When past Israeli Chief of Staff and cabinet minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak’s wife and five children say their final goodbyes at his funeral on Thursday, they might take a bit of symbolic comfort from seeing the coffin carried by eight IDF major-generals. It will be an official military funeral for a man who helped lead their country through war and towards peace.
When I interviewed Lipkin-Shahak in Jerusalem in March 2000, the second Intifada was not yet in view and the peace process was being kept afloat by the elbow grease of rounds of negotiations against the backdrop of decades of Arab-Israeli wars.
Though he had fought as a company commander in the 1967 War and as a deputy brigade commander in the 1973 War, that afternoon we spoke mostly about the 1982 Lebanon War. It was a war that, in Lipkin-Shahak’s words, “led to a national debate; it was a war of yesh breira.” Unlike the traditional wars of ayn breyra (“no choice”) that Israel prided itself on fighting, the Lebanon War was widely seen as having been chosen by the politicians.
What happened when Israel challenged its security ethic, launching a controversial war deep into the heart of a neighboring country, helped pave the way for a rethinking of Israel’s conflict strategy, I argued in my book, The International Self: Psychoanalysis and the Search for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. Spurred along by an Intifada that “exposed the illusion that you can have an occupation with a human face,” as Oslo negotiator Uri Savir described it to me in November 1999, Israel pressed hard for peace.
Indeed, as Lipkin-Shahak told me, in Yitzhak Rabin’s discussions with confidantes after being elected prime minister in 1992 he revealed that he viewed the task of reaching peace with the Palestinians as his foremost task.
Lipkin-Shahak was no stranger to the cat-and-mouse dynamic that has so often kept the Middle East in a chokehold. In 1973, he led the deadly raid on PLO guerillas in Beirut to avenge the Munich massacre of 11 Israeli athletes a year earlier.
But neither was he a stranger to the practical idea of peace. Lipkin-Shahak had taken part in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations under Rabin, and then participated in talks leading to the Geneva Initiative, becoming one of the accord’s signatories. The 2003 plan attempted to formalize what had been fast becoming the international consensus: a consensus-based, pragmatic approach to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As he described the Geneva Initiative in a 2004 interview with National Journal, “We are trying to prove...that there are Palestinians with whom we can reach agreement, and that together we can find fair answers to the most difficult questions standing in the way of a peace settlement...Together, we are trying to tell our peoples that peace is possible, even if it is not easy.”
It will certainly not be easy for Lipkin-Shahak’s family and friends to grieve the loss of a father, husband, friend and relative, servant of his country, grassroots diplomat, and decorated general, who was ultimately felled by one of humankind’s greatest common enemies, the scourge of cancer that knows no battlefields and no borders.
And neither, three decades after Israel fought its controversial war in Lebanon, and twenty-five years after the first Intifada began, when Palestinians were first launched into the international imagination as a people under occupation, is it easy to give up the dream of making peace. Must we?