The real Yitzhak Rabin

on 21 Comments

Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of when former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli extremist for Rabin’s signing of the Oslo Accords with Yasir Arafat. With the anniversary comes the obligatory mourning of Rabin as a “man of peace,” as the Israeli leader who, had he survived, might have been the one who brought lasting peace to Israel and Palestine.

While that’s the conventional wisdom of Rabin, it’s based on a total erasure of his sordid role in the Israeli military establishment as well as a fundamental misreading of what the Oslo accords were intended to do. The only way that wisdom holds is if you shut out Palestinian views of Rabin, which is what happens in U.S. media and political discourse.

Former President Bill Clinton’s Op-Ed in today’s New York Times is emblematic of the narrative about Rabin in the United States. Clinton says Rabin had a “vision for freedom, tolerance, cooperation, security and peace”; that had he lived, “I am confident a new era of enduring partnership and economic prosperity would have emerged”; and that the “the cause for which Yitzhak Rabin gave his life” was “building a shared future in which our common humanity is more important than our interesting differences.”

The reality of Rabin is that he was a key player in the expulsion of tens of thousands of Palestinians during the 1947-49 war that led to Israel’s founding, which Palestinians refer to as al-Nakba, or the Catastrophe. During the First Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, Rabin infamously gave orders to “break the bones” of Palestinians participating in the uprising against the then-twenty year old Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. And the Oslo accords were never really about peace; it was a successful attempt to “subcontract” the occupation out to the newly formed Palestinian Authority, as Israeli professor Neve Gordon puts it in his excellent book Israel’s Occupation.

In The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Ilan Pappe writes:

Israel’s ‘peace’ axioms were re-articulated during the days of Yitzhak Rabin, the same Yitzhak Rabin who, as a young officer, had taken an active part in the 1948 cleansing but who had now been elected as prime minister on a platform that promised the resumption of the peace effort. Rabin’s death – he was assassinated by one of his own people on 4 November 1995 came too soon for anyone to assess how much he had really changed from his 1948 days: as recently as 1987, as minister of defence, he had ordered his troops to break the bones of Palestinians who confronted his tanks with stones in the first Intifada; he had deported hundreds of Palestinians as prime minister prior to the Oslo Agreement, and he had pushed for the 1994 Oslo B agreement that effectively caged the Palestinians in the West Bank into several Bantustans.

Ha’aretz columnist Amira Hass gave voice to what Palestinians think of Rabin in this article:

Before the handshake on the White House lawn, before the Nobel Prize and before the murder, when Palestinians were asked about Rabin, this is what they remember: One thinks of his hands, scarred by soldiers’ beatings; another remembers a friend who flitted between life and death in the hospital for 12 days, after he was beaten by soldiers who caught him drawing a slogan on a wall during a curfew. Yet another remembers the Al-Amari refugee camp; during the first intifada, all its young men were hopping on crutches or were in casts because they had thrown stones at soldiers, who in turn chased after them and carried out Rabin’s order.

As for the goals of the Oslo accords, here’s what Gordon writes:

The Oslo process was, to a large extent, the result of Israel’s failure to crush the intifada, and Israel’s major goal in the process was to find a way of managing the Palestinian population while continuing to hold on to their land. As Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and several others pointed out from the outset, Oslo was not an instrument of decolonization but rather a framework that changed the means of Israel’s control in order to perpetuate the occupation. It constituted a move from direct military rule over the Palestinians in the OT to a more indirect or neocolonial form of domination.

And what has the creation of the Palestinian Authority, perhaps the most lasting legacy of the tenure of Rabin, brought to the Palestinian people? Collaboration with Israel and repression of dissent.

Let’s save the lauding of Rabin as a “man of peace” for someone who is really working towards peace and justice in Israel and Palestine.

This post originally appeared on Alex Kane’s blog.  Follow him on Twitter here, and donate here to help send him to Israel/Palestine.


21 Responses

  1. Kathleen
    November 4, 2010, 12:29 pm

    Rabin a terrorist killer in the eyes of Palestinians and much of the world. Rabin a hero for many Jews. One persons killer is another persons hero. Sick and twisted

    But the man did settle down in his older years. Even though he had plenty of blood on his hands

    • potsherd
      November 4, 2010, 2:10 pm

      Almost every other Israeli leader has been even worse. Rabin stands in contrast to the murderous like of Begin and Sharon.

