The legacy of Rabin


Sixteen years ago, three pistol shots ringing out in a square in Tel Aviv were heard around the world. The bullets killed a Prime Minister, tore apart the fabric of Israeli society and, it seemed, shattered the dream of peace with the Palestinians.

Ignoring absurd conspiracy theories, we know that Yigal Amir intended to murder not just Yitzhak Rabin, but any prospect of Israel relinquishing territory. Conventional wisdom is that he was successful. The Oslo treaty, celebrated with a handshake between Rabin and Yassir Arafat, gave most Palestinians autonomy, but Oslo was always intended to be the first stage of a “peace process”, of which the conclusion was to be two states living peacefully side-by-side. Instead of progress, Rabin’s death ushered in sixteen years of stagnation, two wars and over 800 Israeli victims of terror. A Palestinian state and peaceful co-existence now appear further away than ever.

The simple explanation for this is that Amir destroyed Rabin’s legacy along with his life. After a short interregnum when Shimon Peres stepped in as Prime Minister, Israel elected Bibi Netanyahu and the rest, as they say, is history. But the simple explanation is wrong.

The most effective statesman make a difference not just by what they do while in office, but by making irreversible changes to the nation’s outlook and hence to the actions of their successors. Tony Blair’s bringing the Labour party to the political centre was described as Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement; Kevin Rudd changed the political landscape for both main parties by apologising to the stolen generation, and ensured that his policy would long outlast him.

Thus in the actions of Rabin’s successors we see his own achievement. Netanyahu, in his first term, met Arafat regularly and signed the Wye River agreement in 1998, further consolidating the removal of the IDF from large parts of the West Bank. Only a combination of cynicism and frustration that violence had not ended blinded us to this revolution, of a Likud Prime Minister making such concessions to the PLO.

Perhaps a Labour leader would naturally have negotiated, with or without Rabin’s precedent. But none had ever gone as far as Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2001, proposing a Palestinian State on 97% of the West Bank and dividing Jerusalem. This plan, although far more than Rabin had conceded (or intended to, based on his own statements), was only possible because of the new political environment that Rabin had created.

Barak’s concessions cost him the Premiership and put Ariel Sharon into the post. Nowhere can the effect of Oslo be seen more clearly than the transformation of this warrior into the disengager-in-chief, the only Israeli leader since 1982 to have withdrawn from territory. In the Knesset Sharon attempted to marginalise his old party, Likud. In Gaza, the feared champion of the right, did what the left and the world had demanded – abandoned settlements and pulled back every Israeli soldier, leaving the Palestinians of the strip to create their own society.

Thanks to Condaleeza Rice’s memoirs, we now know the extent of the offer that Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert (also originally from the Likud) made to Mahmoud Abbas. And finally, we come back to Netanyahu and his second term.

Bibi may be reviled and ridiculed by foreign Presidents and the chattering classes alike, but his record speaks for itself. A leader from the right who states unequivocally that he believes in a Palestinian state, who unlike any leader since 1967 declares a freeze on building in the territories, (and at other times restricts construction to areas that, according to every government, will be retained by Israel).

Amir failed miserably. None of Rabin’s successors have reversed the Oslo process. Each of them, from the right or left have pursued it, offering further concessions, freezing and even withdrawing from settlements.

So why, sixteen years after the assassination, is peace is still so far away? Why are people still dying?

Perhaps because Arafat walked away from Barak’s offer at Camp David, as Abbas did from Olmert’s. Because Abbas today refuses to negotiate with Israel until concessions, far beyond what was agreed at Oslo, are guaranteed in advance. Because even when his demand for a settlement freeze was met, for ten months, Abbas waited until three weeks before it was due to terminate to start talking, and then promptly stopped three weeks later.

Rabbi James Kennard is principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College.