The Rabin Memoirs.
by Yitzhak Rabin.
Little, Brown. 344 pp. $12.95.
Because its defense is of such crucial importance to the state of Israel, a Defense Minister wields an enormous amount of power in that country, more than any other member of the cabinet apart from the Prime Minister. And since an Israeli Prime Minister is also vitally concerned with defense policy, the two are natural rivals: it is hence not surprising that relations between the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister are frequently less than cordial. David Ben-Gurion served as his own Defense Minister, but his successors have not been as lucky. Thus, Moshe Sharett’s political career came to grief over the activities of his Defense Minister, Pinchas Lavon; Levi Eshkol was easily overshadowed by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan; Golda Meir was hard-pressed in her dealings with the charismatic Dayan; Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were virtually at war with each other; and Menachem Begin’s frequent clashes with Ezer Weizman are a matter of record. These institutionalized cabinet rivalries contribute mightily to what Walter Laqueur has aptly called “the special virulence of Israeli political life.”
Yitzhak Rabin’s long-awaited political memoirs are hardly calculated to dampen that virulence. On the contrary, Rabin’s embittered criticism of Shimon Peres, currenty head of the Labor opposition, is a substantial addition to the general turmoil of Israeli politics. According to Rabin, who served as Prime Minister from 1974 to 1977 and is currently a member of the Knesset’s prestigious Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, his former Defense Minister is a thorough scoundrel who constantly “schemed and plotted” and resorted to a variety of dishonorable ruses to advance his career. “Peres decided that he and the office of Prime Minister were made for each other,” Rabin writes, “and that all he need do was kick me out of the way. . . . He not only tried to undermine me but the entire government, trusting in the old Bolshevik maxim that, ‘the worse the situation, the better for Peres.’” (This excerpt appeared in the Jerusalem Post, which cited it from the Hebrew edition of the memoirs; in the English edition, Rabin’s tone is not quite so strident.)
Predictably, Rabin’s charges have provoked indignant denials and vigorous countercharges from Peres’s supporters, and it would be premature to pass judgment on the controversy. It should be pointed out, though, that when Rabin was elected Prime Minister in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, he lacked a political base of his own in the Labor party. Essentially, he was nominated by the party’s “Old Guard” to check the growing power of the “Young Turks” led by Shimon Peres. As Nadav Safran has pointed out, Rabin’s strength within the Labor party was “borrowed,” while Peres’s was his own. During his tenure as Prime Minister, moreover, Rabin imprudently ignored Labor forums, thus further diminishing his status in the party. In short, Rabin’s political difficulties were considerable, and any Defense Minister would have tried to exploit them. In domestic as in foreign politics, weakness invites attack.
While Rabin’s denunciations of Peres have captured the headlines in the Israeli press, his book is far more than a belated settling-of-accounts with an arch-rival. Rabin’s description of the evolution of American-Israeli relations between 1968 and 1973, when he was Israel’s Ambassador to Washington, is especially valuable. Arriving during the tail-end of the Johnson administration, Rabin devoted his first few months in the country mainly to mastering the complexities of American politics. In a sense, therefore, his effective tour of duty coincided with the onset of the Nixon administration.
When he came into office, Richard Nixon decided to concentrate his foreign-policy efforts exclusively on the Vietnam war and Soviet-American relations. Middle Eastern affairs were delegated to the new Secretary of State, William Rogers. State Department “Arabists” had long been unhappy with what they regarded as the pro-Israel tilt of the Johnson administration, and under Rogers they began to press—successfully, it turned out—for a more “evenhanded” policy. In 1969, Rogers precipitated a major crisis in Israeli-American relations by publicly broaching an American diplomatic initiative, the “Rogers Plan,” which endorsed a complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories in advance of direct Arab-Israeli negotiations. Rabin became the key protagonist in the Israeli effort to have the Rogers Plan overridden by the White House.
In his campaign against the Rogers Plan, Rabin found an important ally in Nixon’s National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger believed that the State Department persistently underestimated the gravity of Soviet designs in the Middle East; besides, he was not at all averse to having Israel attack his rival, Rogers. But he desperately sought to dissuade the Israelis from criticizing Nixon. As Rabin tells it, Kissinger pleaded with him, “Under no circumstances, I beg you, under no circumstances should you attack the President! . . . What you say to Rogers, or against him, is for you to decide. But I advise you again: don’t attack the President!”
Kissinger’s admonition did not go unheeded. While rallying their supporters in Congress and the media against the State Department, the Israelis scrupulously avoided attacking Nixon. Instead, they sought to convince the President that a strong Israel served the American interest, and that their reading of Soviet intentions was more astute than the State Department’s.
Israeli-American cooperation during the Syrian invasion of Jordan in September 1970 was a watershed in Nixon’s attitude to Israel. Hussein had requested Israeli aid in repelling the Syrians, and Israel’s willingness to comply impressed Nixon profoundly. Upon the successful termination of the crisis, Kissinger asked Rabin, on Nixon’s behalf, to convey a message to Mrs. Meir: “The President will never forget Israel’s role in preventing the deterioration in Jordan and blocking the attempt to overturn the regime there. He said that the U.S. is fortunate in having an ally like Israel in the Middle East. These events will be taken into account in all future developments.” Rabin notes that this was probably “the most far-reaching statement ever made by a President of the U.S. on the mutuality of the alliance between the two countries.”
