Last week, the Brookings Institution held an event about Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister assassinated in 1995, on the occasion of a worshipful new biography by Itamar Rabinovich, the former Israeli ambassador.
The event was remarkable for underlining how difficult it would have been to achieve a two-state solution even if Rabin had not been shot by a rightwing Jewish extremist in 1995 for offering to give up land for peace.
Bill Clinton said creating a Palestinian state would have involved “a lot of blood, gore turmoil in Israel.” And Rabinovich and Martin Indyk and Rabin’s daughter Dalia discussed Rabin’s determination never to divide Jerusalem, an essential element of the two-state solution.
First, here’s Bill Clinton talking about how hard it would have been to get a two-state solution– and going on to eloquently deplore the us-and-them world of identity politics.
I remain convinced that had he lived we would have achieved a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians by 1998 and that we would be living in a different world today. But I never thought it would be easy, as evidenced by Itamar’s book. I think just even had the agreement that they reached looked something like the agreement that Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed to that Arafat never accepted, that there would have been a lot of blood, gore, turmoil in Israel to implement it. Even if the people had voted for it. Because, as we have seen, as the world has grown more interdependent, these identity conflicts have grown more intense.
So I don’t want to do what old guys like me always do and sugar coat the past and say it would have all been wonderful if only this, that, or the other thing. It would have been very hard, but it would have been done because of him, because of the hold he had, the trust he inspired. Not only among Israelis, but among his adversaries, or at least those who were on the other side of the negotiating table. Arafat was virtually in awe of him, which always kind of tickled me in a good way. So what I ask you to think about when you hear this — and we have ambassadors here from all over the world, some of whom come from areas which have known and still know great ethnic, religious, and ideological conflicts — is to realize that the whole history of humankind is basically about the definition of who is us and who is them, and the question of whether we should all live under the same set of rules. And most of the time it’s a close fight, and a lot of the time throughout history the people who wanted an us and them divide have found more political success and meet the deep psychic needs people have to feel that their identity requires them to be juxtaposed against someone else, that when somebody is telling you to share the land, share the power, share the future, they’re asking you to do something that when push comes to shove you might not do yourself. Once you get in an “us and them” world then of course nobody should live under the same set of rules. We should have a better set of rules that work more for us than for somebody else. And all over the world today that’s what we’re trying to come to grips with without easy answers.
Next, here’s the discussion of Jerusalem that shows that even Rabin was against dividing Jerusalem under a two-state solution. The discussion involves Ariel Sharon in November 2000, weeks after one of his most famous and provocative actions: visiting the Haram-al-Sharif/Temple Mount in occupied Jerusalem in an expression of Jewish control of Jerusalem that helped set off the Second Intifada.
Martin Indyk: Jerusalem. I remember your mother, after Yitzhak had been assassinated —
Dalia Rabin: You remember this story about her?
Indyk: Well, tell us.
Rabin: She was very sick. She already had cancer and she was dying. [Leah Rabin died, November 12, 2000] And she was in the hospital. And Avi, my ex-husband, was here in New York and spent some time in an office with together with Ariel Sharon… And he calls me, it was Friday afternoon, he calls me, I was with her at the hospital, and he tells me Arik wants to talk to your mother. And it was on a cell phone. I said, Avi, she’s hardly breathing, she cannot talk. She said bring me the phone, I want to talk to Arik. And she takes the cellular phone and she said, Arik, do you think Yitzhak would give up Jerusalem? This was a day and a half before she died.
Indyk: And, you know, he fought for Jerusalem. He lost in a sense —
Rabinovich: Yeah. Actually, Martin, I remember you and I appeared together in the Embassy of Israel. You were then not the ambassador, but International Security Council, the director for Middle Eastern Affairs. We appeared before an Orthodox Jewish audience and they spoke derisively about Rabin and Jerusalem. Before I could say something you looked at them and you said to them how dare you speak derisively about Yitzhak Rabin and Jerusalem and Yitzhak Rabin fought in Jerusalem in 1948 and liberated it in 1967. And there was silence, silence in the hall. So, yes, Jerusalem was a very sensitive issue and I think there was a strong commitment. But look, before he became prime minister he spoke in the election campaign against the [giving up] of the Golan. And he was willing under certain terms to do it. He certainly did not — he spoke against Arafat and the PLO and never thought about shaking hands with Arafat and he ended up shaking hands with Arafat. So who knows? Had he lived, had he been reelected in 1996, had final settlement negotiations with the Palestinians begun and proceeded, who knows how it would have gone. There’s no telling.
The late Israeli PM Ariel Sharon had a similar memory of the telephone call, at a memorial for Rabin in 2001. Haaretz:
Speaking at a special Knesset memorial ceremony to mark the sixth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that Rabin would not have agreed to divide Jerusalem in an agreement with the Palestinians.”Leah (Rabin) said to me with the last of her strength: ‘Arik, it is true that Yitzhak would never concede Jerusalem,’ and I replied, ‘I am sure that on Jerusalem he would never have condeded.'”
Sharon also quoted remarks Rabin had made regarding the capital, like “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel,” and “Jerusalem is not open to negotiation.”
So prime ministers right and “left” as well as a figurehead of the left (Leah Rabin) agree that Jerusalem should never be divided. These statements underline the difficulty of achieving a two-state solution even under the most propitious political circumstances, so long as one side holds the cards. No wonder partition has never happened, despite 70 years of world consensus on the point.
Finally, a crazy counter-factual. Rabinovich said that if Rabin had lived, there would not be a civil war in Syria.
[T]he preference was strategically to make the first deal with Syria, and once of course you had an Israeli-Syrian deal the Palestinian deal would come much more easily because the Palestinians of course would feel that Israel was holding the trump cards. So that was the plan. But the way events developed, of course, it ended up differently… [H]ad Assad made peace with Israel there would be no civil war in Syria. As you remember very well, it was not just a bilateral negotiation between Syria and Israel, it was a trilateral negotiation. And for Assad, actually making peace with the United States was more important than making peace with Israel. So he would have had to open up. It was not just about making peace, but about changing the orientation of Syria, which may have frightened him, may have been the reason that at the end of the day he did not step up to the plate. But had he made the deal, had he opened up, the pressure cooker that burst in 2011 would not have burst.
P.S. Bernie Sanders has also criticized identity politics.