A Flawed Portrait of Yitzhak Rabin
The glorification of Yitzhak Rabin’s life after his assassination by a Jewish religious fanatic is well deserved. Rabin was a key figure in Israel’s war of independence and its first five decades as a nation. He helped build the Israel Defense Forces into one of the most powerful armies in the world, led his nation in battles for its survival, and, ultimately, made the courageous decisions required to put Israel on the road to peace with its neighbors.
The record of Rabin’s achievements is fairly presented in the newest biography of the former Prime Minister, written by journalist Dan Kurzman. Though he does an excellent job of documenting the milestones in Rabin’s life and career, those familiar with his life will learn little or nothing new and find the fawning tone of the book disappointing. Kurzman lays out many of Rabin’s faults, but tends to minimize their negative impact on his party and Israel’s policies. He also gives Rabin credit for accomplishments that he was not the primary force behind.
A key figure in Rabin’s life is his wife Leah, who is portrayed as someone who is loyal to her husband and has complete faith that he deserves to lead the nation. While one gets a sense that she has a Machiavellian streak, Kurzman never explains why Leah seems so desirous of power for her husband.
The book also misses significant points about the peace process as pursued by Rabin. First, for all the adulation he received for signing agreements with the Palestinians, the truth is that peace was not achieved. Violence against Jews continued and showed little signs of abating while he was still alive. Israel made concessions, but did not get the peace it expected, which was the major reason Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres, was defeated in the next election by Benjamin Netanyahu.
Kurzman correctly notes that Rabin came to the conclusion that land was not as important as peace, and that Israel could not continue to be the overlord of the Palestinians. What the author left out was the impact these realizations had on his pursuit of peace, namely, that Rabin essentially withdrew unilaterally from Gaza and much of the West Bank. This was why he consistently ignored Arafat’s repeated violations of the peace agreements he signed. The stagnation in the peace process under Netanyahu is largely due to the fact that the current Prime Minister places a greater emphasis on land than peace, and is prepared to dominate the Palestinians to insure they do not threaten Israel. He therefore is unwilling to overlook violations of the accords to proceed with the next stage of withdrawal and, instead, uses Palestinian noncompliance as the justification for freezing the process.
The book does give insight into Rabin the man, who knowingly neglected his family because of his all-consuming military and diplomatic duties, who had no patience for small talk or fools, and who treated those loyal to him with great affection. One telling anecdote was that the chain-smoking Prime Minister would not smoke in the car after his driver suffered a heart attack. Still, the biographer could get no closer to the man than his best friend, Eitan Haber, who said he didn’t think even his wife knew his deepest thoughts and who called Rabin “extremely suspicious” of everyone.
Rabin is particularly interesting because he had serious flaws and made mistakes that cost him personally and also affected the nation. For example, he had what was widely regarded as a breakdown at a key moment in the Six-Day War, which his opponents later used against him when he entered politics. Rabin also carried on a two-decade long feud with Shimon Peres, which made it seem like Giora Eini, the lawyer who mediated between them, deserved the Nobel Peace Prize the two men later shared with Yasir Arafat.
Besides the jealousies between Peres and Rabin, which weakened their party, the book lays bare many of the other personal and political rivalries between Israel’s most prominent political figures including David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Ezer Weizmann, Golda Meir, Yigal Allon, and Abba Eban. Such histories of Israeli politics should be required reading for political science students to learn the role of personality in politics (or Clinton advisers who want to see the real “politics of destruction”).
Many people also forget that Rabin was Prime Minister twice. The first time (1974-77) Rabin was largely responsible for the initiation of the Israeli-Egyptian peace process (the Sinai disengagement agreements) and the dramatic Entebbe rescue. He also built many of the settlements that some people would later vilify as “obstacles to peace” (and Rabin himself would describe as “a cancer”) and was ultimately forced to resign under a cloud because of a financial scandal. One Israeli columnist sympathetic to Rabin recently described his tenure as “awful,” but you would never know it from Kurzman’s book.
Perhaps the most inaccurate portrayal relates to Rabin’s role in strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. Like Rabin, Kurzman downplays the role of American Jewry and gives the former Ambassador to the United States and Prime Minister far more credit than he deserves for the sale of arms, the appropriation of foreign assistance, and the winning of loan guarantees. The implication in the book is that the alliance might not exist or be as close without Rabin, but that’s not true at all. The relationship is far more complex, and more dependent on the actions of people here than any Israeli. Rabin recognized the importance of this relationship, but Israel had no real alternative, so it was not an especially brilliant deduction.
Moreover, Rabin was quite hypocritical when it came to Israel’s diplomacy with the United States. As Kurzman says, Rabin believed the Israeli Ambassador in Washington should call the policy shots, not American Jews. Actually, Rabin simply thought Rabin was best qualified to talk to the Americans, so he disregarded the Ambassador when he was Prime Minister, and tried to undermine him when he was in the National Unity Government under Yitzhak Shamir.
The book contains a very detailed description of Rabin’s assassination on November 4, 1995, and the background of the assassin, but doesn’t deal with the implications of Rabin’s death. Did it really stop progress in implementing the agreements with the Palestinians and forestall a possible treaty with Syria? What was the impact on the nation of a Jew murdering the Prime Minister?
Kurzman is an excellent reporter and does a good job of telling the Rabin story from a journalistic perspective; however, he does not deliver the penetrating analysis needed to make the book match the extraordinary life of its subject.