How Yitzhak Rabin Rates on the De Klerk Scale

Several readers of my previous column have asked why I made no mention of Yitzhak Rabin when writing about Israel’s need for a redemptive figure like South Africa’s F.W. de Klerk. The short answer is that it didn’t occur to me. The longer answer is given below.

In order to compare the motivations and actions of Rabin with those of De Klerk, I have identified five factors which, I believe, were essential to De Klerk’s dramatic reversal of direction in 1990 – the qualities that defined his decisive role in history.

Firstly, he came from the heart of the Afrikaner people and, for most of his life, he shared its ideological commitment to white racial domination. Had he been an Afrikaner pariah, like Breyten Breytenbach, say, his transformation would have been less dramatic and a lot less potent.

Secondly, from about 1990 onward, De Klerk turned his back on the doctrine that had previously been his life’s work. He did not attempt to reform apartheid, to ameliorate its harshness. He advocated its total – though gradual – elimination.

It is true that he initially favored a “two-state” solution, in which white South Africans would have had their own country – not unlike the solution proposed for Israel and the Palestinians – but, when that proved to be a non-starter, he did not back down. He maintained the course on which he had embarked.

(Whether he did so out of moral or practical concerns is not a debate that I’m able to resolve here. He said in the video released after his death last week that he had come to the understanding that apartheid was morally repugnant. I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.)

The other three factors concern the practical steps he took following his change of heart. He managed to carry his constituency (the ruling National Party) with him; he negotiated and agreed to a solution that effectively ended white rule; and he actively participated in the implementation of the new dispensation, accepting the position of vice-president in Nelson Mandela’s first government.

Though he didn’t have the generations-deep roots in Israel that the De Klerk family has in South Africa – very few Israelis do – Rabin came from a solidly Zionist home. He was born in the Yishuv (pre-independence Israel) to parents from the Third Aliya and he grew up in a Labor Zionist environment. From the age of 14, he was immersed in both the defense of the Yishuv and its turbulent politics.

Rabin served as the Palmach’s Chief of Operations during the 1948 war (he was personally responsible for the expulsion of the population of Lydda), as OC Northern Command in the late-Fifties and as Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces during the 1967 war. He was also, at various times, prime minister (twice), defense minister, ambassador to the US and Minister of Labor.

Clearly, then, Rabin came from the heart of the Zionist consensus and was as blue-blooded as it gets in Israel. He also managed to carry his party with him, when, on October 5, 1995, he brought the Oslo II Interim Agreement to the Knesset for approval. The accord was approved by 61 votes to 50, with nine abstentions.

As to whether Rabin would have kept his nerve while overseeing the implementation of the Oslo accord and ensuring its execution through subsequent phases, we will never know. He was murdered on November 4, 1995, barely a month after ushering the accord successfully through the Knesset.

I have no idea whether Rabin would have seen Oslo through to an equitable and mutually acceptable conclusion, if only because the subsequent phases would have required much more painful concessions by Israel. I am far from certain that he would have. But, as with the question of De Klerk’s moral rebirth, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

So Rabin scores at least three out of five on the De Klerk scale.

Two critical questions remain: was his backing of Oslo a true metamorphosis (as was De Klerk’s, I believe) or simply a shrewd revamp of his world view? And was the solution he proposed (the Oslo accord) as momentous and far-reaching as that of De Klerk? Did he, in other words, advocate true sovereignty and parity for both Palestinians and Jews or merely a more benign version of Israeli control?

The Oslo accord was a work-in progress at the time is was approved by both sides and celebrated so ostentatiously on the lawn of the White House. It was the beginning of a process, rather than its end, and its many contradictions and ambiguities left it open to conflicting interpretations – which is probably the reason the sides were able to agree on it in the first place.

While the Palestinians saw it as the first step in their transition to statehood, the Israelis regarded it as little more than a commitment to continue talking. The vague hints in the document about a future transfer of territory and power were far from binding in Israeli eyes. As historian Avi Shlaim put it, “The two sides could not march forward together because they were marching in different directions.”

What’s more, the accord made no mention of the status of Jerusalem, the right of 1948 refugees to return to their land, the future of Israeli West Bank settlements or even the borders of the proposed Palestinian entity – all of which are so-called “core” issues and any one of which could sink any potential agreement. In effect, the only way the two sides were able to reach the initial accord was by ignoring all the difficult issues.

What was new about the accord was that it included mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO, it was the product of the first bilateral talks between the two sides and it implicitly recognized the principle of the partition of Palestine, however undefined. Those were certainly important precedents, but they were neither a peace deal nor a new dispensation.

To put it another way, the Oslo accord was what De Klerk might have hoped for in the initial glow of his transformation, before the three years of grueling negotiations, painful compromises and widespread anarchy that finally produced the new South Africa.

As for Rabin himself, he was as unlikely an appeaser as De Klerk, who had been considered a hard-liner before his conversion. Rabin’s handling of the First Intifada was draconian – he was filmed instructing soldiers to “break [rioters’] bones” – and, as late as December 1992, he ordered the brutal expulsion of over 400 Palestinian activists to Lebanon. He was a born securocrat, identified from the start with the Allon Plan and the hawkish wing of the Labor Party.

The key difference between Rabin and De Klerk, was that the latter was faced with the imminent collapse of the regime he headed. De Klerk understood that there was little hope for white South Africa, short of drastic and immediate action. His change of heart, admirable as it was, was compelled by the circumstances.

Rabin did not believe in security via peace and change; for him, security was always achieved by force – something that Israel has not lacked for many decades. Peace-making for Rabin, therefore, was not an imperative but an option. Being a realist, he believed that the circumstances were favorable for initiating gradual disengagement from the Palestinians without threatening the status quo.

Rabin at no time questioned the Zionist certainties on which he had been suckled. Introducing the accord in the Knesset, he spoke of “the return to Zion, the return of the children to their borders,” and he made a point of describing the proposed Palestinian entity as “less than a state.” He remained firmly within the Zionist consensus, though the Oslo initiative won him a new and prized spot among the moderates and realists.

In fact, Rabin was a late-comer to the Oslo process and had to be cajoled into it by then-foreign minister Shimon Peres and Peres’ group of bright young advisers. Only after the other initiatives on the go at the time – the so-called Madrid process talks in Washington and secret discussions with Syria – had reached dead-ends did Rabin give the green light for the negotiations to continue on an official basis.

(He was also privy to intelligence information indicating that the strength of the Islamic movements in the occupied territories was growing alarmingly while that of Yasser Arafat was in terminal decline – i.e. the status quo was dangerous and Arafat would be willing to make concessions.)

There is no doubt that Rabin moved a great distance in a short amount of time. He went further than any Israeli prime minister before him – and probably further than he had originally intended. But even as he grudgingly accepted Oslo, he remained a military tactician at heart. He had no grand strategy for resolving the conflict and he never renounced his security-centric principles. Oslo, for him, was a flanking maneuver camouflaged as a strategic ceasefire.

As a mutually agenda for future negotiations, the Oslo accord had much value. But it never came close to being an agreement to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it offered the Palestinians neither sovereignty nor national rights. As its reluctant sponsor (he was far from being its architect) Yitzhak Rabin got to enjoy the mantle of peace-maker for a few short weeks. Given the accord’s shortcomings and his own background, however, it’s unlikely that he would have worn the mantle for long, had he not been assassinated.

So, should I have mentioned Rabin in my previous article? Yes. Did he make a serious attempt to break the Israeli-Palestinian logjam? Yes. Did he make as courageous and radical a reversal as F.W. De Klerk? No way.