      • RoHa
        November 4, 2010, 10:52 pm

        Now there’s a great encomium!

        “He was a blood-soaked, murderous, terrorist. But he wasn’t as bad as the others.”

      • tree
        November 5, 2010, 3:49 am

        I’d rank Moshe Sharett as better (morally speaking) than Rabin. I suspect his early years living alongside Palestinian Arabs and learning Arabic helped to make him more understanding of their predicament (while still being a Zionist, of course) and more interested in solving conflicts through diplomacy rather than Ben Gurion’s militancy. Too bad he didn’t have the force of personality to really stand up to Ben-Gurion and the generals that undermined him. Eshkol was probably better than Rabin as well.

  2. Jeff Klein
    November 4, 2010, 1:32 pm

    Some readers might assume that Rabin’s command to “break their bones” in response to the First Intifada was metaphorical. No, he meant it literally and riot-control troops were issued clubs to do the job. The thinking was not only to punish unarmed protesters, but also to overburden their families and the Palestinian medical system. What a saint!

  3. Evildoer
    November 4, 2010, 1:41 pm

    Question: How many left Zionists it takes to change a light bulb?

    Answer: If only Rabin was alive, there would have been peace and all the light bulbs would have worked forever.

  4. David Samel
    November 4, 2010, 2:29 pm

    Let’s give credit where credit is due. Rabin was one of the few Israeli pols who openly admitted ethnic cleansing in 1948 and terrorist targeting of Arab civilians. Alex links the wiki article on the 1948 expulsion of the civilian population of Lydda (and Ramle), supervised by young Lt. Rabin. Rabin candidly admitted this forced expulsion in his 1979 autobiography. The passage was censored in Israel, where it was still forbidden to challenge the orthodox line “we begged them to stay but they fled at the urging of their leaders.” However, it was leaked to the NY Times, which published it on Oct. 23, 1979.

    Then there was Prime Minister Rabin’s Operation Accountability, a 1993 attack on Lebanon. Once again, Rabin was candid in explaining Israel’s motives to inflict enough damage on civilians to incite hundreds of thousands of Lebanese to flee in panic toward Beirut and pressure the government to rein in Hezbollah. Rabin stated: “We will not permit a situation where there is no calm and security in Israel, while there is calm and security in southern Lebanon. Our goal is to make this clear. We expect the Lebanese Government, and those backing it, to control the rockets fired by Hezbollah. . . If there will be no quiet and safety for the northern settlements, there will be no quiet and safety for south Lebanon residents north of the security zone.” This frank admission of targeting civilians came only two years before Rabin died the hero peacemaker. Rabin’s efforts were successful – he did slaughter enough civilians to cause nearly half a million to abandon their homes and villages and stream northward in panic. Who said terrorism doesn’t work?

    So while Alex Kane nitpicks about Rabin’s body count, he ignores the man’s honesty.

    More seriously, I was struck by Clinton’s quote of Rabin:

    Enough of blood and tears. Enough. We have no desire for revenge. We harbor no hatred toward you. We, like you, are people — people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, to live side by side with you in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free men. We are today giving peace a chance, and saying again to you, enough. Let us pray that a day will come when we all will say, ‘Farewell to the arms.’

    It surely sounds like a Palestinian plea that has been rejected by Israelis over and over.

    • Avi
      November 4, 2010, 6:46 pm


      Alex Kane has it right because Israeli leaders have a knack for making such candid remarks about their deeds (or misdeeds). It’s just that their statements aren’t circulated throughout the English-speaking western world so often. Rabin became famous in the west after he was assassinated. New York City named an entire avenue after him. So, in that context, Rabin comes across as an honest courageous man, as though he’s an exception.

      As an aside, most of the work behind the scenes — the work that brought Rabin and Arafat together at the White House — was done by Uri Avnery. He and Rabin had a close relationship which afforded Avnery the access that which others lacked.

      Certainly, recent candid remarks by Israeli generals and civilian leaders during and prior to the 2006 attack on Lebanon, and the 2008 attack on Gaza show that Rabin wasn’t an exception.

