Yossi Mekelberg
Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme
A lasting peace would have been much more probable, though not guaranteed.
PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzahk Rabin shake hands for the first time after Israel and the PLO signed a historic agreement on Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories on 13 September 1993. Photo by Getty Images.PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzahk Rabin shake hands for the first time after Israel and the PLO signed a historic agreement on Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories on 13 September 1993. Photo by Getty Images.

Two decades after the assassination of the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, there is still a lingering question on the minds of many: Had Rabin’s assassination been averted, would a lasting peace agreement have been reached between the Israelis and the Palestinians? I would strongly argue that with Rabin in the helm a lasting peace with the Palestinians would have been much more probable, though not guaranteed.

Rabin was not anyone’s obvious choice to lead a peace process, especially not with the Palestinians. Ironically one of his strengths in the peace negotiations was that he was not an obvious peacenik, but an Israeli war hero transformed into a peacemaker.  The Oslo process was not his brainchild; it owes more to visionary foreign minister Shimon Peres and political allies and advisers around him. Following one of the longest political rivalries in Israeli politics, Rabin and Peres, both already in their seventies, forged a formidable working partnership that was crucial to the success of the Oslo process. They were seasoned politicians, bringing on-board different qualities and constituencies. The merging of Rabin’s sceptical pragmatic-realism with Peres’s pragmatic-idealism had tremendous appeal. The break up of this partnership was fatal for the peace process.

Yet, when Rabin was murdered on 4 November 1995, he was clearly the senior partner in this political partnership. The vile incitement against him by the right in Israel and the decision by the assassin to target him reflects the wide consensus, which I fully share, that if peace was to be achieved it desperately needed Rabin’s leadership. His credentials as a war hero, who fought for independence in 1948 and was chief of staff in one of Israel’s famous victories in the 1967 Six Day War, placed him in the pantheon of Israeli heroes. As the former Israeli ambassador in Washington and having already served one term as prime minister, he carried with him immense authority.

Furthermore, Prime Minister Rabin was widely regarded as honest and trustworthy. Despite setting his sights on peace with Syria first, was prepared to shift priorities when it appeared that peace with the Palestinians had become a more likely prospect. He enjoyed not only wide support among the Israelis, but also among the Palestinian leadership, including Arafat. His pragmatism and experience conveyed the essential message to the Israelis that a peace agreement signed by him would never compromise the country’s vital interests, definitely not its security – it would instead enhance them. Strangely, his more limited vision on peace, the ‘respect them and suspect them’ approach, provided him with more legitimacy in making the tough but necessary concessions.

Weakness

Nevertheless, there were aspects of his leadership that makes one wonder whether even Rabin could have led his people to the promised peace. At times his disdain for his peace partner on the Palestinians side, Arafat, was unabated. He learned to work with him, but never trusted him. For Rabin, Arafat remained a terrorist and the more introverted Rabin disliked his panache for the over theatrical.

It was also Rabin’s unwillingness to confront Jewish terrorism and extremism which contributed to his and the peace process demise. Not confronting the settlement movement, especially the radicals among them, conveyed weakness.  Equally, he allowed Palestinian militancy and terrorism to derail the peace process at crucial junctures. Inadvertently through these actions, he empowered those who opposed his approach and him personally. A dash of scepticism and suspicion in a negotiator should not count against him or her. However, this momentous historical affair required Rabin’s readiness to proceed boldly towards an agreement which would truly address all the outstanding core issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians in order to reach a long-lasting peace deal.

As violence and tension have returned to the streets of Israel and Palestine in the past few weeks, it is important to take stock of what about Rabin’s particular qualities and approach are absent from the leadership that followed him. His successes should give Israelis food for thought on who they should turn to if they want to achieve the kind of peace that Rabin pursued.

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