Remembering Yitzhak Rabin

Remembering Yitzhak Rabin

Assassinated prime minister's 19th yarzheit was November 4

Yitzhak Rabin, right, with Yasser Arafat, left, and Shimon Peres, center, on winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

It is April 1920, and violence erupts in the Old City of Jerusalem; violence in an area where for many decades Jews & Arabs lived together in peace and harmony.

In the Jewish quarter, a young man and a young lady meet for the first time. Each had volunteered separately to come to the aid of the beleaguered Jews in the Jewish quarter. He angrily demanded that she tell him what she was doing in this dangerous place, where 11 people recently had been killed and more than 200 injured.

She retorted that it was none of his business, and made an effort to grab his gun.

Their strident Yiddish attracted the attention of the British police, who separated them.

But their acrimonious encounter ended in romance and marriage, and a son, Yitzhak Rabin, was born to them in Jerusalem on March 1, 1922.

The man was Nehemia Robichov, born near Kiev in 1886. He immigrated to America and settled in Chicago when he was young. He was active in Zionist Socialist circles, and loved the life there. In 1917 he volunteered for service with the Jewish Legion of the British army, but he was rejected for foot problems.

He was determined, however, so he changed his name to Rabin, went to a different recruiting office, was accepted, and went. On demobilization, he elected to stay in the Yishuv .

Yitzkah’s mother, Rosa Cohen, born in Russia in 1890, was a non-Zionist, but very much devoted to socialism. She fell foul of the Communist regime, though, she she fled to Odessa, where the only ship in the harbor was bound for Palestine. Once there she joined a kibbutz, Kvutzat Kinneret, where she contracted malaria, and went to Jerusalem to recuperate.

Shortly after Yitzhak’s birth, the family settled in Tel Aviv. Both parents worked and both were imbued with a sense of duty. Rosa, in particular, with her strong will and boundless energy, devoted most of her spare time to helping others. So Yitzhak and his sister Rachel, who was born in 1925, seldom saw their parents. They led a Spartan existence. It was only on Friday nights that the family sat together for a meal.

Yitzhak was educated at Beit Hinuch, a school for workers’ children. The school’s goal was to produce agricultural workers, who would establish new kibbutzim. This was something of a national passion those days, especially for youngsters raised in the labor movement.

After Beit Hinuch and an intermediate school, Yitzhak went to the Kadouri Agricultural School, where he did very well, and at his graduation the British High Commissioner handed him a diploma declaring him the best pupil in the class. He also received a scholarship to study hydro-engineering at the University of California in Berkeley. He was tempted to accept, but he worried about defence problems in the Yishuv, and it was during World War II, so he declined the offer.

In 1941 the Haganah decided to establish special units of permanently mobilised volunteers, known as the Palmach. Yitzhak Rabin joined, and it became his full time occupation until the units were disbanded to become an integral part of the Israel Defense Force. He rose in its ranks from platoon leader to battalion chief instructor and eventually brigade commander.

In June 1945, with World War II at an end, illegal immigration became a top priority. Rabin was the deputy commander of an operation that rescued 200 illegal immigrants from a British prison camp at Atlit. He was arrested, and spent five months in a prison near Gaza. On his release, he was given command of Palmach’s second battalion, and then he was appointed as deputy commander under Yigal Allon.

To the jubilation from Jews both in Palestine and the rest of the world, on November 29, 1947, the United Nations decided to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab sections, keeping Jerusalem as an international enclave. The Arabs, however, rejected this decision, and the war started then, although officially the War of Independence began on May 14, 1948.

From November 1947 to July 1948, Rabin, the commander of the Palmach’s Harel brigade, was preoccupied with the battle for Jerusalem. The main road to Tel Aviv, which ran through and near many Arab villages, was a problem, and so was the city itself, with its 90,000 beleaguered Jewish inhabitants. More than 200 soldiers in his brigade lost their lives, and 600 were wounded. Although they failed to take the Old City, Rabin and his men secured unbroken control of West Jerusalem. In the war’s last stage, Rabin, as chief of operations of the southern front, drove the invading Egyptian forces out of the Negev and secured the route to Eilat. Then he was sent to Rhodes, to represent the southern front in armistice negotiations with Egypt.

When the war ended Rabin decided that he would remain in the army, and devote himself to ensuring that Israel would never again have to defend itself in conditions like those it faced during the battles for the Jerusalem road in early 1948. Like many other officers, he felt he owed a debt of honor to the 6,000 who died in the war, and to those whose courage and sacrifices had blocked the Arab advance. He dedicated himself to building a mighty army. He soon rose in the ranks, often working from 18 to 20 hours a day to improve the quality of combat units.

