Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s decision to withdraw from an event sponsored by Americans for Peace Now honoring the legacy of the late Yitzhak Rabin has been condemned by the usual suspects. The “Liberal Zionist” crew acknowledges that Rabin had some messy things on his resume, principally the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Lydda and Ramle and his brutal response as Defense Minister to the first Intifada that killed many hundreds of protesters against the Occupation and “broke the bones” of many thousands more. But, the story goes, Rabin later evolved from warrior to peacemaker, a courageous statesman who attempted to forge a lasting agreement with his enemies and paid with his life. Roger Cohen put it succinctly in his recent NY Times op-ed:
Rabin was a warrior who fought ruthlessly to safeguard Israel before realizing that war could not achieve this. He learned and changed. Late in life, with immense political courage, he embarked, through the Oslo Accords, on a quest to end the cycle of wars. . .. He gave his life for the idea of ending Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.
Cohen echoes the liberal Zionist consensus: AOC has no business dishonoring Rabin’s memory.
There are two aspects to this Rabin hagiography. Yossi Gurvitz and Amjad Iraqi and others have thoroughly debunked the Rabin as Oslo peacemaker myth. As Alan Dershowitz recently reaffirmed, in a highly uncharacteristic display of honesty and accuracy, Rabin did not propose an actual Palestinian “state” but something “less than a state” ultimately controlled by Israel. While a genuine two-state solution of two independent states for two peoples still has moral and practical flaws in comparison to one state of equal citizens, Rabin attempted to force desperate Palestinians into something far worse: one state for Jews and another state-minus for Palestinians, both controlled by Israeli Jews.
Rabin laid the groundwork for blaming Palestinians for Israel’s refusal to end the occupation. Five years later, Ehud Barak would try the same gambit at Camp David, scripting a public relations spectacle of making the Palestinians an unacceptable offer he knew they’d refuse.
Even worse than Rabin doing nothing of substance to bring about a lasting peace, he never renounced or abandoned his appetite for murderous violence. His actions in 1948 and the late 1980’s were not hardline positions from which he had evolved but an essential part of his character even during the 1993 Oslo negotiations for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In late July of that year, Rabin embarked upon what was arguably the deadliest campaign of his career. Earlier that month, there were several attacks by Hezbollah on Israeli military positions in an area of southern Lebanon that Israel had been illegally occupying for over a decade. Seven IDF soldiers were killed.
On July 25, Rabin launched his response, dubbed Operation Accountability, a week-long bombing campaign against the residents of south Lebanon. Under Rabin’s orders, the IDF deliberately killed over 100 innocent civilians in Lebanon, destroying thousands of homes, all with the reprehensible motivation of triggering a mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of terrified civilians. Early in the operation, Israel’s proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, broadcasted “warnings urging the residents of more than 30 villages, including three Palestinian refugee camps, to leave ‘because your villages are going to be bombarded.’” According to a New York Times report at the time Rabin himself unequivocally acknowledged that he was targeting civilians: “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.” The NY Times also reported that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin vowed to “swamp Beirut with refugees in an effort to pressure the Lebanese Government to stop the rocket assaults.”
The end result was that Israel “turned many southern Lebanese villages into ghost towns, displaced some 300,000 people[Lebanese estimates were higher], left more than 130 people dead, including three Israelis and three Syrians, and some 500 people, many of them Lebanese civilians, wounded.” Rabin explained: “In order to deal with the Hezbollah terror, we had to cause the movement of the Lebanese residents of south Lebanon.” Rabin “caused” that “movement” by ordering the IDF to rain death and destruction on ordinary Lebanese civilians in south Lebanon. When you want to force hundreds of thousands to flee in terror, you have to show you mean business. It is hard to conceive of a more brazen act of mass murder and a better dictionary definition of terrorism.
If Rabin is not condemned by history for this savagery, the obvious reason is that Israeli leaders enjoy automatic immunity from accurate, descriptive labels like “mass murder” and “terrorism.” And if Operation Accountability has mostly disappeared down the memory hole, it is probably because it is only one of many many such attacks Israel has perpetrated against civilians in Palestine and Lebanon over its seven decades of experience. Israel has frequently exacted harsh retribution for attacks on its soldiers and civilians by killing a far greater number of “Arab” civilians (Qibya 1953, Lebanon and Syria refugee camps in 1972, Tunis in 1985, and Gaza in 2009, 2012 and 2014). In the context of its savagery in Lebanon alone, Operation Accountability competes for historical attention with Israel’s large-scale attacks in 1978, 1996 and 2006 and the deadliest bombing/invasion of all in 1982. The sheer number of mass civilian casualty events perpetrated by Israel has reduced Rabin’s horrific 1993 episode to “meh” status.
