Re­mem­ber­ing Rabin

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - URI DROMI This ar­ti­cle will be pub­lished in full as part a new book from Bi­com’s jour­nal, Fathom, ti­tled ‘The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin’. It can be down­loaded at fath­omjour­nal.org from Novem­ber 4

AS YITZHAK Rabin’s for­eign press spokesman, I was on the flight to Wash­ing­ton to be present for the sign­ing of the Oslo Ac­cords at the White House in 1993.

We flew overnight, on an ageing Is­raeli air force plane. It was the same plane Rabin and his staff usu­ally took when­ever he trav­elled as prime min­is­ter.

His aides and the press were ac­cus­tomed to un­com­fort­able nights cramped in their seats. Only Rabin, and his wife Leah when she trav­elled with him, had any com­fort. The Prime Min­is­ter en­joyed a cur­tained-off com­part­ment with a bed. We would typ­i­cally see him changed into py­ja­mas, say­ing good­night, per­haps en­joy­ing a night­cap, be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing into his com­part­ment where he would sleep like a baby, ar­riv­ing at his des­ti­na­tion fresh and ready to work.

This flight was dif­fer­ent. Rabin dis­ap­peared into his com­part­ment as usual, while For­eign Min­is­ter Shi­mon Peres, who never seemed to sleep, worked the me­dia at the back of the plane. But this time, sleep did not come eas­ily to Rabin. I saw him come in and out of his cabin, vis­it­ing the rest-room, look­ing for an­other drink, clearly more ag­i­tated than nor­mal.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing, as I watched his hes­i­tant hand­shake with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn, it struck me how deep his reser­va­tions were about the com­mit­ment he was en­ter­ing into on be­half of the state of Is­rael.

The news of the Oslo Ac­cords, and Rabin’s en­dorse­ment of them, came as a great sur­prise even to those of us work­ing in his team. It was un­like him to en­ter into an agree­ment that would put an el­e­ment of Is­rael’s se­cu­rity into the hands of any­one else, much less into the hands of the Pales­tini­ans and Arafat.

Rabin was “Mr Se­cu­rity”, whose de­ter­mi­na­tion to deal with ter­ror­ism was be­yond doubt. In­deed, his un­com­pro­mis­ing at­ti­tude to ter­ror­ists made life dif­fi­cult for me, as his spokesman to the for­eign me­dia.

The most no­table event in the early pe­riod of Rabin’s term was his de­ci­sion to ex­pel 400 Ha­mas and Is­lamic Ji­had op­er­a­tives to Le­banon.

The night be­fore meet­ing Arafat, Rabin was clearly more ag­i­tated than usual

When the Le­banese re­fused to ad­mit them, they were left stranded on the bor­der, leav­ing us with a pub­lic re­la­tions dis­as­ter. In De­cem­ber 1992, he con­vened his staff to con­sider whether doc­tors from the Red Cross should be al­lowed to visit them. Think­ing of the in­ter­na­tional me­dia, I urged him to agree, but he was not im­pressed. “Will this bring to an end to the In­tifada,” he barked. It was a re­veal­ing mo­ment for me. I un­der­stood he was only re­ally in­ter­ested in what was right for Is­rael’s se­cu­rity, and how things looked to the rest of the world was a much lower pri­or­ity. But I also un­der­stood how con­cerned he was by the ter­ror­ism, and the need to bring it to an end.

Watch­ing this leader — for whom Is­rael’s se­cu­rity was every­thing — make the tran­si­tion from re­luc­tantly ac­cept­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions with the PLO, at the urg­ing of Shi­mon Peres, to be­com­ing sold on the Oslo Ac­cords, was fas­ci­nat­ing.

The key to un­der­stand­ing why he agreed to Oslo is an­other as­pect of Rabin’s per­son­al­ity: his ca­pac­ity to see the big­ger pic­ture.

Even as Prime Min­is­ter in the 1970s, ac­cord­ing to the ac­count of the then for­eign min­istry di­rec­tor-gen­eral Shlomo Avineri, Rabin recog­nised even then the need to sep­a­rate from the Pales­tini­ans to pre­serve Is­rael’s char­ac­ter as a Jewish and demo­cratic state. How­ever, in the im­me­di­ate wake of the bruis­ing 1973 Yom Kip­pur War, he did not feel that the time was right. Come the 1990s, Rabin saw an im­per­a­tive to move for­ward, and an op­por­tu­nity.

The con­text was the end of the Cold War, the de­cline of the Soviet en­emy, and the rise of the new threats of Is­lamic ex­trem­ism, which called for Is­rael to build al­liances with mod­er­ate states on its bor­ders. Rabin also feared a de­cline of na­tional re­silience and sense of pur­pose within Is­rael, aug­mented by the cor­ro­sive ef­fects of the First In­tifada.

For Rabin, the peace process was not some­thing to come at the ex­pense of Is­rael’s se­cu­rity. It was a cal­cu­lated risk in­tended to en­hance Is­rael’s se­cu­rity in the long run, given the chang­ing na­ture of the threats both re­gion­ally, with the Pales­tini­ans, and within Is­raeli so­ci­ety.

Rabin’s abil­ity to take fate­ful de­ci­sions for the fu­ture of his coun­try with re­gard to the big­ger pic­ture was one of the char­ac­ter­is­tics that marked him out from other po­lit­i­cal lead­ers. For those of us who saw him work at first hand, it was ob­vi­ous that we were in the pres­ence of as a states­man, as op­posed to a mere politi­cian.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

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