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What Would Have Happened if Yitzhak Rabin Had Lived?

I often find myself wondering if my friend the late prime minister could have saved Israel and the peace process.

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I knew the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for almost 30 years. He and his wife Leah were close friends of my parents. I worked with him, and respected and admired him. When he was killed by an assassin’s bullet 20 years ago this week, I deeply mourned his passing. Former President Clinton wrote in his memoirs that he loved Rabin as he had loved no other man. I had deep affection for the late prime minister, too. I wept openly at his funeral and I don’t claim objectivity when it comes to his life and assessing the consequences of his passing.

I remember meeting Rabin for the first time at a Passover Seder in Tel Aviv in April 1974, shortly before he became prime minister for the first time. My wife Lindsay and I had been in Jerusalem during the 1973 war. Rabin seemed interested in my views on then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the war; I obliged him, going into an elaborate explanation of what I believed were Sadat’s motives. At least Rabin let me finish. Then, with that dismissive wave of the hand that I’d come to know well in later years, he simply said: “You know nothing about our region, or Egypt for that matter.” I said very little the rest of the evening.

Rabin was a counterintuitive politician. He was hardly the garrulous, slick, glad-hander one imagines getting elected to high office. In fact, he was the anti-politician. He returned to the prime minister’s office for a second term in 1992, this time with more self-confidence, knowledge, and authority in Israel’s security situation than any of his contemporaries. He had his own brand of charisma and possessed — as the first native-born Israeli to become prime minister — a rough-hewn authenticity, quiet strength, and trustworthiness. He didn’t easily suffer fools, small talk, long-winded presentations, or redundancy.

By any standard, Rabin was indeed a great leader: authentic, credible, legitimate, and a brilliant analyst and strategist, too, who reordered Israel’s national priorities and launched bold peace initiatives with the Palestinians, Syria, and Jordan. Rabin’s murder on Nov. 4, 1995, traumatized a nation and killed a peace process. Tragically, it did more than that: His assassination both reflected and accelerated a process of polarization and deepening anti-democratic and messianic tendencies that would help drive Israeli domestic and foreign policy ever rightward.

Still, as former French President Charles de Gaulle allegedly quipped, the graveyards are full of indispensable men. In the 20 years since his death, as I’ve watched Israeli elections and Palestinian Intifadas, wars in Gaza and Lebanon, and the failure of the on-again-off-again peace process, I’ve often found myself wondering how indispensable Rabin really was. We know what Rabin accomplished: He reached out to Israel’s Arab citizens, initiated an historic agreement with the Palestinians, concluded a peace treaty with Jordan, reduced Israel’s settlements expansion, put more resources into national infrastructure and urban development, and offered to conclude an historic peace treaty with Syria. And all of this in his three short years in his second term as prime minister. We also know what transpired in the peace process and in Israeli politics after his murder. But how catastrophic was Rabin‘s murder for Israel or the Middle East? Had he not been killed by Yigal Amir that fateful Saturday in November, would the future of Israel have changed?

Debating counterfactuals is a risky and fraught enterprise, particularly when they involve the life and death of leaders. There is no way to know for certain what would have happened had Rabin lived any more than we can predict America’s future had Lincoln not been killed. But, I’m going to take the bait and ignore my own good advice.

One thing for certain is that great leaders are indeed rare. We know what they can accomplish while they live. And if indispensability means anything, it must mean that taking the leader out of the story at a critical moment risks fundamentally changing the course of events.

So despite all of history’s unknowns, I’m betting that had Rabin lived, the future of the state of Israel — both its politics and its foreign policy — would have been different and much better. I have no illusions here. Rabin may have not been able to take Israel to the mountaintop of peace with the Arabs; but with him Israel would not have descended so deep into the valley. And because of Rabin’s prudence and good judgment, Israel might have avoided the erratic swings of policy during the Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak years, where Israel either did too little, too late on the peace process or too much, too fast. Even if Rabin had confronted crisis rather than opportunity, there would have been no one better to guide the nation through perilous times. Israel would have benefitted from his measured and stabilizing hand.

Certainly the situation would not have turned out worse.

Rabin was 73 when he died. Could he have remained a commanding and dominant figure in Israeli politics for the next decade or more bringing pragmatism, leadership, strategy, and direction to Israel both at home and abroad? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics for the past nine out of 20 years. Had Rabin lived would he have been able to do the same? Perhaps Rabin would have gone on to become the dominant political figure of his era, an Israeli FDR or Reagan. Given the dearth of leadership in Israeli politics and the scant numbers of authoritative figures from the founding generation still alive at the time of Rabin’s murder (Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon, and Ezer Weizman), one might have concluded that Rabin would have stayed in power. And Israel would have had the kind of visionary, respected, pragmatic hawk necessary to manage, if not to overcome, its challenges.

Of course, Rabin’s capacity to dominate Israeli politics had he not been murdered is by no means a forgone conclusion. His victory over the Likud Party and Yitzhak Shamir in June 1992 was narrow; Rabin won in large part because he capitalized on his predecessor’s mismanagement of the U.S.-Israeli relationship and do-nothing policies. And he went on to form a relatively narrow center-left government. Even in the early 1990s, Israeli politics were sharply divided over the peace process, with a large segment of public opinion mistrustful of territorial concessions. In fact, one of the reasons Rabin became the Labor Party’s candidate was the perception that he, rather than the more dovish Shimon Peres, might be better able to capture swing votes from Likud.

