The assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin took place 13 years ago. Any attempt to assess its ramifications for the overall course of the peace process ever since is a potentially frustrating exercise in "what if". It also goes directly to the heart of the debate among historians and others regarding the role of individuals in shaping history.
Perhaps the best way to try to assess Rabin's legacy is to examine what aspects and components of his approach to the peace process appear to remain valid or "operational" today. Rabin, after all, did not originate Israel's negotiating processes with Jordan, Syria and the Palestinians. That honor fell to his unwilling predecessor, Yitzhak Shamir, within the framework of the Madrid conference and subsequent Washington talks. Rabin, in scarcely three years as prime minister, contributed the Oslo framework of direct talks with the PLO (rather than indirect, as in Washington) and, on the Syrian track, the territorial "deposit". Both concepts remain eminently valid today, some 15 years later. This is no mean feat.
The division of the land that Rabin envisaged as far back as the mid-1970s, when during his first term as prime minister he predicted that eventually the settlers "would need visas" to visit the West Bank, was anchored from Israel's standpoint in security rather than diplomacy. Rabin also originated the concept of a security fence separating Israelis and Palestinians.
But Rabin was also the first Israeli leader to speak frankly to the nation about its relationship with the Palestinian people. As Prof. Zeev Sternhall noted pointedly a few days ago, the Rabin revolution was based on "the idea that the  War of Independence had ended once and for all and that now there were two peoples living in the land and both had rights to it". This concept, so central to a successful resolution to the conflict, also survived Rabin's murder, as did his repeated declaration that it was high time Israelis realized that the world is not against us but is prepared to work with us--note the growing readiness of a succession of Israeli leaders to seek out regional and international allies, mediators and peacekeepers in our conflicts with Iran and non-state actors like Hizballah.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Rabin's peace legacy is the one we take most for granted: peace with Jordan. It is no coincidence that Rabin turned to Jordan's King Hussein the moment Israel signed the Oslo Declaration of Principles. He recognized that peace with the Hashemite Kingdom offered far more security to Israel on its eastern flank and in its relations with the Palestinians than any potential deal with the Palestinians. Today, with Hamas' rise to power and the growing threat from Iran to the east, this determination remains as valid as ever.
On the other hand, Rabin's readiness to trust and work with PLO leader Yasser Arafat did not survive him. Israel's relationship with the Palestinian leader deteriorated steadily after Rabin's death until Arafat--isolated by Ariel Sharon, shunned internationally and almost totally discredited in the eyes of the Israeli public by his reliance on violence and drive to undermine Israel--died under murky circumstances.
I recall on September 13, 1993, the day of the Oslo signing on the White House lawn, asking then head of the Jaffee Center Aharon Yariv, a retired general who had served as Rabin's chief of intelligence during the 1967 Six-Day War, whether he planned to watch the ceremony on television. "I can't," he replied. "I know how painful it will be for Yitzhak to shake Arafat's hand and I can't bear to see it."
The whole world remembers the pained look on Rabin's face at the moment of that dramatic handshake. What if he had refused? Would we be better or worse off today? What if . . . ?
Finally, 13 years later, Rabin's assassination continues to symbolize the rise of the violent messianic political right in Israel. They are still among us. They still threaten everything that is dear to rational, peace-minded Israelis. Here is one area where Rabin's successors have failed miserably.- Published 10/11/2008 © bitterlemons.org
There is no doubt that the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, 13 years ago, was a turning point in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and that the period that followed could have turned out very different in his presence.
Rabin had three reasons to enter into a serious peace process. The first was his experience in trying and failing to suppress by force the first Palestinian intifada, a period of popular Palestinian non-violent resistance against the occupation. The failure came in spite of his direct orders to be as tough as "breaking their bones", an order Israeli soldiers followed to the letter. This experience led him to conclude that there could be no military solution to the conflict.
The second reason was his long experience of negotiations with the Palestinian delegation in Washington. During this time, the Israeli government, first under Yitzak Shamir but later under Rabin himself, tried to bypass the legitimate Palestinian leadership, the PLO, to reach an agreement on creating an autonomous body led by local Palestinian leaders in the Palestinian territories. That experience led him to the conclusion that Israel would have a better chance of achieving its objectives by dealing directly with the PLO.
The third reason was his strong domestic political and military credentials. The great credibility he had garnered throughout both his military and political careers reduced the opposition to his peace strategy and enabled him to justify his policies on security as well as political bases.
For all these reasons, Rabin was the only Israeli leader able to break several Israeli political taboos. He dealt directly with the PLO, first secretly in Oslo and then openly. At the same time, he gave serious and public consideration to the idea of an historic territorial compromise that would include giving up the Israeli occupation over most of the occupied territories. This had been taboo for two reasons: it implied the end of the Jewish quest to control all of the "God-given" Eretz Israel; and it went against the traditional opinion that saw Israeli military control over the West Bank as necessary for Israel's security.