As Nixon’s opinion of Israel rose, his opinion of the State Department declined. Soon, the Israelis were able to circumvent the State Department altogether and deal directly with the White House via the National Security Adviser. President Sadat’s proposal, early in 1971, to reopen the Suez Canal in exchange for a substantial Israeli pullback from the Bar-Lev line provided Israel with an unexpected opportunity to scuttle the Rogers Plan completely.
The initial Israeli reply to Sadat’s proposal was that Israel would agree to a pullback only in exchange for an Egyptian declaration of nonbelligerency. When Kissinger impressed Rabin with the unlikelihood of Sadat’s ever making such a declaration, Rabin came up with a proposal of his own: Israel would “trade off” its demand for nonbelligerency in return for an American commitment to drop the Rogers Plan. Although Prime Minister Meir’s initial reaction to Rabin’s proposal was unfavorable, she eventually came around to his point of view, and by the end of 1971 she and Kissinger worked out an agreement to the effect that if Israel withdrew from the Canal and permitted the Egyptians to establish themselves on its eastern bank, it would not be bound by the Rogers Plan “in any way whatsoever.” Unfortunately, both the Soviets and the Egyptians had by then lost interest in achieving an interim agreement, and eventually the whole initiative was dropped.
Rabin’s ambassadorship ended in March 1973. When the Yom Kippur War broke out in October, he had not yet returned to active political life in Israel. Untainted by any association with the war, Rabin became Prime Minister after Mrs. Meir resigned. The principal achievement of the Rabin government in foreign affairs was, of course, the “Sinai II” disengagement accord with Egypt. Rabin’s account of that complicated episode—the breakdown of the initial round of “shuttle diplomacy,” the subsequent American “reassessment” of relations with Israel, the resumption of Kissinger’s mission culminating in an interim Egyptian-Israeli agreement—is not particularly revealing.
Rabin is clearly aggrieved by the fact that Kissinger chose to blame Israel for the breakdown of the talks, but he nevertheless makes a point of praising the former Secretary of State for his “wise, skillful, and patient” diplomacy. It is interesting to note, however, that the Sinai II negotiations were strikingly similar to the course of the 1971 negotiations over an Israeli pullback from the Suez Canal. In both cases, Rabin initially proposed that in return for an Israeli pullback, the Egyptians should issue a declaration of nonbelligerency. In both cases, Kissinger argued that Sadat could never agree to nonbelligerency. In both cases, Rabin then proposed trading-off nonbelligerency for American concessions to Israel. In 1971, the American concession was an abrogation of the Rogers Plan; in 1975 the concessions included promises of substantial financial and military aid to Israel and an American pledge not to negotiate with or recognize the PLO. In return, Israel withdrew from the Abu Rodeis oilfields and the Gidi and Mitla passes in the Sinai. Sadat’s concessions were minimal—which led many Israelis to believe that Kissinger had been serving in the negotiations less as a mediator than as an Egyptian advocate.
The Lebanese civil war in 1976 brought shuttle diplomacy to an abrupt end. By the time the war was over, the Carter administration was installed in Washington and the era of “open diplomacy” had begun. When Rabin met with President-elect Carter in March 1977, their conversation soon took what Rabin calls an “ominous turn.” The President urged Israel to open negotiations with the PLO and to drop its opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. If Israel persisted in its refusal to deal with the PLO under any circumstances, Carter foresaw a “sharp reaction” on the part of the American people. Following on the heels of the Carter-Rabin confrontation, the dramatic shift in U.S. Middle East policy was made public when, at a press conference, Carter spoke of the need for a “Palestinian homeland.” Rabin believes that the failure of his talks with Carter played an important role in Labor’s defeat at the polls soon afterward.
When Rabin was Prime Minister, he elaborated what became known as the “Egypt-first” doctrine. In a remarkably candid interview in the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, on December 3, 1974, he argued that Israel should be prepared to pay a high price for an interim accord with Egypt, since such an agreement would split Egypt from Syria and weaken Soviet influence in the region. During the negotiations with Egypt, Rabin even offered to return the entire Sinai to Egypt in exchange for a separate Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement. Sadat turned down the suggestion at the time, but Rabin believes—perhaps not unjustifiably—that his determined pursuit of an “Egypt-first” negotiating posture paved the way for Sadat’s 1977 visit to Jerusalem.
There was, however, another aspect to Rabin’s strategy. After the conclusion of the Syrian-Israeli disengagement agreement in 1974, Kissinger informed the newly-installed Rabin government that he favored opening negotiations with Jordan for a disengagement agreement on the West Bank. Rabin successfully parried Kissinger’s Jordanian initiative, arguing that it was far more important to conclude a second agreement with Egypt. Critics of Rabin, such as former Foreign Minister Abba Eban, have charged that Rabin’s failure to deal with Hussein when the opportunity presented itself left a vacuum which was quickly filled by the PLO. Regrettably, Rabin’s memoirs contain no mention of the abortive Jordanian negotiations. While the achievements of the Rabin government in regard to Egyptian-Israeli and American-Israeli relations were indeed considerable, to the extent that Eban’s criticisms are near the mark, that government must also bear part of the responsibility for some of the quandaries facing Israel today.