Why do liberal Zionists like Americans for Peace Now and J Street and Roger Cohen forgive and forget these events? Because they view the Zionist experiment as an essentially noble one that has sometimes been partially derailed by the unfortunate election of extremists like Sharon and especially Netanyahu. Liberals Zionists cling to a rosy alternate history that still might be achievable when the Israeli electorate comes to its senses. It is essential that they remain willfully ignorant that the “best” of Israeli leaders – Ben-Gurion, Meir, Rabin, and Peres – also participated in these wholesale massacres of innocents.
Then there is the enormously emotional factor that Rabin was assassinated by an even more right-wing fanatic. Rabin’s death did not diminish the evil of his crimes but the often inappropriate convention to not speak ill of the dead has a tendency to extend for decades in such circumstances. Ehud Barak no doubt angered many with his disingenuous gestures toward conciliation but avoided the same fate by a combination of dumb luck or better security. Perhaps there was wider recognition among his right-wing detractors that he, like Rabin, was never a genuine threat to the status quo.
While an honest appraisal of the career of Yitzhak Rabin would not overlook his perpetration of large-scale murder over nearly a half-century, there are a number of reasons to be grateful to him. First, there is his relative honesty. Rarely are Israeli leaders so clumsy as to openly admit their nefarious actions and motivations as Rabin did in the above quotes. Since at least Ariel Sharon’s 1982 NY Times op-ed during his brutal months-long foray in Lebanon (“Our soldiers were welcomed despite the casualties that were the inevitable result of fighting against P.L.O. terrorists who used civilians as human shields and who deliberately placed their weapons and ammunition in the midst of apartment houses, schools, refugee camps and hospitals”), other leaders have whitewashed their crimes with absurd excuses, the most prominent of which is they reluctantly bomb civilian areas because the terrorists hide themselves and their weapons among them.
Rabin’s relative honesty was also on display in 1979 when he submitted for publication a memoir in which he acknowledged following Ben-Gurion’s order to forcibly evacuate the residents of Lydda and Ramle. Rabin’s original text was not terribly explicit and focused more on his soldiers’ difficulty in carrying out his and B-G’s orders rather than the misery of the true victims:
“Psychologically, this was one of the most difficult actions we undertook. The population of Lod did not leave willingly. There was no way of avoiding the use of force and warning shots in order to make the inhabitants march the 10 to 15 miles …
Great suffering was inflicted upon the men taking part in the eviction action. Soldiers of the Yiftach Brigade included youth‐movement graduates, who had been inculcated with values such as international brotherhood and humaneness. The eviction action went beyond the concepts they were used to.
There were some fellows who refused to take part in the expulsion action. Prolonged propaganda activities were required after the action, to remove the bitterness of these youth‐movement groups, and explain why we were obliged to undertake such a harsh and cruel action.”
Israeli censors swooped in to protect the false narrative that Palestinians left “voluntarily,” but the admission came to light when the English language translator of the book, Peretz Kidron, revealed the censored account to the New York Times.
Then there is Rabin’s clarity in inviting South African Prime Minister John Vorster to Israel in 1976, openly celebrating and entering into “security” agreements with the apartheid leader held in such contempt throughout the truly civilized world. While there is no shortage of answers to the apoplectic hasbara whining that poor Israel is victimized by defamation associating it with a loathsome ideology and regime, the invitation to Vorster (not to mention Israel’s close security and weapons cooperation with SA) is surely the best reply, demonstrating that Israel eagerly associated itself with apartheid. Even more shockingly, Vorster had spent the War years cheerleading the Nazis and was later imprisoned by the British for his pro-Nazi activities. But by 1976, Rabin excused Vorster’s inconvenient past, finding him a kindred spirit, a gentleman of European lineage forced to exercise harsh rule over darker-skinned natives in a tough neighborhood.
Finally, Rabin may possibly be Israel’s most progressive PM from the standpoint of considering accommodations with the Palestinian population victimized by the success of the Zionist project. However, “most progressive” is a term of comparison with other Israeli leaders. Considering Rabin’s blood-soaked record of brutality, his status in some circles as an icon of peace says volumes about Israeli leaders and does nothing to support Rabin’s undeserved reverence as a man who gave his life bravely fighting for reconciliation.
No doubt AOC herself was unaware of the worst aspects of Rabin’s career, but she learned enough to make the right decision. She knew she’d be attacked as at best naive and ignorant and at worst as antisemitic. That’s genuine courage. Good for her.