Yitzhak Rabin was, without doubt, a statesman—and a leader who transcended party politics, factionalism and the smallness of internal intrigue. He looked solely at the national interest and the affairs of the state. As the first prime minister of Israel born in the land, Rabin’s name is bound up in the defence and security of the Jewish state. Before he became IDF chief-of-staff and then prime minister, he commanded a brigade in the Haganah during the War of Independence, and played an essential role in securing the road to Jerusalem, which enabled Israel to keep its capital.
Rabin provided a link between the old, pre-state ways of ramshackle defence by the tower and stockade, the reclamation and cultivation of land through sheer enterprise and labour, and the ensuing modern achievements in economics and diplomacy in the middle decades of Israel’s existence.
He understood that a powerful Israel within defensible borders was key to the survival and revival of the Jewish people. He also understood that the state could not thrive or long endure from behind walls and instead had to look outward towards its neighbours and become an integrated, accepted member of the international community.
There was a ferocity in Rabin, an iron will to defend the security and peace of Israel and to see no further wars, for he knew war well. Rabin recalled in his acceptance speech of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize,
at an age when most youngsters are struggling to unravel the secrets of mathematics and the mysteries of the Bible; at an age when first love blooms; at the tender age of sixteen, I was handed a rifle so that I could defend myself—and also, unfortunately, so that I could kill in an hour of danger.
But there was also a vulnerability to Rabin. He was known to blush easily, particularly when eliding the truth, and was prone to fits of nervous tension. A close aid recounted that on the flight to Washington where Rabin was to shake the hand of Arafat in front of the world and sign accords that would grant legitimacy to a nemesis, he was full of agitation, unable to sleep and was overcome by anxiety.
When it came time for Rabin to clasp the hand of Arafat, a man who had spilled so much Jewish blood, the sincerity and honesty of Rabin was laid bare. While Arafat—for whom duplicity and guile came easily—appeared to almost purr with delight during the handshake, Rabin’s face was of stone, betraying the gravity of the moment and Rabin’s inner conflict. He was signing the Oslo accords to ensure the security of the State of Israel, to chart a new path of peace, and to seize opportunities in the wider region for cooperation and normalisation of relations between Israel and the moderate Arab world. But in accepting Arafat and the PLO as a peace partner, he would be rehabilitating terrorists into legitimate political actors and facilitating the return of the PLO leadership from exile in Tunis to within miles of sovereign Israel.
At the signing of the Israeli–Palestinian Interim Agreement in Washington in 1995, Rabin turned to Arafat and beseeched him:
Chairman Arafat, together we should not let the land flowing with milk and honey become a land flowing with blood and tears. Don’t let it happen. If all the partners to the peacemaking do not unite against the evil angels of death by terrorism, all that will remain of this ceremony are colour snapshots, empty mementos. Rivers of hatred will overflow again and swamp the Middle East.
The events of the ensuing years indeed reduced the high hopes of the Oslo process to the stuff of faded snapshots. The peacemaking and signed agreements of the ’90s were surpassed by the sheer carnage of the second intifada in the first half of the next decade.
Whether the conflict would have taken a different course but for the assassination of Rabin is one of the great imponderables of modern history.
What is clear is that the assassination of Rabin was a moment of great shame for the State of Israel and the Jewish people. That a great pioneer of the state should meet his end at the hands of another Israeli and Jew dealt a powerful blow to Israeli self-conception and shattered any belief that extremism and madness were present only in Israel’s enemies.
While the assassination of Rabin and the profile of his killer have perhaps made some reticent to dwell for any length of time on Rabin’s life and legacy, in reality his mark on Israeli society is independent of the circumstances of his death. This is also true of other great statesmen who fell to their own extremists, Dr Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Ghandi.
Rabin’s final public words, spoken to an adoring crowd in Tel Aviv at what is now known as Rabin Square, were these:
This rally must send a message to the Israeli public, to the Jewish community throughout the world, to many, many in the Arab world and throughout the entire world, that the people of Israel want peace, support peace, and for that, I thank you very much.
We see today that, 25 years after that black day, Rabin’s message of peace directed at his citizens, and to the Jewish and Arab peoples, was indeed heard and his grand vision of a strong and secure Israel living at peace with its neighbours is being fulfilled before our eyes.
Jillian Segal AO is the president and Alex Ryvchin is the Co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry