13 April 1996

An Israeli warrior for peace

Book Review:

Yitzak Rabin: Soldier of Peace, The Jerusalem Report Staff, ed David Horovitz

Patrick Comerford

On the morning of Saturday, November 4th last, the Torah or scripture reading in synagogues was the portion preceding the episode in which God orders his servant Abraham to prove his faith by sacrificing his beloved son Isaac (in Hebrew, Yitzhak), the father of Jacob, who grows up to become Israel.

In a small Yemenite synagogue near Tel Aviv, those listening intently included a young man who believed he too had a command from God to kill another Isaac Yitzhak Rabin.

This book gives a chilling account of the rise of the ultra-right in Israel and the climate that bred an assassin like Yigael Amir. According to one of the contributors, Rabin was “a lion slaughtered like a sheep”, because he refused to take his marching orders from “those who worship land more than they worship life”. He bitterly castigated the Likud opposition leader Bibi Netanyahu, for failing to take a stand against right wing extremism, but continued to insist: “I don’t believe a Jew will kill a Jew.”

How wrong he was.

Yitzhak Rabin was the very antithesis of the right-wing Israeli settlers on the West Bank who combine political and religious zealotry without care or consideration for the views and beliefs of their neighbours. He was a Zionist and idealist from a previous generation, the son of refugees from the former Russian empire who had been imbued with socialism and secular values. His early life is also the story of those early socialist and secular Zionists, the Palmah and the Haganah, fighters like Yigael Allon and Moshe Dayan, and the early conflicts of a left wing activist with David Ben Gurion.

At the height of the Israeli political crisis in 1974 that brought about Golda Meir's resignation, Rabin half joked: “All my life I have been collecting ex’s. I am ex-Chief of Staff, ex-ambassador to the United States, and now an ex-potential Defence Minister.”

And he soon became the ex-Prime Minister when he was forced to resign over his wife’s American bank account in 1977. But while defeated in political battle, he had not yet lost the political war. He returned to government in 1984, and immediately presented proposals for an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.

Rabin underestimated his achievements. Although Dayan stole most of the credit, it was Rabin who drew up the battle plans for the Six Day War, who took the Sinai, Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, and who trebled the territory controlled by Israel. He democratised his own party. With his election victory in 1992 he won the support of his political colleagues and most Israelis for his plans for peace with the Palestinians in 1993 he shook hands, albeit reluctantly, with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn, agreeing to autonomy for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. And he worked until the end in the hope of reaching peace with Syria.

He was a soldier who despised war. As far back as 1967 he was ready to trade the newly conquered territory for peace. And when the Hebrew University of Jerusalem honoured him with a doctorate in 1967, he spoke with pathos of the enemy’s anguish and the terrible price of victory: “War is intrinsically harsh and cruel, bloody and tear stained.”

This book profiles Rabin in all his strengths, and in all his weaknesses too. He was the calm, calculated, proud voice of Israel, “a son of Israel and the father of its future”. But he was also harsh to the point of contemptuous rudeness, he held politicians and politics in disdain, he was painfully inept at small talk, an ambassador who was uncertain on the party circuit and the dance floor.

He could make bad political decisions in anger and in fury, such as the alleged order to troops in 1988 to break the bones of Palestinians in an effort to crush the intifada, or the expulsion of over 490 activists to the cold mountains of Lebanon in December 1992. He was cautious, pedantic and analytical, and only with great difficulty did he find the strength on his last night at a rally in Tel Aviv to join in singing a popular peace song:

So sing only a song for peace,
Do not whisper a prayer,
Better sing a song for peace
With a great shout.

But as Yigael Amir has shown, Israel does not need men with manners who regard themselves as saints. It has too many of them. It needs politicians and statesmen with the wisdom of a man like Rabin.

Had Rabin survived there is little doubt he would have led his Labour Party to victory in the current election campaign. His opponents in Likud still have to answer for their part in right wing rallies and protests that heard calls for Rabin’s death, at which Rabin was branded a traitor, and at which placards and posters regularly portrayed him in a Nazi uniform or with his features overlaid with the cross hairs of a rifle sight. Outside the Rabin apartment, demonstrators shouted at his wife Leah: “Next year we will string you up.”

Rabin had few friends. Ezer Weizman begrudged him his successes and achievements ever after the Six Day War, and made a dark promise to do everything to end his political career. The bitter personal enmity Rabin shared with Shimon Peres, lasting for three decades or more, was resolved only in the past few years. But his friends included one of the contributors to this book, Hirch Goodman of the Jerusalem Report, who knew Rabin for 28 years, having been assigned to him as a bodyguard during the Six Day War. In his prologue, Goodman admits Rabin “became my instant hero. He was Israel, that new generation of Jew, all that I aspired to be.”

Too many books suffer from being the collective work of too many writers. But this book is enriched by the experiences of its contributors, Israel’s leading journalists who have followed the career of a true “Soldier for Peace.” David Horovitz has done his colleagues on the Jerusalem Report – and the memory of Yitzhak Rabin – a service in the way this book has been edited.

This book review was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on Saturday 13 April 1996.

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