      Take Ben-Gurion’s candid statements for example. He’d said that the Palestinians could not be expected to forgive and forget being thrown out of their homes and having their loved ones killed in the process. That was honest, too.

      So, I don’t think Alex Kane is nitpicking. He’s merely saying that Rabin isn’t quite the man he’s been portrayed in the US.

      • David Samel
        November 4, 2010, 11:14 pm

        Avi, I was kidding about the nitpicking. I should have tried to make it funnier, but it’s a sick subject. Even Rabin, the liberal lion, had a long ugly history, leaving lots of dead bodies behind. I thought his candor on the occasions I cited was due more to being dense than being honest. Sure, there are some others, like Eisenkot talking about the Dahiya doctrine, who spill the beans. But usually, they prefer excuses and blaming the victim.

      • Avi
        November 5, 2010, 1:59 am

        Now that you mention, and after re-reading your post, I see what you were driving at. Got it.

  5. clenchner
    November 4, 2010, 6:02 pm

    I thought condemning a politician for the violence committed in the past was an Israeli thing, with the goal of making them an unacceptable partner for peace.
    Many folks present in those last weeks of Rabin’s life attested to a real change taking place. His willingness to appear at a peace rally with Aviv Geffen (goth style pop start) symbolized a kind of opening up of Israeli Jewish society to alternative voices. The tensions making any sort of peace agreement durable don’t go away, but I’ll always wonder what could have been had Rabin not been murdered.

    • Avi
      November 4, 2010, 8:45 pm

      Many folks present in those last weeks of Rabin’s life attested to a real change taking place.

      Who are those “folks”?

      His willingness to appear at a peace rally with Aviv Geffen (goth style pop start) symbolized a kind of opening up of Israeli Jewish society to alternative .

      Are you saying that Jewish society was expected to embrace the Palestinians because an Israeli goth pop star appeared on stage with Rabin? Aviv Geffen was still an Israeli and a Jew. Thus, in the political context he wasn’t an outsider.

      In other words, regardless of Rabin’s positions or the fact that he’s the subject matter in this case, I don’t see how appearing with Aviv Geffen — let alone showing a true willingness that can be directly attributed to Rabin — are supposed to be comparable to an eagerness and a readiness to open up to the Palestinians and accept them as true and equal partners.

      Such “symbolism” is the kind of symbolism that TV pundits often push onto their audiences. It works in the commercial world, but it certainly has very little bearing on the political world – especially since Aviv Geffen is the alleged symbol. Who decided that he was such a symbol, anyway?

  6. clenchner
    November 4, 2010, 9:47 pm

    Aviv Geffen was a young man who didn’t serve in the army. It was widely believed that he was a ‘shirker.’ He had previously expressed positions well to the left of Rabin, and had become (fairly or not) an emblem of young folks so disconnected from the official narrative that they felt fine not serving in the army. His goth-y makeup and androgynous manner added to this.
    If you want to argue and say that for you, this symbolism is for shit, that’s fine – no need to persuade you. But I’m repeating a widely expressed idea that I remember from the daily news and pundits at the time. I was living in Israel then.
    Sadly, no citations for you, but it wouldn’t surprise me if another Israeli old enough to remember chimed in.
    I wonder if Aviv is still doing anything interesting….
    (I don’t think that Rabin’s change of heart meant anything like true peace consciousness of seeing the Palestinian narrative as equal to the Israeli Jewish narrative. Only that it was a time when hearts were melting, on the Israeli and Palestinian sides, as folks caught the ‘Oslo fever.’ It didn’t last long, and has proven disastrous for all concerned in the end, but it was there. )

    • Avi
      November 5, 2010, 12:19 am

      I was living in Israel then.

      Where did you move from?

      Sadly, no citations for you.

      I’m not sure exactly what citations you had in mind. Note that I wasn’t the person who put forth the idea about Geffen. But, if you find it easier to attack me than to substantiate your contention with a reliable source, then so be it.

      , but it wouldn’t surprise me if another Israeli old enough to remember chimed in.

      Anyone can chime in and claim to substantiate that claim. But, without sources and without someone trustworthy, that assertion remains an assertion. The only Israelis or ex-Israelis whom I know and trust on this forum are Danaa and Shmuel (Mentioned in alphabetical order), so if they substantiate your claims, I might take it into consideration, or better yet, concede that point.

