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.
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.
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.