The 20th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin has come and gone. But the debate about his true legacy continues.
Was the Israeli prime minister Israel’s last chance for peace? Did subsequent leaders derail the peace process? Could the Oslo Accords have been the beginning of real change, or were they always doomed to fail?
The hagiographers eulogize Rabin as a war hero turned man of peace. The demonizers attack his military record as well as his actions as prime minister.
What fans and detractors of Rabin share is a tendency to pick and choose aspects of his life and legacy to fuel their own political arguments about the future of Israel and the current impasse in the peace process.
Just as John F. Kennedy’s short term as U.S. president has been romanticized since he was assassinated 52 years ago this week, those who see only the hopes symbolized by a Rabin-led peace process, without acknowledging that he faced the same obstacles to peace as today’s leaders, are guilty of magical thinking.
We have to separate the tragedy of Rabin’s untimely death – gunned down by an extremist Israeli Jew at a peace rally in Tel Aviv, only moments after joining the crowd in singing the anti-war anthem, “Shir Lashalom” – from what he actually accomplished and whether his plans for peace were sustainable.
The fact is that, after years of focusing on establishing Israel as a formidable military presence and seeing the Palestinians only as enemies – he is alleged to have ordered soldiers to “break the bones” of Palestinian militants when he was defence minister – Rabin decided Israel was finally strong enough to make peace with the Palestinians.
His vision of peace was more pragmatic than romantic. He believed Israel should resolve conflicts close to home in order to focus on greater threats to come from such enemies as Iran.
And those who use the memory of Rabin to argue peace will magically arrive the moment Israel gives up its settlements conveniently ignore the fact that Rabin’s vision of a peace deal was not that different from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current stance.
Indeed, Rabin told the Knesset a month before he was killed that he envisioned a Palestinian entity that would be “less than a state.” He adamantly opposed a return to 1967 borders, and insisted that any permanent solution had to include a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.
He said that established settlements, including Gush Etzion and Ma’ale Adumim, would be part of any permanent solution.
It may be comforting to look back and imagine that Israel had a better partner for peace in 1995 than it does today – but it did not.
Despite his Nobel Peace Prize and the famous handshake with Rabin on the back lawn of the White House, Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat was no peacenik.
He was the ultimate political chameleon, who said all the right things and preached peace in English when U.S. envoys and world media were around.
But, as Palestinian Media Watch has documented, when Arafat spoke to his colleagues and followers in Arabic, he never stopped inciting against Israel and calling for terror as the most effective way to achieve Palestinian statehood.
We must also recall that the Oslo Accords did not address what are still the major obstacles to a peace agreement: borders, the status of Jerusalem and the “right of return,” which would allow Arabs who fled Israel during the 1948 War of Independence, as well as their descendants, to return to their original homes in Israel.
There is no indication Rabin could have surmounted these obstacles any more effectively than his successors have.
Much of the romantic analysis of Rabin’s legacy seems to be based on the premise that Rabin and his government could somehow have brought about peace in a vacuum – that just because Israel decided it was time to make some tough concessions, the Palestinian leadership would go along.
But later prime ministers offered far more wide-ranging and drastic concessions to the Palestinians than Rabin ever envisioned.
Indeed, Ehud Olmert’s 2008 peace proposal would have given the Palestinian Authority 93 per cent of the West Bank. A spokesman for Mahmoud Abbas dismissed this offer as “a waste of time.”
So let us honour Rabin and mourn his murder. But let us not forget that the best intentions of Israeli prime ministers mean nothing without an equal commitment from their Palestinian counterparts.
Twenty years after Rabin, we are still waiting for that kind of commitment.