In the early 1950s the army had to deal with an urgent non-military problem, helping with the absorption of tens of thousands of Jews from North Africa by providing medical and other services to improve the camp conditions.

The “battle of the transit camps would be recorded as one of the army`s splendid victories,” he wrote in his autobiography.

Rabin was promoted to major general, and in 1956 he became head of the Northern Command. (Because he was in that area, he did not take part in the 1956 Sinai campaign.) In 1964 he was promoted to become chief of staff of the Israeli army.

In May 1967, Egypt ordered United Nations troops out of Sinai, and later it blocked the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. It was an act of war, but Israel’s political leaders hoped that the United States, or the international community, would step in to open the Straits.

On June 4, the cabinet , which included Moshe Dayan as defense minister, voted for war. Within three hours in the early morning of June 5, the Israeli Air Force totally destroyed Egypt’s air force and bases, and within six days the Old City was in Jewish hands and Jerusalem was united.

The West Bank, Gaza, the Sinai desert, and the Golan heights were captured, and the Israel Defence Force captured three times as much territory as Israel had controlled a week before. However, it also had to contend with a hostile population of one million Arabs, and with its territorial conquests Israel would not be left in peace.

That was the Six Day War; it was Yitzhak Rabin, as chief of staff, who planned and was in command of it. It was Israel’s most outstanding victory.

With the war at an end, and his term as chief of staff completed, Rabin asked Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to nominate him as Israel`s ambassador to the United States. Eshkol was amazed. “Hold on to me, Yitzhak, or I’ll fall out of my chair,” he said. Rabin was ambassador from 1968 to 1973.In spite of his lack of diplomatic finesse and protocol, his shyness, and his dislike of cocktail parties, his straight talk and sincerity appealed to many. Of course, being the architect of Israel’s stunning victory in the Six Day War greatly enhanced his prestige and opened many doors to him. He was held in high esteem, and had excellent relationships with President Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, and many others. He was very successful in convincing the Americans that it was in their interest to help Israel defend itself, so that the Soviet Union would not get the upper hand in the Middle East.

By the time he left, the relationship between Israel and the United States was strong, and the United States saw Israel as a strategic asset in the Middle East.

On his return to Israel in March 1973, Rabin entered politics. He was the 20th slot in the Labor Party’s list – but before the elections took place, the Yom Kippur War broke out.

The war cost Israel many lives, and it caused the public to lose confidence in the country’s political and military leaders. A commission was established to investigate the causes of the war, and although Prime Minister Golda Meir was found to be blameless, she resigned. Rabin’s role in the war was was minimal, so he was the only Labor Party representative who was not responsible for any failure. Rabin beat Shimon Peres in the party’s leadership election, and he became prime minister in 1974, at 52. During his three years in office, Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy led to an interim agreement between Israel and Egypt, and that led to the opening of the Suez Canal, closed since 1967.

July 1976 saw the raid on Entebbe; more than 100 Israeli hostages were rescued. Rabin`s popularity skyrocketed. It was election time again, and Rabin was chosen as the Labor Party’s candidate. But when it became known that Leah Rabin held a foreign currency account in Washington, which was illegal at the time, Rabin resigned to stand at his wife’s side. The elections were held a month later, but Likud won. Menachem Begin became prime minister in 1977.

In 1981 Labor again lost to Likud. After the 1984 elections Peres became prime minister for two years, and Shamir for the next two. Rabin was minister of defense throughout that time. Although Rabin initially took a tough stance on the war in Lebanon, he was no hawk. He was interested only in Israel’s security. In 1985 he formulated a plan for a staged withdrawal from Lebanon, with a small force in the security zone north of Israel’s border.

In December 1987 the first intifada erupted, and Rabin decided that if the Palestinian question were to be settled, he would have to find negotiation partners among them. Those partners were Arafat and the PLO. Rabin never expected to hold onto the territories forever. He knew that the Arabs who lived there were hostile to the occupation. In the 1992 elections Rabin again became prime minister, and he and Peres worked closely together. They shared the same ideal – peace – but the road to peace with security was no bed of roses.

The Madrid peace conference met for the sixth time in September 1992, but again failed to achieve any tangible results – but within a year a peace treaty was signed at the White House. A first step toward that goal was Peres’ mooting the “Gaza First” plan. Rabin also made clear that he was prepared to make major territorial concessions for peace, and called a halt to more housing construction on the West Bank.

