In these historic and fraught times, where must democratic nations draw the line between peace and security?
I was reminded of this question on my recent annual visit to Israel, which this year marks the 20th anniversary of the assassination of its prime minister and statesman, Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin had, of course, spent the latter part of his career striving for peace — so much so that it ultimately cost him his life at the hands of an extremist who was opposed to his plans.
At the tail end of my trip, I had the opportunity to meet privately with Dalia Rabin, the former prime minister’s daughter. Dalia Rabin chairs the magnificent Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, a required visit for anyone trying to both understand the arc of Rabin’s life and that of the State of Israel.
So much has changed in the past 20 years, Dalia reflected, that it is impossible to answer the question, “What would your father make of today’s circumstances?” But she reminded me that while peace would certainly have remained his life’s mission, Yitzhak Rabin understood, first and foremost, the need for Israel’s security. The majority of his adult life was spent in the military and as defense minister, where he was focused on protecting Israel from its enemies and ensuring that it would be able to defend itself against all odds.
It is far simpler to advocate for peace at any cost from outside Israel’s borders. But those who do should travel, as my wife Tammy and I did, to Mount Bental in the Golan Heights in the north of Israel. Abstract notions of existential threats to Israel quickly come into sharp relief.
From a magnificent vantage point in Israel, one sees Lebanon, home to Iran-backed Hizbullah; Syria, infected by a brutal civil war and infiltrated by ISIS; and Jordan, which is at peace with Israel and a vital U.S. ally but under enormous strain from neighboring conflicts. There is nowhere for Israel to hide. Peace begins and ends with a security construct for Israel as robust and reliable, as the threats — both on and within its borders — are real. Yitzhak Rabin understood this as well as anyone.
Rabin staked his life’s mission, and ultimately, his life, on the belief that he could rely on an adversary, Yasser Arafat, to make peace. The peace plan divided Israel and led to virulent protests, Palestinian acts of terror and, ultimately, to Rabin’s murder.
Peace requires reliable partners and Rabin showed enormous political and personal courage in the pursuit of common ground with a polarizing adversary. But 20 years on, the region is very different, while the old intractable issues remain. Where is the basis for finding common ground with today’s Palestinian leadership? Who can deliver the required Palestinian security assurances, including on behalf of Hamas, today? Regardless of its nuclear capabilities, where is the basis for finding common ground with an Iran that remains a prodigious state sponsor of terrorism and continues to call for Israel’s destruction?
While a popular narrative today suggests that Israel carries the prime responsibility for peace, the facts make clear that the burden of peace must be shared and that the foundation of that peace is Israel’s security.
Rabin was murdered by an Israeli who did not want peace. There are many in Israel today who do not want a comprehensive, two-state solution with the Palestinians. But there are many more who do.
Rabin also taught us the value of courage. No leader of any global democracy in decades exhibited the level of political and personal courage as he did.
I asked Dalia Rabin what made her hopeful in today’s Israel. She smiled and described her Israel: the waves of incredibly talented and optimistic citizens, many of them in their youth, who have always found a way and who wake up every day optimistic — notwithstanding all the history and the present dangers — that they will continue to find a way. Israel is a democracy of survivors, of inventors, and of re-inventors. Lasting peace — or anything else, for that matter — is always within its grasp.
Had he lived, Yitzhak Rabin would be in his 90s. Who knows how the arc of history would have traveled. We do know that hope, security, and peace would have remained Israel’s guiding principles, because they have always been.
Even since the time that I served as our ambassador to Germany, from 2009 to 2013, Israel’s neighborhood has undergone a dramatic transformation. The Middle East is roiled today as it has not been in decades. From the Persian Gulf to the shores of the Mediterranean, the region is undergoing profound change. Its people deserve leaders who emulate Rabin’s hope for a better life, for security, and for a lasting peace. It is a tall order but one that neither they nor we can be cynical enough not to attempt to fill.