The false side of ‘What might have been’

The false side of ‘What might have been’

One of my favorite literature genres is alternate history, which is premised on “what if” scenarios and how they would have changed history. What would have happened at the Siege of Bastogne if the weather did not clear as Patton prayed it would? Would the South have won the Civil War if Chamberlain and the 20th Maine did not hold Little Round Top on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg?

Often alternate history is footed in remorse, as John Greenleaf Whittier predicated in his poem Maud Muller. It was love at first glance between Maud and a judge. Each fantasizes about being married to the other, but instead goes their separate ways.

This leads to the famous stanza, “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’”

Bret Harte wrote a parody, “Mrs. Judge Jenkins,” where the couple marries with far more disastrous results. And Maximus A. Lesser, in Echoes of Halcyon Days, wrote a similar riposte to Whittier:

The saddest words of tongue or pen,
Are (Whittier says), It might have been.
But sadder far it seems to me:
It is, but never ought to be!

This week we mark the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. The alternate history game that is played with Rabin is that, if he had lived, we would have peace in the Middle East because there would have been an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

There can be no doubt that Rabin sought a durable peace with the Palestinians. I would dare say most Israelis would also like peace. Last Saturday, an estimated 100,000 Israelis, mostly young, secular, and left-wing, attended a memorial for Rabin in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. Speakers included Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, and President Barack Obama, via video.

Clinton told the crowd that Rabin “gave his life so that you could live in peace. What does it all amount to? Now that is up to you.” Referring to the relationship between the United States and Israel, Clinton said, “I always thought the role of the United States was to provide whatever help necessary to ensure Israel’s security, maximize the benefits of peace, and minimize the risks. But the decision is yours.”

In his videotaped remarks, Obama said that while Rabin understood the dangers facing Israel, the Israeli leader also believed the Palestinians could not be controlled through force forever. “Like a true statesman, he meant to examine every opportunity, every possibility to achieve piece,” adding, “As you stand here for the future you believe in, know that the U.S. commitment to the security of the State of Israel will never diminish.” 

What would be the contents of a Rabin-negotiated peace agreement?

One of the Palestinian demands is to establish east Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state.

The image I have of Rabin is the famous photo of him, Moshe Dayan, and Uzi Narkiss entering the Old City through the Lion’s Gate at the end of the Six-Day War in 1967. Would this Rabin agree to the re-division of Jerusalem?

The answer comes from Rivlin in his speech at the recent official memorial ceremony for Rabin. “It was he who united Jerusalem for us, and he, who commanded of us — proponents and opponents of Oslo alike — to safeguard Jerusalem.” Rivlin added:

In 1992, it was Rabin who said at the first session of the 13th Knesset, “This government, just as those before it, holds that there is no difference of opinion over the status of Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel. The complete and united Jerusalem, always was and always will be, the capital of the Jewish people, under the sovereignty of Israel. This government is unequivocal in its belief that Jerusalem is not up for debate.”

This red line position by Rabin would have been enough to doom any peace accord with the Palestinians then, and it is enough to doom one today.

The beauty of alternate history is that it is fiction with enough facts thrown in to make its premise plausible. But its attraction is with its changing one or more key facts to get a desired or provocative outcome. Unlike alternate history, decision-makers have to deal with the facts as they are. In such cases, “It might have been!” might be an intellectual trap. The alternate side of the coin is Lesser’s “It is, but never ought to be!” The Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is a sterling example.

We will never know whether Rabin would have been able to negotiate a peace acceptable to both sides. We do know that he tried and we will have to be content with that knowledge.

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