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.