If Yitzhak Rabin had lived, I’d like to think he’d have made peace with the Palestinians, but I’m not at all sure.
Bill Clinton, both in a 2013 interview aired by Israel’s Channel 2 for the first time last week, and in his address to the Saturday night rally marking the 20th anniversary of the assassination, expressed presidential certainty that Rabin would have concluded a permanent accord with the Palestinians. Shimon Peres, Rabin’s perennial rival-partner, was similarly adamant in an interview this week: “I am sure that if he were alive he would have made peace with the Palestinians…”
Well, with all due respect to Clinton and Peres, the sorry fact is that Yasser Arafat — whom Clinton said so trusted Rabin, and was even “a little intimidated by him” — wasn’t sufficiently trusting, or intimidated, or committed to peacemaking, as to put a halt to Palestinian terrorism even as they were all shaking hands on the various interim deals. As Dalia Rabin noted starkly in my recent interview with her, “The waves of terror hit the peace process, undoubtedly… (and) I have the feeling that (Rabin) wouldn’t have let it continue. There would have been a stage where he would have decided: We’re in a phased process. Let’s evaluate what we have achieved and what the price has been. He wouldn’t have stopped Oslo, but he would have done what Oslo enabled him to do: to look at it as a process and assess whether it was working.”
Eitan Haber, Rabin’s closest aide whom I interviewed two years ago, also sounded rather less than convinced, giving me a series of somewhat ambiguous answers, including this bleak sentence: “I didn’t believe for a second that Arafat was a partner and I’m not at all sure that Rabin believed he was.”
If Yitzhak Rabin had lived, I’d like to think he would at least have remained in power a while — he was the outstanding leader of his generation, a man with the experience, the wisdom, the personality and the will to extricate the best for and out of this country — but I don’t think we can even be sure he would have won the next election.
He was bolstering Israel’s international legitimacy, opening doors everywhere from faraway China to neighboring Jordan. He was reordering national priorities, boosting funding for education, reallocating resources to help draw Israel’s Arab populace closer to equality with the Jews.
But the terrorism that had accompanied the efforts at peacemaking had eaten away at his popularity, and he was up against a potent political rival in Benjamin Netanyahu — so potent that mere months after the assassination, even as Israel reeled in horror at itself for the killing, the Likud leader was able to defeat Peres, the interim prime minister and natural heir. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, Netanyahu was politically toxic, the leader of the camp from whose most radical fringe an assassin had sprung. But Netanyahu was carried to victory, by a nailbiting 29,457 votes, by those very same waves of terrorism — specifically four suicide bombings in February and March 1996 that persuaded a narrow majority of Israelis, however much they mourned for Rabin and for a country that could produce his killer, that the Oslo path, the Arafat path, was a bloody disaster.
If Yitzhak Rabin had lived and if he had remained in power, there’d have been a lot less talk, and possibly more action, to thwart Iran’s nuclear drive.
There’d have been a far better relationship between Israel and its vital American ally.
There’d have been no room for ambiguity when it came to maintaining the ultra-sensitive status quo at the Temple Mount, no ridiculous talk of Palestinian muftis inspiring the Holocaust, no demagoguery about Israeli Arabs streaming to the polls.
There’d have been pragmatism regarding the settlement enterprise.
Cursed by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, modern Israel has also been cursed by bad timing when it comes to political leadership and possibility. Just maybe, a trio of Clinton, Rabin and Mahmoud Abbas could have succeeded where Clinton, Rabin and Arafat did not. Just maybe. (A younger, inspired Abbas, that is, not the broken failure now presiding over a leadership strategically inciting its people to violence against the Jews.) But the duplicitous Arafat was with us until 2004, by which time Rabin would have been 82. It’s beyond improbable to imagine him retaining power long enough to outlast Arafat.
Cursed by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Israel has never recovered. This is a wonderful country full of motivated, innovative, hard-working people, insistently thriving against lousy odds in a spectacularly dangerous part of the world, with radically inadequate support from a hypocritical international community.
But its post-Rabin leadership has too often been defensive, paralyzed and bleak.
Its more extreme spiritual leaders still presume to know the will of God.
And its radical fringe stops at nothing.
Finally, if Yitzhak Rabin had lived, if Yigal Amir had been thwarted on or before November 4, 1995, we cannot afford to assume, in our wild, feverish Israel, that no other extremist would have emerged to assassinate him.
Twenty years after that terrible night in the square, that is one of the darkest shadows that still hovers over us.
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