Rabin’s memory still fuels mourning, love, anger

Rabin’s memory still fuels mourning, love, anger

Israeli diplomat Itamar Rabinovich, said the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin seemed “willing to go the distance” to make peace with Arabs. Photos by Robert Wiener
Israeli diplomat Itamar Rabinovich, said the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin seemed “willing to go the distance” to make peace with Arabs. Photos by Robert Wiener

Nearly 22 years after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination by a fellow Israeli in Tel Aviv, three people with close ties to him remembered his life and legacy, and one of them couldn’t help but throw out a recycled, but still damaging, accusation about his death.

Making what she called a “personal point,” Dalia Rabin, his eldest daughter, said she had no doubt that Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, “was behind the incitement that led to my father’s assassination.”

It wasn’t the first time that she made the claim about Netanyahu, a severe critic of the Oslo Accords, the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement brokered by Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1993. Though Netanyahu has strenuously denied similar allegations in the past, Rabin’s daughter insisted that by neglecting to repudiate the harsh rhetoric of his supporters — including calling Rabin a Nazi and a traitor — Netanyahu gave tacit approval to right-wing extremists to take action against her father. 

“They knew when he would be removed there would be no peace process,” she said. “This idea is in my heart.”

Dalia Rabin’s comments came at a forum titled, “Rabin and Israel Today,” on March 7 in the Parsonnet Room at the New Jersey Center for Performing Arts in Newark. She was joined by Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s ambassador to the United States in the 1990s and former chief negotiator with Syria between 1993 and 1996, and Daniel Kurtzer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt during the term of President Bill Clinton, and was the U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005 during the term of President George W. Bush. Kurtzer moderated the discussion. 

Neither Rabinovich nor Kurtzer, both skilled in navigating political minefields, responded to Dalia Rabin’s accusation, electing to share their memories of the slain leader, instead. 

“For me working with Rabin was a labor of love,” Rabinovich said, and suggested that the former prime minster seemed “willing to go the distance,” not just in reaching an accord with the Palestinians but also with Syria when it was led by with Hafez al-Assad, the late father of Syria’s current leader, Bashar al-Assad. 

Rabinovich and Rabin met when Rabinovich was a lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces and Rabin was his commander. In 1992, after Rabinovich was recruited to serve Rabin as a key diplomat, “We became very close. He demanded loyalty but also gave loyalty.”

Rabin gave Rabinovich the opportunity to be at “the epicenter of power” in Israel during several rounds of peace negotiations with the Palestinians as well as with the former Syrian government. 

Before sending him to Damascus, Rabinovich said the prime minister suggested he was open to returning the Golan Heights — territory Israel had seized during the Six Day War in 1967 — to Syria, but Rabin would not give him explicit orders to make that commitment. Despite what might have been a major concession to an Arab leader, talks broke down before the elder Assad died in 2000 and was replaced by his son. “Today, Syria is essentially a failed state,” said Rabinovich, and that there was no possibility of peace talks with the Syrian government on the horizon.

A two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rabinovich said, “is not feasible now, but is necessary, not just to keep Israel Jewish and democratic, but because what happens in the West Bank penetrates into Israel.” 

Dalia Rabin lamented that “Israel has not become a more tolerant society” since her father’s death. A former member of the Knesset, she now chairs the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, which was funded by the Knesset in 1997 to perpetuate her father’s legacy. She told the audience she had hoped that the center would do more to foster his dreams of a peaceful and democratic Israel. Part of the problem, she said, was that many schools in her country — particularly those in West Bank settlements — are not sending students to the center to learn about her father’s message.

“I must admit I have some very difficult meetings with the new generation of settlers who are much more extreme” than older people who had dealings with her father. She said a younger generation currently living on the West Bank is “focusing on taking over the army.” They are now achieving high positions that might prevent Israel from maintaining its status as a democratic state, she said. Changing that equation “is now my main agenda.”

She said she and her brother, Yuval, grew up in a very normal, warm, sheltered environment. 

“I always knew the dominant figure at home was my mother, but after my father’s assassination we realized the whole structure was about his presence, even when he was not there,” she said.

Kurtzer, currently a lecturer and S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies at Princeton University, said that, like Rabinovich, he was privy to many high-level discussions regarding the peace process with Palestinian leaders and others in the Arab world. Asked what the future holds in terms of possible friendly relations between Israel and its neighbors, Kurtzer said that Arab leaders are not motivated to improve relations with the Jewish state. Rather, they have used the Palestinian issue as a way of manipulating popular anti-Israeli sentiment in the “Arab street” as a diversion from their own problems. In addition, they “can’t justify, can’t defend” their softening position toward Israel with their base populations. 

However, Rabinovich said there is quiet diplomacy at work intended to improve Israel’s relationships with the Arabs. “The Saudis and the Kuwaitis and the Jordanians don’t expect us to resolve the Palestinian issue tomorrow morning, but they want to see progress toward the resolution.” Still, he said, Egypt’s difficulties with jihadis in the Sinai might imperil its growing ties with Israel, and that Saudi Arabia, which shares a common enemy in Iran, is only willing to have a relationship with Israel “under the table.” Without progress on the Palestinian issue, it will not move from “under the table to over the table,” he said.

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