In addition, Rabin's experience of negotiations created an unusual bond with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The latter always referred to Rabin in his speeches as "my partner". There were signs that the two's relationship could overcome the many problems that used to emerge, either in the talks between their respective negotiating teams or in developments on the ground, e.g., acts of violence, whether Palestinian or Israeli.
Domestically, and although the Israeli public seemed behind him, it took all Rabin's charisma, determination and credentials to overcome Israeli political hesitancy and, in some quarters, strong opposition to his peace strategy. He prevailed, and in addition to his solid popular support, maintained a working majority in parliament. It was probably this, the real potential that he would succeed in exchanging land for peace, that caused the Israeli right wing to consider a bullet the surest way to curtail his efforts.
It soon became clear that the absence of Rabin altered the balance of power inside Israel against the peace camp. In the elections that followed, Israelis voted against Rabin's peace strategy and his long-time associate and successor Shimon Peres to elect the anti-peace process leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, now again head of the Likud.
From then until 2000, Israeli policy was characterized by hesitation on both the public and political levels and a weakness of leadership, whether under Netanyahu or Ehud Barak. Those years of hesitation and stagnation in the political process did not, unfortunately, only delay a possible peaceful agreement but caused a trend of radicalization to gain ground in both societies. This trend culminated in Israel with the election of the right wing extremist Ariel Sharon in 2001, a second wave of fierce violence that was called the second intifada and the eventual election of Hamas in Palestine.- Published 10/11/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Rabin and the Oslo process
by Efraim Inbar
Yitzhak Rabin was first and foremost a military man. Peace was merely a means to buttress security, and the cautious Rabin believed that the transition to peaceful relations between Israel and its neighbors would take decades. The shift to the role of peacemaker was not easy for Rabin. While he had the courage to make difficult decisions, he was ambivalent toward the path chosen. His honesty and skepticism prevented him from articulating a vision that would convince the majority of Israelis to go along with his preferences. Nevertheless, Rabin was successful in bringing about a de facto partition of the Land of Israel and in greatly limiting the appeal of the Greater Israel ideology.
Most Israelis were ready for partition, but the Oslo agreements never received whole-hearted support by the public and in the Knesset. Rabin's government coalition barely maintained a majority in parliament. Had he not been assassinated, Rabin probably would have lost in an election to Binyamin Netanyahu in 1996, as he trailed in the polls.
Rabin always believed in land for security, reflecting the prevalent view of mainstream Israeli society. Therefore, it was with reluctance that Rabin allowed the Palestinian Liberation Organization to take control of parts of the Land of Israel in exchange for an unfulfilled promise to prevent terrorism. He also knew that dealing even with a reformed PLO meant placing difficult issues on the agenda, such as the establishment of a Palestinian state, the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees and Jerusalem.
He was also aware that the PLO was a danger to his preferred partner, Hashemite Jordan. Moreover, he tried to first reach a deal with Syria. Indeed, his power politics prism led him to attribute greater importance to the interstate dimension of the Arab-Israel conflict than to the Palestinian dimension. In his eyes the Arab states, which had at their disposal tanks and airplanes, could harm Israel much more than the Palestinians, who lacked military strength. The Arab states constituted a military threat and were therefore the address for making war and negotiating peace.
This idea is reemerging in current Israeli politics as hopes of a Palestinian state living peacefully next to Israel are confronted with the bitter reality of a fractured and increasingly fanatic Palestinian body politic. Following the failure to implement a two-state solution, Rabin would have supported the attempts to involve Arab states that signed a peace treaty with Israel in tackling the Palestinian issue. What is today called the "regional approach" is much more in tune with Rabin's thinking then the attempts to placate the Palestinian national movement and build a Palestinian state, which was once deemed by Rabin a potential "cancer in the Middle East".
The tragic assassination of Yitzhak Rabin only delayed the recognition that the two-state paradigm is not working. We know that Rabin was frustrated with the Palestinians' dismal record of state building and counter-terrorism. There are indications that Rabin started having second thoughts about his peace partner, Yasser Arafat. If he had survived, Rabin himself might have decided to put an end to the Oslo experiment and expel Arafat and the incorrigible PLO leadership, which did not deliver their part of the deal. Furthermore, he believed that the Oslo process was reversible because Israel was strong. He could have easily mobilized popular support for such a policy reversal among Israelis.
Yet his assassination by a religious fanatic galvanized the previous lukewarm support for the "peace process". This event paralyzed the Israeli political right and minimized opposition to the transfer of Palestinian cities to the PLO in January 1996.
The realization that the perennial search for a partner to divide the Land of Israel did not end with granting the PLO territorial control sunk deep into the Israeli psyche only when Prime Minister Ehud Barak returned from Camp David in July 2000 and the Palestinians subsequently launched a terror campaign. Barak, Rabin's heir and disciple, coined the "no partner" diagnosis to which most Israelis subscribe. More than anyone, Barak is responsible for discrediting the messianic doves in Israeli politics, whom Rabin generally detested.
