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09.14.11

The Ghosts of Israel’s Past

It’s a tense time for Israel as a U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood nears. But, as John Barry writes, there are important lessons to be found in the country’s history.

“There were two hunters,” Yitzhak Rabin began. It was 1975, and Rabin was prime minister of Israel. He was trying to explain to a visiting reporter Israel’s policy toward “the Palestinian question.” And, as usual, he was telling a story to make his point. “The hunters were stalking deer in thick brush. Suddenly, a deer appeared in front of them. They fired and the deer dropped. They took the deer by its antlers and began to drag it back toward their car. But the deer’s antlers caught in the brush. Finally one of the hunters suggested: 'If we drag it the other way, the antlers won’t catch like that.' So they took the hind legs of the animal and began to drag it the other way.  After a while, the first hunter said: 'There, didn’t I say it would be easier this way?' 'Yes,' the other replied, 'but aren’t we getting a long way from the car?' ”

Rabin had a story for everything, and all his stories had a sting in the tail—especially when they were parables of Israel’s policies toward its neighbors. Close to 45 years on, the storming of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo underscores the fact that Israel now faces the prospect of new Arab regimes whose energized peoples are certain to be far less tolerant of the Israeli/Palestinian impasse than were their complaisant rulers.  Internationally, Israel confronts a near-certain vote in the United Nations General Assembly to recognize Palestinian statehood; while only a U.S. veto will stave off a Security Council resolution to the same effect—a veto that, as Saudi Arabia has warned, will cost the U.S. dearly in its relations with the Arab world. In his gloomy musings about the future, Rabin seems increasingly a prophet.

“Victory is better than defeat,” he remarked that afternoon in 1975. “What people want to ignore is that victory brings its own problems.” He wondered whether Israel’s victories in 1967 and 1973 had been, as he put it, “too complete for Israel’s good.” In 1967 Israel had ended up occupying the West Bank—a move he said he had argued passionately against in 1948. (Rabin was baffled by King Hussein of Jordan, whose decision to join Egypt in the 1967 War led directly to Israel’s overrunning of the West Bank. “We urged him to stay out. Why didn’t he listen?” Rabin asked.) Looking back at the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he was torn. With his heart, Rabin rejoiced at Israel’s devastating response to the surprise assault. With his strategist’s brain, he privately regretted that Egyptian military incompetence had led to so sweeping an Israeli victory in the Sinai. “Politically, a stalemate would have been a better outcome,” he said

Since Rabin’s murder, Israel has hunkered down.

Yitzhak Rabin was no dove. In the 1948 War that sealed Israel’s independence, he helped save Jewish forces in Jerusalem, then held back the Egyptian army’s offensive in the south. As chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, he was architect of Israel’s smashing victory in the 1967 War.  But a decade later, as prime minister of Israel from 1974-1977, Rabin had misgivings.

In another Mideast war many years later, an American general famously asked:  "Tell me, how does this end?" Sitting in his Jerusalem office in 1975, the soldier Rabin pondered the same prescient question.

What worried Rabin was the impact its triumphs of 1967 and 1973 would have on Israel.  Rabin had little regard for the Palestinians, or for the Arab rulers he saw as using them as disposable puppets. But he saw that in the wake of 1973 the impulse to establish settlements in the West Bank, the Judea and Samaria of historic Israel, was becoming unstoppable.  He had, he said, urged Henry Kissinger, then U.S. secretary of State, to impress upon the Arab leaders that time was running out for the overall peace-settlement that Rabin and Kissinger wanted. “Once we have settled the West Bank, we will never be able to leave it,” Rabin said. “But the Arabs won’t listen.” (Rabin’s analysis is supported by Kissinger in his memoirs.)  He prophesied: “The West Bank will become the most divisive issue in Israeli politics. You’ll see.”

Kissinger, his efforts having failed, left office in January 1977.  Rabin followed him a few months later. Rabin had managed to initial a preliminary pact with Egypt which demilitarized the Sinai.  But the overall peace deal that he and Kissinger sought eluded them.

When Rabin returned as prime minister in 1992, he was a man in a hurry. With Israeli settlers now occupying a substantial slice of the West Bank, Rabin thought time was running out for any agreement with the Palestinians. So he took enormous risks—and knew it.  As Rabin had foreseen back in 1975, Israel’s hold on the West Bank and all of Jerusalem had hardened the politics of both camps.  In Israel, the right supported Israel’s de-facto annexation of both. In the Arab world, Israel’s triumphalism fed an Islamist extremism that was never far below the surface. The brave decision by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to travel to Israel in November 1977 to sign a peace treaty with Israel sealed his death warrant.  (He was assassinated in 1981.) When Rabin came to Washington in fall of 1993 to sign with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat an agreement—brokered by President Clinton—that laid out steps to an Israeli/Palestinian agreement, he remarked: “I said to Clinton that I hoped he realized I was probably signing away my life.”

Rabin despised Arafat, and had no faith he would keep his part of the bargain. Rabin would never acknowledge that his ferocious military response to the “first intifada,” the Palestinian uprising in 1987—when Rabin, defense minister once again, authorized “force, might and beatings” to break the Palestinians—might have made Arafat’s own political problems all the harder. Rabin had little patience for the Palestinians, and less interest in their internal politics. His concern was Israel. “This agreement is necessary for us, for Israel,” he said in a quiet interlude during that Washington visit. “We have to free ourselves from the burden of the Palestinians. It’s poisoning everything in our society.”

Rabin was assassinated on Nov. 4, 1995, by a zealot who regarded his steps toward peace with the Palestinians as treasonous.

In the near-16 years since then, efforts to reach some accord between Israel and Palestine have gone essentially nowhere.  The steps laid out by Rabin and Arafat retain their status as the logical steps to an overall agreement.  But, whatever the aspirations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—and those remain opaque—the political climate in Israel debars decisive action.  Since Rabin’s murder, Israel has hunkered down.

Rabin would not have been surprised.  His fellow Israeli politicians, he said on that Washington visit, “prefer to postpone hard decisions in the hope that they will go away. Delay is a way of political life.”  He had another one of his stories to illustrate this.

“There was once a Hungarian count who had a Jewish tutor for his children.  One day, the count said to the tutor: “Jew, you are a fine teacher. So fine that I am going to pay you a compliment.  I will allow you to teach my horse to read.”  The tutor demurred, but the count said: “If you refuse this honor, I will have you killed.”  So the tutor said: “Excellency, I am of course honored. But the task will take me a year.”  “Agreed,” said the count.  When the tutor told his wife of this that evening, she was distraught.  “We are undone,” she said.  “Calm yourself, my dear,” the tutor replied. “I have a year. In that time, anything may happen.  I may die. The horse may die. The count may die.”

Were Rabin still alive, he would probably remark that the riot in Cairo suggests that year may be up.