Rabin and the Oslo Process Revisited

By November 10, 2008

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 51

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: While venerated by the Left as a hero of peace, the cautious Yitzhak Rabin was first and foremost a military man, for whom peace agreements were primarily a means to buttress security. He believed that transition to real peace would take decades, and would have ditched the Oslo process by now.

This Perspectives Paper is a slightly revised version of an article published by Bitterlemons on October 11, 2008.

Thirteen years have passed since Yitzhak Rabin was murdered and it’s time to take an unvarnished look at his diplomatic legacy.

Conventional wisdom, as manipulated by political circles of the Left, commemorates and venerates Rabin as the hero of peace. Yet, Rabin was first and foremost a military man. To him, peace was primarily a means to buttress security, and the cautious Rabin believed that the transition to peaceful relations between Israel and its neighbors would take decades.

The shift to the role of peacemaker was not easy for Rabin. While he had the courage to make difficult decisions, he was ambivalent toward the path chosen. His honesty and skepticism prevented him from articulating a soaring “vision” of peace that would convince the majority of Israelis to go along with his preferences. Nevertheless, Rabin was successful in bringing about a de facto partition of the Land of Israel and in greatly limiting the appeal of the Greater Israel ideology.

Most Israelis were ready for partition, but the Oslo agreements never received the whole-hearted support of the public and the Knesset. Rabin’s government coalition barely maintained a majority in parliament. Had he not been assassinated, Rabin probably would have lost the 1996 election to Benjamin Netanyahu, as he was trailing badly in the polls.

Rabin always believed in the principle of land for security, reflecting the prevalent view of mainstream Israeli society. Therefore, it was with reluctance that Rabin allowed the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to take control of parts of the Land of Israel in exchange for an unfulfilled promise to prevent terrorism. He also knew that dealing with the PLO – even a reformed PLO – meant placing difficult issues on the agenda, such as the establishment of a Palestinian state, the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees, and Jerusalem.

He was also aware that the PLO was a danger to his preferred partner, Hashemite Jordan. Moreover, it is important to remember that he tried to first reach a deal with Syria. Indeed, his power politics prism led him to attribute greater importance to the interstate dimension of the Arab-Israel conflict than to the Palestinian dimension. In his eyes, the Arab states, which had at their disposal tanks and airplanes, could harm Israel much more than the Palestinians, who lacked military strength. The Arab states constituted a military threat and were therefore the address for making war and negotiating peace.

This idea is reemerging in current Israeli politics, as hopes of a Palestinian state living peacefully next to Israel are confronted with the bitter reality of a fractured and increasingly fanatic Palestinian body politic. Following the failure to implement a two-state solution, I believe that Rabin would have supported attempts to involve Arab states that signed a peace treaty with Israel in tackling the Palestinian issue. What is today called the “regional approach” is much more in tune with Rabin’s thinking then the attempts to placate the Palestinian national movement and build a Palestinian state, which was once deemed by Rabin a potential “cancer in the Middle East.”

The tragic assassination of Yitzhak Rabin only delayed the recognition that the two-state paradigm was not working. We know that Rabin was frustrated with the Palestinians’ dismal record of state building and counter-terrorism. There are indications that Rabin started having second thoughts about his peace partner, Yasser Arafat. If he had survived, Rabin himself might have decided to put an end to the Oslo experiment and expel Arafat and the incorrigible PLO leadership, which did not deliver their part of the deal. Rabin explicitly believed that the Oslo process was reversible because Israel was strong. He could have easily mobilized popular support for such a policy reversal among Israelis.

Yet his assassination by a religious fanatic galvanized what had previously been lukewarm support for the “peace process”. This event paralyzed the Israeli political right and minimized opposition to the transfer of Palestinian cities to the PLO in January 1996.

The realization that the perennial search for a partner to divide the Land of Israel did not end with granting the PLO territorial control sunk deep into the Israeli psyche only when Prime Minister Ehud Barak returned from Camp David in July 2000 and the Palestinians subsequently launched a terror campaign. Barak, Rabin’s heir and disciple, coined the “no partner” diagnosis to which most Israelis subscribe. More than anyone, Barak is responsible for discrediting the messianic doves in Israeli politics, whom Rabin generally detested.

Rabin would have been pleasantly surprised by the resilience of Israeli society during the Second Intifada. He, like others in the Israeli political leadership, expressed pessimism about Israelis’ ability to withstand protracted conflict. Such a pessimistic evaluation of the willingness to suffer within Israeli society was one of the reasons that led Rabin and others to advocate far-reaching concessions. Evidence that Israelis were ready to fight and bear pain, contrary to his original belief, might have led Rabin to display less tolerance of Palestinian violations and led him toward a serious search for an alternative to the two-state paradigm.

 BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation

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Prof. Efraim Inbar
Prof. Efraim Inbar

Prof. Efraim Inbar is professor emeritus of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.