Rabin’s victory followed a 15-year period in which Likud dominated Israeli politics, either governing by itself or in partnership with Labor. To remain in power, Rabin would have had to create a sustainable Israeli political center willing to support him and his policies. And that would have required some success of the peace policies that he helped put into motion. Unfortunately, his murder set the opposite into play, not just the beginning of the end of the Oslo peace process but also the deepening of a rightward and messianic religious shift in Israeli politics.

So would Rabin have been able to succeed in peacemaking and take a majority of the country with him had he not been assassinated? Hypothesizing the answer to that question depends not only on Rabin the individual but also on his partners: former Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization Yasser Arafat and former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, and the Americans. The nature of the Oslo peace process Israel and the PLO conceived would have been tested. For all his courage and strategic wisdom, Rabin was only one man. He needed partners. Moreover the environment in which he operated — Hamas’ active promotion of terror and Arafat’s willingness to acquiesce in much of it — worked against him.

At the time of Rabin’s death, the Oslo process was already in serious trouble. Oslo was a heroic but fundamentally flawed enterprise, an incremental process with no clear end state. It assumed that confidence and trust could be strengthened through a phased process in which the relationship between the occupier and the occupied might be altered through a series of quid pro quos involving land for security and the creation of responsible Palestinian self-government.

There were high points to be sure: the 1993 mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO and signing on the White House lawn; the 1994 Gaza-Jericho agreement; the Casablanca summit in 1994 in which Israeli and Arab private sector representatives from all over the Middle East met to discuss trade and business; and the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. But all of this good news could — at best — only mask the bad. For Arafat, the Oslo accords were the last concession to Israel he planned to make; for Rabin, Olso was never his first choice. He would have preferred a deal on the Golan Heights with Syria’s Assad. He grew to grudgingly respect Arafat for the tough decisions he had made but never trusted him. I remember Rabin talking about Arafat and recalling something my dad had said to him: When you’re dancing with a bear the only problem is you can’t let go. I think Rabin felt trapped with Arafat. He couldn’t do a deal with him or without him.

Rabin was a cautious peacemaker, an incrementalist. In many respects he saw the Oslo process as a probationary period for the Palestinians. (Perhaps they saw it the same way.) In 1994 Hamas terror and the massacre by an Israeli-American settler Baruch Goldstein of 29 Palestinians in a Hebron mosque had taken its toll. Even with the conclusion of the historic interim agreement in September 1995, the mood had soured on both sides. The grudging nature of the Oslo process, continuing Israeli settlement activity, and the suspicion and mistrust that both Israelis and Palestinians ascribed to one another’s motives generated a perpetual atmosphere of crisis and falling expectations. The Israelis who believed that Rabin was also interested in cutting a deal with Syria over the Golan Heights were mobilizing in the Knesset to block concessions on that front. And extremist West Bank settlers empowered by radical rabbis were already inciting violence, demonizing Rabin. At least one, Yigal Amir, began to believe that the only way to stop Oslo was to kill Rabin.

Rabin may not have been able to navigate all of these obstacles. In March 1996, Hamas and Islamic jihadis carried out four suicide attacks in nine days, killing at least 60 Israelis. This terror campaign undermined Peres’ chances of beating Netanyahu in the June 1996 elections. There’s no guarantee that Rabin would have fared much better. But then again, in the wake of Rabin’s murder, Arafat’s willingness to make tough decisions — and his incentives to do so — would diminish, too. Whatever sense of partnership Arafat felt with Rabin would never be replicated with Peres, and certainly not with Netanyahu.

How Rabin would have approached the conflict’s core issues — Jerusalem, 1967 borders, dismantling settlements — is also not clear. He and Arafat were dealing with only interim issues in the Oslo process. In fact, at the 10th anniversary of Rabin’s death, Ariel Sharon told me that in his view the left in Israel had hijacked Rabin’s legacy by attributing to the late prime minister concessions, particularly on Jerusalem, that he would never have made. Maybe. But Rabin was nothing if not a pragmatist, a man willing to reassess reality as it changed. I’ll never forget in March 1993 during his first visit to Washington, Rabin requested a meeting with U.S. officials minus the secretary of state to compare analysis on regional trends. The late Sam Lewis, former ambassador to Israel, asked Rabin directly if he’d deal with the PLO; Rabin’s answer and body language made it pretty clear he was considering it.

Even had Rabin not been able to bring his peace initiatives to fruition, he would still have remained critical to Israel’s political life, a repository of authority and wisdom in helping his nation sort through the challenges it faced. A strong champion of reciprocity and respect in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, Rabin would have done everything he could have done to keep that bond from fraying at both the personal and policy level. Add another counterfactual to the mix and the future today might have been quite different. Had George H.W. Bush and his inestimable Secretary of State James Baker been given a second term, it’s quite possible that working with Rabin, there might have been one agreement — either with the Palestinians or more likely the Syrians. Rabin and Baker liked and admired one another. And to succeed in peacemaking we would have needed both of them to have even had a chance of bringing Arafat or Assad along.

The murder of Rabin did more than kill a peace process. At the risk of romanticizing and idealizing the man, the assassination took away a leader of rare distinction and quality at a time when his nation needed him most. Israel is not a leaderless land. But it lacks a leader of Rabin’s stature, temperament, and experience. Rabin had the capacity to be bold and yet prudent; to see the day-to-day reality but to see the horizon of a different tomorrow, too. To use John F. Kennedy’s phrase and one that might have made the late prime minister cringe a bit, Rabin, with all his gruffness and lack of sentimentality, was indeed an idealist but one without illusions. Israel could surely use such a leader today.

Photo credit: J. DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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