in government and accused Rabin of executing a policy of “concessions, concessions, concessions” for seeking peace with the Palestinians. Dan Ephron, the author of a book about the Rabin assassination, places Netanyahu at a rally in Jerusalem’s Zion Square shortly before the assassination, idly watching as crowds chanted, “Death to Rabin.”

It is difficult to forgive the center-right politicians even if they did not intend for it to happen. But they did not understand that sometimes words can kill. Yossi Beilin, former Israeli cabinet minister and senior diplomat

Yossi Beilin, who secretly initiated the Oslo Accord negotiations as Rabin’s deputy foreign minister and was minister of economics and planning at the time of Rabin’s death, also remembers Netanyahu speaking at the infamous Zion Square rally. Netanyahu, he recalls, remained silent amid cries of “traitor,” while attendees waved depictions of Rabin as a Nazi and held up a mock coffin. Current Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, then a Likud Knesset member, got up and left in disgust, according to Beilin.

“It is difficult to forgive the center-right politicians even if they did not intend for it to happen,” Beilin said. “But they did not understand that sometimes words can kill.”

Netanyahu won the first elections after Rabin’s death, capitalizing on Israeli fear of violence after Hamas carried out a series of bus bombings and other terror attacks.

Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres, called for elections in May 1996 -- five months earlier than they were scheduled to occur.

Beyond its electoral ramifications, Hamas' deliberate attacks on Israeli civilians chilled the Israeli public's attitude toward peace. As Ephron noted in a recent Washington Post column, Israelis began substituting the slogan seen on countless bumper stickers after Rabin's death -- "Goodbye friend" -- with a macabre joke about the recent casualties: "Goodbye friends."

Beilin argues that regardless of whether the timing of the elections would have changed their results, Peres’ decision squandered months in which he could have negotiated the next phase of a peace deal with the Palestinians and a simultaneous new treaty he had been working on with Syria. Delivering peace with Syria alongside the next stage of mutual concessions with the Palestinians would have buttressed the political palatability of both agreements, Beilin maintains, ensuring majority support from the public.

And Beilin believes that if Rabin had survived, he might not have made the same mistake.

“Rabin had a year to go” in his four-year term as prime minister, Beilin said. “In a year, he could have at least had a peace treaty with Syria. He was ready for something I am not sure Peres was even ready for: Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, as he promised [then-U.S. Secretary of State] Warren Christopher.”

Beilin emphasizes that for practical reasons, Rabin considered negotiating peace an urgent matter.

Rabin wanted a final agreement “before Iran got nuclear weapons, and before Jews would be a minority West of the Jordan River,” Beilin said. “He said it privately and publicly many times. He was in a hurry.”

Instead, Netanyahu took power, all but stopping the Oslo Accords’ march in its tracks. Netanyahu has since made clear that as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, he tried to undermine the accords, even as he paid them official lip service. In 2001, while back in the opposition government, Netanyahu boasted to a settler family that he “de facto put an end to the Oslo Accords” while in office by defining broad swaths of territory in the West Bank as military sites -- which were not subject to Israeli withdrawal under the peace agreement.

Today, Netanyahu, who is serving his fourth term as prime minister, has no choice but to annually commemorate the death of his former political rival. Since it is no longer politically appropriate to attack Rabin for the Oslo Accords, Netanyahu instead sought to draw comparisons between himself and the slain leader in their shared fight against terrorism.

“The whole incitement against Israel intensifies and the terrorists are trying to raise their heads,” he said during last week’s special meeting of the Knesset (he was not invited to the Tel Aviv rally). “We stand strongly against them, as Yitzhak Rabin stood. He fought terror unhesitatingly, with great decisiveness, and like then, the incitement will not weaken our faith in the justness of the path of Zionism. Terror will not uproot us from our land." 

Benjamin Netanyahu, who was not invited to the Tel Aviv rally for Yizthak Rabin, spoke of the former prime minister duri
Benjamin Netanyahu, who was not invited to the Tel Aviv rally for Yizthak Rabin, spoke of the former prime minister during a special session of the Knesset. 

Despite Netanyahu's modern-day attempts to minimize his differences with Rabin, in practice he has proven far less willing to entertain territorial compromise. But some key players in the conflict wonder whether the issue of Palestinian statehood would have been resolved if Rabin survived and Netanyahu had not been empowered to dominate Israeli politics for much of the past 20 years.

The Oslo Accords left open several key issues -- the status of Jerusalem, the right of return for refugees, border security -- that would have posed a challenge for any leader.

By the time of Rabin’s death, there were already signs that the agreement was “in serious trouble,” Aaron David Miller, a former State Department adviser on the Arab-Israeli peace process, wrote in Foreign Policy on Tuesday. “It assumed that confidence and trust could be strengthened through a phased process in which the relationship between the occupier and the occupied might be altered through a series of quid pro quos involving land for security and the creation of responsible Palestinian self-government."

Palestinian skeptics of the Oslo Accords viewed the agreement as a way for Israel to legitimize the continued occupation indefinitely without ever reaching a final deal on Palestinian statehood.

“By December of ‘93 Rabin is quoted as saying there are no sacred dates, that there is no such thing as deadlines,” said Diana Buttu, a former spokesperson for the PLO who worked with Arafat and his successor, Mahmoud Abbas. “And it sent the message to Palestinians … that he had no intention of ever ending Israel’s military role. It was  just a question of prolonging it and entering diplomatic farce.”

Buttu is especially critical of Rabin’s reaction to a massacre in February of 1994 in which Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinians praying in a Hebron mosque. If Rabin had removed the 400 settlers then in Hebron, Buttu said, he would have sent a message that he was serious about winning Palestinian trust. “But instead of confronting them as he should have in ‘94, he capitulated,” she continued.

Beilin, who was not yet a full cabinet minister in 1994, claims that Rabin and his cabinet initially discussed removing the Jewish settlement from Hebron, but Rabin later changed his mind.

“For some reason he got cold feet and he reneged on it,” Beilin recalled. 

The Hebron mosque massacre killed 29 Palestinians.  
The Hebron mosque massacre killed 29 Palestinians.  

 Yousef Munayyer, head of the U.S. Campaign To End The Israeli Occupation, is careful to differentiate between the kind of peace agreement Rabin backed before his death and “a just peace."

“In its most so-called generous offers, it never offered the Palestinians a state that was equal in sovereignty to the Israeli state. It would always be subservient to the Israeli state,” said Munayyer of the Oslo Accords. “Some might compare that to Bibi today and say, ‘Hey that’s a lot better.’ And maybe that is, but it’s not a just peace.” 

And it sent the message to Palestinians … that he had no intention of ever ending Israel’s military role. It was just a question of prolonging it and entering diplomatic farce. Diana Buttu, former PLO spokesperson

In his final speech to the Knesset, Rabin stated that he envisioned a final status peace agreement granting the Palestinians something short of statehood. “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,” he said in October 1995.

Beilin does not deny that Rabin failed to endorse Palestinian statehood. But he notes that while support for a sovereign Palestinian state became increasingly prevalent among mainstream Israeli officials in recent years, at the time of Rabin’s death it was still not widely embraced even in center-left circles. If more conservative Israeli leaders -- Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and even Benjamin Netanyahu -- subsequently pledged their support for the two-state solution, he reasons, surely Rabin would have as well if he had survived.

"He would have supported it,” Beilin said. “I am sure about it." 

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