Rabin would have been pleasantly surprised by the resilience of Israeli society during the second intifada. He, like others in the Israeli political leadership, expressed pessimism about Israelis' ability to withstand protracted conflict. Such a pessimistic evaluation of the willingness to suffer within Israeli society was one of the reasons that led Rabin and others to advocate far-reaching concessions. Evidence that Israelis were ready to fight and bear pain, contrary to his original belief, might have led Rabin to display less tolerance of Palestinian violations and toward a serious search for an alternative to the two-state paradigm.- Published 10/11/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Efraim Inbar is professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies and the author of "Rabin and Israel's National Security" (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1999).
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Rabin's absence has left a major question unanswered
by Daoud Kuttab
The late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat liked to call his peace talks with Yitzhak Rabin "the peace of the brave".
In spite of the positive connotations of this phrase, however, Palestinians long thought of Rabin in negative terms. He was initially known for his iron fist policies and became infamous for his calls to "break the arms" of the first intifada's stone throwers. Yet this hawkish Israeli politician will nevertheless be remembered for his sincere (albeit hesitant) handshake with Arafat at the White House lawn in September 1993 and for being assassinated two years later by a radical Jewish extremist while leaving a Tel Aviv peace rally.
In June 1993, I was the first Palestinian journalist to interview Rabin. At the time, Israel still refused publicly to talk to the PLO, and the Jordan option (the return of parts of the West Bank to Jordan) was still the considered diplomatic solution. I tried to elicit a response from Rabin on the long-term future of the Palestinian territories. "Mr Prime Minister," I asked, "what is your vision for the future of the Palestinians in 10 or 15 years?" After a short pause, Rabin gave me the Labor Party's standard reply. "I believe that the future of the Palestinians must be somehow connected with Jordan."
Unknown to me at the time, Rabin's envoys were in fact conducting secret talks with the PLO in Oslo, which led, among other things, to the recognition of the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and to a de facto recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.
Now, however, 15 years later, we seem to be back at the point of my pre-Oslo interview. Israel has reverted to the useless tactic of denigrating legitimate Palestinian leaders and denying the right of self-determination to the people living under its inhumane occupation and military siege, especially the Palestinians in Gaza.
While there are no talks now about Jordan having a direct role in the administration of the West Bank, Egypt, which administered Gaza between 1948-1967, is the key player both in the Palestinian reconciliation effort as well as in potentially having to put troops on the ground in Gaza. If the leaders of the Hamas-controlled Strip reject the Egyptian reconciliation plan that includes new elections and a revamping of the Palestinian security apparatus, we might see an Arab-led force retaking the Strip.
Israel must now answer what it intends to do with the people and land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Will Israelis and Palestinians share power or will they share land. Sharing power means for both people to live in a single bi-national state. Until now, Israelis seem opposed to any long-term settlement that dilutes the Jewish majority of Israel.
The two-state solution, which was legally adopted by the Palestine National Council in 1988, appeared to have been accepted by Rabin when he signed the Oslo accords (a partial reversal of what he had told me about his expectation that the West Bank would eventually be connected somehow to Jordan). But Israeli actions since, especially after Rabin's assassination, seem to indicate that this issue has not been completely settled within the Israeli political establishment. Certainly, if Israel has accepted the concept of a two state solution, it has not succeeded in translating this strategy into policy. Israeli actions on the ground, especially with respect to the continuing settlement expansion, indicate that Israel wants to keep the land without sharing power with its indigenous population.
Such a strategy will eventually mean that what is true today in reality will become a formal framework in the future, i.e., a dual legal system for Palestinians and Jews. It is no wonder that former US President Jimmy Carter worries that this will become an apartheid regime.
Israeli intransigence, meanwhile, has had its effect on Palestinian thinking as well. In 1988, Palestinians who used to favor a one-state solution had come to accept its impossibility and therefore opted for the two-state solution. Recently, however, there has been a revival of the one-state option among Palestinians. Dividing the land into two sovereign states today seems as far-fetched as a one-state solution did then, primarily because of the absence of a strong and visionary Israeli leader.
Rabin might have been ready to finalize the land-for-peace deal in the mid-1990s but his plans were cut short by the bullet of a Jewish fundamentalist. The Israeli establishment since has yet to decide what it wants. In particular, Israel needs to answer the simple question I asked Rabin 15 years ago. What does Israel want to do with the Palestinians under its direct military rule in Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley and rural West Bank areas as well as those under its indirect military rule in West Bank cities and the Gaza Strip? Rabin was not given a chance to fully and convincingly answer the question. No Israeli leader since has.- Published 10/11/2008 © bitterlemons.org
Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian columnist, is the director general of Community Media Network, a media NGO that is registered in Jordan and Palestine.
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