Today, Israelis are marking the 20th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. As they have every year since that tragic murder, some Israelis and their friends elsewhere are using the occasion to ponder the counter-factual scenarios about what would have happened had Rabin lived. Given the current awful situation with the country facing another wave of Palestinian terror, it’s hard to blame them for mulling fantasies about how Rabin might have saved the Oslo process, or, as some on the right insist, turned against it once he understood Yasir Arafat and the Palestinians had no intention of ever making peace. Faced with the current stalemate and the ineffectual and often productive efforts at bridging the divide between Jews and Arabs that come from the Obama administration, dreaming about how Rabin would have made things different is an understandable escape from an unpleasant reality. But as much as these “what if” scenarios about Rabin are a waste of time, it must be admitted that the same can be said about much of the current discussion about how Israel’s current leaders can make peace possible.
Not everything coming out of the mouth Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been particularly well-thought-out in the last week, as his much-distorted comments about a Holocaust-era Palestinian leader showed. But he spoke the truth today when he told a Knesset committee to stop dreaming about Rabin or how Israel could magically create peace. As Haaretz reports, Netanyahu said the following:
“These days, there is talk about what would happen if this or that person would have remained. It’s irrelevant; there are movements here of religion and Islam that have nothing to do with us.” Netanyahu then turned to opposition MKs and said: “You think there is a magic wand here, but I disagree. I’m asked if we will forever live by the sword — yes.”
On the left it has long been an article of faith that Rabin’s death in November 1995 and the election six months later of Benjamin Netanyahu to his first term as prime minister killed the chance for peace. Their assumption is that a strong leader like the general turned politician would have somehow found a way to engender confidence in the future by the Palestinians.
That’s a point of view that is implicitly backed by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry as they place most of the blame for the lack of peace on Netanyahu and Israel rather than the Palestinians.
By the same token, some on the right believe that sooner or later, a hardheaded pragmatist like Rabin would have realized that Palestinian Authority leader Yasir Arafat had no interest in peace and was, in fact, inciting and subsidizing the terrorism that would ultimately destroy the Oslo process. That’s a point the always insightful Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby makes when he writes in a column that, “Had Rabin lived, the Oslo calamity might have been reversed long ago and the ‘peace now’ delusion abandoned as a gamble that failed.” Others, like current Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, also believe Rabin would have stuck to his pledge never to divide Jerusalem, a point that seems particularly relevant today as terror attacks seem to have reinforced a de facto partition of the capital.
If one looks at Rabin’s statements in his final years, you can find plenty of reasons to back up these theories. Indeed, I personally heard Rabin make some of the same statements when I interviewed him along with a few other journalists in his Waldorf Astoria suite in New York City only a couple of weeks before his death. He spoke about never dividing Jerusalem, his expectation that Arafat would use the guns that Israel was giving him against Hamas and other terrorists (without, as he said, the interference he faced from Israel’s Supreme Court), and that if that didn’t happen he would call the whole thing off.
Perhaps Jacoby and others who think subsequent events would have given one of Israel’s great heroes the opportunity to “reverse his greatest blunder,” are right, but I doubt it. He lacked the enthusiasm for the project that his rival/colleague Shimon Peres exuded. But Rabin was as much a prisoner of the peace process that he had reluctantly authorized as Peres. There was already ample proof that Arafat had no interest in peace. Indeed, the massive demonstrations against the Oslo Accords that were subsequently unfairly denounced by the left as incitement to murder the prime minister were largely generated by terror attacks that gave the lie to Arafat’s pledges.
The dynamic of the process was such that those who had invested in it were bound to follow it to its logical conclusion. It’s just as likely that had he lived and been re-elected (as assumption that is pure conjecture since polls at the time of Rabin’s death showed him losing to Netanyahu in the next election), he might have made the same mistakes as Ehud Barak, a member of Rabin’s Labor Party who defeated Netanyahu for prime minister in 1999. Barak, another former soldier elected as a tough-minded pragmatist, thought he could solve the problem in one fell swoop by offering Arafat statehood that would give the Palestinians almost all of the West Bank, a share of Jerusalem and Gaza. Arafat said “no,” and answered with a terror war known as the second intifada. Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas has also kept saying no to statehood offers and negotiations.
Today, the same ideas keep circulating, as Secretary of State Kerry tries to keep a lid on the current violence by proposing ineffectual short-term measures — like a camera on the Temple Mount to monitor the status quo banning Jewish prayer — as well as always pushing for more Israeli concessions on territory and settlements to entice the Palestinians back to the table.
But that’s why Netanyahu’s comments from last week in which he seemed to be saying that Adolf Hitler only ordered the complete extermination of European Jewry after the Mufti of Jerusalem persuaded him to “burn” the Jews, are so relevant. Though he blundered by overstating the case for Palestinian Arab leader Haj Amin al-Husseini’s influence over Hitler, Netanyahu was right to remind Israelis that Abbas has been using the same playbook as his predecessors. The effort to whip up a holy war over lies about Israeli plans to destroy the Temple Mount mosques reinforces the reality that in the eyes of Palestinians, the conflict with Israel remains a zero-sum game in which the goal is the destruction of the Jewish state, not an effort to get a better deal on borders or to remove specific settlements.
The recent murder campaign demonstrates that Palestinian national identity remains inextricably tied with the effort to deny Jews any rights to any part of the land as well as the holy places. That may change someday if the Palestinians undergo a sea change in their thinking about the conflict that will enable them to get beyond the blood lust and anti-Semitism that still dominates, as the New York Times reported last week, their popular culture.
Until then, what Israelis and their friends need are cool heads and continued determination to prosper and grow in strength, in spite of the continued conflict as they have for the last 67 years since gaining independence. Whether he eventually changed his mind about the peace process or not, Rabin would never have been able to force the Palestinians to make peace if they had no desire to do so. Neither can Netanyahu.
Rabin’s successor will be criticized for his gloomy prediction of Israel having to still live by the sword. But he’s still right that it is impossible for Israel to make peace by itself while Palestinians remain mired in their hate-filled fantasies and led by weak, cynical inciters like Abbas. Though it wasn’t what a lot of people, especially here in the United States want to hear, Netanyahu told us more sense about the conflict than all the high-flown rhetoric about the need for Israelis to honor Rabin’s memory by re-dedicating themselves to the cause of peace that was said elsewhere.