A Flawed Portrait of Yitzhak Rabin
By Mitchell Bard
The glorification of Yitzhak
Rabin's life after his assassination
by a Jewish religious fanatic is well deserved. Rabin was a key
figure in Israel's war of independence and its first five decades as
a nation. He helped build the Israel
Defense Forces into one of the most powerful armies in the world,
led his nation in battles for its survival, and, ultimately, made the
courageous decisions required to put Israel on the road to peace with
The record of Rabin's achievements is fairly
presented in the newest biography of the former prime minister,
written by journalist Dan Kurzman. But although Kurzman excellently
documents the milestones in Rabin's life and career, those familiar
with his life will learn little or nothing new and find the fawning
tone of the book disappointing.
Kurzman lays out many of Rabin's faults but tends
to minimize their negative impact on his party and Israel's policies.
He also gives Rabin credit for accomplishments that he was not the
primary force behind.
Choosing between land
A key figure in Rabin's life is his wife, Leah,
who is portrayed as someone who is loyal to her husband and has
complete faith that he deserves to lead the nation. While one gets a
sense that she has a Machiavellian streak, Kurzman never explains why
Leah seems so desirous of power for her husband.
The book also misses significant points about the
peace process as pursued by Rabin. First, for all the adulation he
received for signing agreements with
the Palestinians, the truth is that peace was not achieved.
Violence against Jews continued and showed little signs of abating
while he was alive. Israel made concessions but did not get the peace
it expected, which was the major reason Rabin's successor, Shimon
Peres, was defeated in the next election by Benjamin
Kurzman correctly notes that Rabin came to the
conclusion that land was not as important as peace and that Israel
could not continue to be the overlord of the Palestinians. What the
author neglected was the impact these realizations had on his pursuit
of peace, namely that Rabin essentially withdrew unilaterally from
Gaza and much of the West Bank. This was why he consistently ignored
Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser
Arafat's repeated violations of the peace agreements he signed.
The stagnation in the peace process under Netanyahu
is largely because the current prime minister places a greater
emphasis on land than peace and is prepared to dominate the
Palestinians to ensure they do not threaten Israel. He is unwilling
to overlook violations of the accords to proceed with the next stage
of withdrawal and, instead, uses Palestinian non-compliance to
justify freezing the process.
The book does give insight into Rabin the man, who
knowingly neglected his family because of his all-consuming military
and diplomatic duties, who had no patience for small talk or fools,
and who treated those loyal to him with great affection. One telling
anecdote was that the chain-smoking prime minister would not smoke in
the car after his driver suffered a heart attack.
Still, the biographer could get no closer to the
man than to Rabin's best friend, Eitan Haber, who said he did not
think even Leah Rabin knew her husband's deepest thoughts and who
called Rabin "extremely suspicious" of everyone.
The forgotten flaws
Rabin is particularly interesting because he had
serious flaws and made mistakes that cost him personally and also
affected the nation. For example, he had what was widely regarded as
a breakdown at a key moment in the Six-Day
War, which his opponents later used against him when he entered
politics. Rabin also conducted a two-decade feud with Peres
Besides the jealousies between Peres and Rabin,
which weakened their party, the book lays bare many of the other
personal and political rivalries between Israel's most prominent
political figures, including David
Allon and Abba
Eban. Such histories of Israeli politics should be required
reading for political science students to learn the role of
personality in politics (or Clinton advisers who want to see the real
"politics of destruction").
Many people forget that Rabin was prime minister
twice. The first time (1974-77), Rabin was largely responsible for
the initiation of the Israeli-Egyptian
peace process (the Sinai disengagement agreements) and the
dramatic Entebbe rescue.
He also built many of the settlements
some people later would vilify as "obstacles to peace" and
was ultimately forced to resign due to a financial scandal. One
Israeli columnist sympathetic to Rabin recently described his tenure
as "awful," but you would never know it from Kurzman's
Perhaps Kurzman's most inaccurate portrayal
relates to Rabin's role in strengthening the U.S.-Israel
relationship. Like Rabin, Kurzman downplays the role of American
Jewry and gives the former ambassador to the United States and prime
minister far more credit than Rabin deserves for the sale of arms,
the appropriation of foreign assistance and the winning of loan
The implication in the book is that the alliance
might not exist or be as close without Rabin, but that's not true at
all. The relationship is far more complex and more dependent on the
actions of people here than on any Israeli. Rabin recognized the
importance of this relationship, but Israel had no real alternative,
so it was not an especially brilliant deduction.
Actually, Rabin simply thought Rabin was best
qualified to talk to the Americans, so he disregarded the Ambassador
when he was Prime Minister, and tried to undermine him when he was in
the National Unity Government under Yitzhak
Good journalism, bad
The book contains a detailed description of
Rabin's assassination on
Nov. 4, 1995, and the background of the assassin but does not deal
with the implications of Rabin's death. Did it really stop progress
in implementing the agreements with the Palestinians and forestall a
possible treaty with Syria? What was the impact on Israel of a Jew
murdering the prime minister?
Kurzman is an excellent reporter and does a good
job of telling the Rabin story from a journalistic perspective;
however, he does not deliver the penetrating analysis needed to make
the book match the extraordinary life of its subject.