      Incidentally, I’m still waiting for a response here:

      link to

    • Shmuel
      November 5, 2010, 2:42 am

      it wouldn’t surprise me if another Israeli old enough to remember chimed in

      Geffen was a symbol of mild counter-culture (best reflected in his song “We are a fucked generation”), who never expressed any substantive views on peace, apart from general support for the Oslo process. He was a shirker and not a refusenik, i.e. did what he could to get out of service (emotional and mental “unsuitability”), without taking a political or moral stand. Rabin’s willingness to appear at the same rally (politicians first, entertainment at the end) with Geffen, was more generational and cultural than anything else. It was far more of a big deal for Rabin’s critics than for anyone else, and actually had little if any political significance.

      Rabin gave Israeli lefties hope (and righties conniptions). In retrospect, many of us came to realise that our hopes had in fact been misplaced, and not only because of the assassin’s bullets.

  7. Tuyzentfloot
    November 5, 2010, 3:28 am

    I’d like to point out the importance of the oslo accords in terms of Israels international political strategy.
    There’s a long speech from Trita Parsi here link to
    and an article on Rabin’s attitude towards Iran and the US from a certain Efraim Inbar: link to

    With the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Iraq Israel had some major policy revisions, resulting in Iran going from ally(Iran was an ally during Khomeini)
    to an enemy. There was considerable overlap between the perceived need to have optimal relations with the US, the need to be military useful to the US in the region, and the drive for regional dominance. Iran was a competitor for US favors, they could also become very useful to the US in the region, which would happen at the cost of Israel.
    A major value of the Oslo accords then that they would cool down the local problems in order to strenghten Israel internationally.

  8. Avi
    November 5, 2010, 4:19 am

    Just to expand on the theme of Alex Kane’s article, I’d like to add that this is an important point in time. In a few years, history will look back at this period as a turning point, a fork in the proverbial road.

    Essentially, the Oslo agreement has run its course. It has shown that it was a calculated attempt to outsource the occupation to a third party, namely the P.A.

    Israel is now in a bind. It cannot offer the Palestinians a state within the borders of 1967 and it cannot publicly announce that it never had any intention of allowing for a viable and independent Palestinian state.

    So, from Israel’s perspective, the options all point to violence because Israel has politically painted itself into a corner.

    How that will translate to developments on the ground, both in terms of military violence/action or discriminatory polices remains to be seen.

    Either way, absent a miracle, the next year or so is going to be divisive in the history of the Middle East, if not on the regional level, then certainly on the Israeli-Palestinian level.

    Buckle up.

  9. hophmi
    November 5, 2010, 11:04 am

    Sorry, Alex, but if you’re going to take this view, then you should be a little more understanding when Zionists talk about Yasir Arafat’s past or Mahmoud Abbas’s past or refuse to talk with Hamas.

    Yitzhak Rabin was a leader who stood up to a lot of his own country and to a good-sized portion of the American Jewish community to try and make peace with the Palestinians, and he got killed for it.

    No matter how much you quote your fellow lefty writers, peace is not going to be made by Ilan Pappe and Mustafa Barghouti. A peacemaker is not someone who sits in the ivory tower and goes around the world bashing his own people. It’s someone who actually sits at the table and negotiates.

    • Avi
      November 5, 2010, 3:13 pm


      Is that your new derogatory word of the month? You’ve used in two posts so far today. But, given your penchant for lobbing meaningless accusations, thus rendering certain terminology meaningless in the process, I can’t say I’m surprised. What’s the matter, did you run out of “anti-Semite” labels?

      Hold on, I’ll check under my fridge and under the sofa cushions, I might find a few “Self-hating Jew” for you to use.

  10. hophmi
    November 6, 2010, 6:43 am

    Do you have anything of substance to say, Avi?

    Substitute whatever word you like if you don’t like lefty. I’m not using it in a deragotory way and I am far from the first person to use it here.

    • Avi
      November 6, 2010, 5:54 pm

      hophmi November 6, 2010 at 6:43 am

      Do you have anything of substance to say, Avi?

      The more you post such comments, the more evident it becomes that what plagues such blind supporters of Israel is a basic inability to look in the mirror and reflect on their words and deeds.

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