Without telling either Rabin or Peres, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Yossi Beilin, managed to set up a secret channel of communication in Oslo between Israel and the Palestinians. Norwegian officials were the intermediaries. The idea of self-rule in Gaza became an acceptable starting point for negotiations there. Later, this was extended to Gaza and Jericho first. Rabin balked at the thought of negotiating with Arafat at the beginning, but soon he came to realize that if a deal was to be struck, it had to be with Arafat. With the help of the Norwegians, Israel made more contacts with the PLO. A “declaration of principles” providing for troop withdrawals from Gaza and Jericho and eventual self-rule was formulated. That was hard for Rabin, and he insisted that the PLO had to recognize Israel’s right to exist and undertake to stop all violence. In return Israel had to recognize the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinians.

Early in September 1993 the Norwegian intermediary brought a signed letter of acceptance of the negotiations from Arafat, and Rabin countersigned it. On September 13, 1993, in a widely televised ceremony at the White House, the document known as Oslo I was signed.

In his speech, Rabin said, “We who have fought you, we say to you today in a loud and clear voice, enough of blood and tears. Enough!” Reluctantly, he shook Arafat’s outstretched hand.

But despite the fanfare and the speeches, the success of the peace treaty depended on the absence of violence and a good working relationship between Rabin and Arafat, which gradually developed.

The dove of peace was being fired upon from all sides, though. The massacre of 29 Arabs in Hebron, and the many suicide bombing attacks on targets in Israel, almost put paid to further talks. But both sides were determined to continue their efforts toward peace. As Rabin said, “We will continue with our efforts towards peace as if there is no terror, and we will fight terror as if there is no peace process.”

King Hussein of Jordan, who had met Rabin and others secretly many times, now indicated his willingness to sign a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. This was done on October 26, 1994, at a border point in the Arava dessert. Hussein promised that it would be a “warm peace,” unlike the cold peace with Egypt.

For their efforts as soldiers for peace, Rabin, Peres, and Arafat shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.

During the next two years the two sides met many times. Self-rule was extended to many other cities on the West Bank, and a second peace agreement, Oslo II, was signed at the White House on September 28th September 1995.

Tangible results of the peace process were clearly evident. Many countries now wished to establish diplomatic relations or near diplomatic relations with Israel. This, along with Israel’s growing participation in international bodies, was a sure sign of its enhanced status, The peace process had reconciled much of the Arab world to Israel’s existence.

But in Israel, the divide between proponents of the peace process and those who distrusted it widened considerably. In the Knesset, the agreement was passed with an extremely narrow majority: 61 for, 59 against. Public opinion polls showed that support for the peace process had waned.

On the evening of November 4, 1995, at a well attended peace rally in Tel Aviv, a young religious Jewish student, Yigal Amir, fired a fatal shot at Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The assassination shocked the whole nation. How could a sane religious Jew feel himself justified in killing a fellow Jew? Killing the democratically elected prime minister? Were the differences dividing the nation so wide, so unbridgeable, that it was necessary to resort to bloodshed?.

Representatives of 80 countries were at Rabin’s funeral on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. Many were from Arabic-speaking countries. This was a sure sign that the tiny state of Israel had taken its place among the nations of the world and a sign of its recognition as a legitimate Middle Eastern nation.

King Hussein was among the speakers at the funeral. In an emotional voice, he said, “You died as a soldier for peace, and I believe that it is time for all of us speak of peace between Jews and Arabs for all time to come.”

President Clinton said, “Look at the leaders from all over the Middle East and around the world who have come today to pay homage to Yitzhak Rabin and for his efforts to secure peace. Your prime minister died as a martyr for peace, but a victim of hate. Now it is up to us who love peace to carry on the struggle for peace.”

Noa Artzi-Pelossoff, Rabin’s granddaughter, made an emotional speech eulogising her grandfather. Her speech was highlighted on television broadcasts not only in Israel, but across the world.

Peace, peace with security, will be a lasting memorial to his life, his tragic demise.

May his memory be blessed.

Jack Reisner of Fort Lee was born in Riga, Latvia, and grew up in South Africa. He and his wife, Hilda, made aliyah to Israel in 1990 and left for the United States in 2001 to be with their children and grandchildren. Mr. Reisner has lectured on Rabin and on Zionist subjects in both Israel and the United States.

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