As the 20th yahrzeit of Israel’s fifth prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, approaches, the legacy of the man nicknamed “Mr. Defense” remains as polarizing as the conflict he tried to resolve.
Jewish organizations across Maryland are recognizing the Nov. 4 anniversary by bringing in scholars and political authorities to speak about the effect Rabin had on the Jewish state.
“[Yitzhak] Rabin is the history of Israel,” said Avraham Azrieli, a novelist who will speak about Rabin on Oct. 14 at a Howard County Jewish Federation event. “His life mirrors the history of Israel … because he was so prominent.”
Azrieli, who grew up and studied law in Israel, wrote about the 1967 Six Day War in which Rabin was chief of general staff in the Israeli army, as well as the immediate events leading up to the day he was assassinated. His books, The Jerusalem Inception and The Jerusalem Assassin, follow these events respectively through the eyes of fictional characters. How Rabin was central to Israeli life will be one aspect of his talk in Howard County.
From serving in the army for nearly three decades during the War of Independence and the Six Day War to serving as Israel’s prime minister and ambassador to the United States, Rabin had a part in many of the Jewish state’s defining moments, most notably during the polarizing period of the Oslo Accords, which had Israelis concerned as a “matter of life and death,” according to Azrieli.
The Oslo Accords were a series of agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization that, among other things, initiated a peace process between the two groups.
What bothered some Israelis about the agreement was Rabin’s intention to concede land.
“That is why the Oslo Accords raised such terrible anxiety in Israel. It cuts Israel in half, making it an indefensible country,” said Azrieli. “The reason Rabin was pushing it [was because of] who he was as a person. He served Israel as a soldier, military and political leader almost continually from the 1930s to his death.”
Azrieli said that Rabin saw Israel in a position of power in the negotiations; if the PLO had attacked Israel despite the promise of Yasser Arafat, who represented the PLO, then Israel would be strong enough to protect itself.
Dr. Ralph Nurnberger, a former professor at Georgetown University and a former lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is expected to talk about Rabin at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville Nov. 2. He echoed Azrieli’s description of the parties both supporting and opposing the Oslo Accords.
“The [two groups] who opposed Oslo and the concept of peace with Palestine reached the same conclusions with different perspectives but agreed to not give up territory,” said Nurnberger. He explained that if one party approached it from a militaristic view, Israel would be too narrow geographically to defend itself. “Secondly, from a religious perspective, Jews have the right to live anywhere in the world, but particularly in the lands that were occupied by Jews millennia ago.”
When Israel and the PLO were negotiating the Oslo Accords, Nurnberger was serving in an organization called Builders for Peace, whose goal was to assist the peace process through economic development. During his time with the organization, he sat down with Rabin, Arafat and Shimon Peres, then Israeli foreign minister.
During his talk at B’nai Israel, Nurnberger will recount his first meeting with Rabin in the 1980s, when he was as an AIPAC lobbyist, where they outlined what a vision of peace might look like. Although Rabin said it would include returning certain territories, he didn’t draw any lines at the time.
“At the time, Rabin was a former everything, a future everything and a current lesser figure,” Nurnberger said.
On Nov. 4, 1995, when Rabin was leaving a peace rally at the Kings of Israel Square, he was shot several times by Yigal Amir, a right-wing ultranationalist who opposed the peace process.
“The assassination was incredibly shocking to Israelis because it was [by] a Jew. There was always fear of Arab terrorism, but here is a religious Jew shooting the prime minster to death,” said Azrieli. “There was tremendous shock on all sides of the political scale and this tremendous sense of guilt that Rabin was demonized. His blood was on everybody’s hands.”
There was no shortage of world leaders at Rabin’s funeral, including President Bill Clinton, who famously recited a eulogy ending with the phrase “goodbye, friend” in Hebrew.
Azrieli said that some people felt Rabin’s political opponents, not the least of which was Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party, were in part to blame for the assassination. Nurnberger added that Leah Rabin, his wife, allowed Yasser Arafat to make a shiva call, but refused Netanyahu.
“Some people misconstrued what political disagreement is,” said Azrieli. “Just because he objected to Rabin’s peace-making, that implied [Netanyahu thought] killing Rabin was right to do, which he never did.”
Rabin was succeeded by Peres, who had relatively similar views, and despite the anger some Israelis had toward the right, Netanyahu managed to best Peres in the following election. Nurnberger explained that a series of terror attacks fell on Israel shortly before the election targeting Egged bus No. 18. (The number 18, when represented in Hebrew letters, spells the word life.) Many Israelis felt Peres would not be as hard on terrorism and violence as Netanyahu, which ultimately cost Peres the election.
Following Rabin’s death, although parts of the Oslo Accords remained in effect, the peace talks that would draw permanent borders fell through.
Joshua Muravchik, is a distinguished fellow at the World Affairs Institute and author of Making David into Goliath: How the world turned against Israel. He questions the power of one man over the power of a people.
“The myth is that Rabin was a peacemaker and that things in the Middle East would be different today had Rabin not been assassinated,” said Muravchik. “One enduring obstacle between peace with Israel and Palestinians is that Palestinians are not ready to make peace. It’s true today, and it was true when Rabin was alive. There’s very little that Israel can do to change that.”