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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A halo (perhaps) in need of some tarnish

Every society needs a 'saint' or two.  But IMHO no politician - not even a murdered one - should ever be held in such high esteem that the mere mention of his flaws and mistakes becomes a sort of blasphemy.

Sadly, the late Yitzhak Rabin is a perfect example of a such a 'saint'.  He was a man who devoted his entire life to the service of the country I call home, and made incalculable contributions to the IDF and the Israeli government. 

However he was human.

As Chief of General Staff in the IDF before and during the Six Day War, he is widely credited with overseeing one of Israel's most astounding victories.  And considering that the groundwork and preparation for that war were almost certainly conducted on his watch, that credit is well deserved. 

Yet it is not widely remembered that he had a nervous breakdown in the days before the war's outbreak, and only regained his senses near the end of hostilities.  He must have been under enormous pressure at the time of his collapse, but the true mark of a great leader is that his subordinates were able to function perfectly without direct/constant oversight.  However, because Rabin has now been virtually beatified, his foibles and flaws have been largely deleted from the public consciousness.

In the years preceding his murder, Rabin fell victim to other, nearly irresistible pressures to extend an olive branch to a man who had dedicated his life's work to the destruction of Israel; Yassar Arafat. 

A confluence of unlikely bedfellows lent Rabin a clear consensus/mandate to take a leap of faith and test the uncharted waters of potential peace.  These unlikely allies in the peace movement included many older Israelis from Rabin's generation who were weary from a lifetime of war, as well as a groundswell of younger Israelis who had come of age during Israel's 'Vietnam' (the first Lebanon war) and who couldn't bear the idea that the foreseeable future held nothing but more of the same.

Again, like his flawless preparations for the Six Day War, Rabin probably deserves admiration for daring to take some extraordinary risks (in the form of the Oslo accords) on the small chance that it might finally usher in an era of peace for his battle-weary country.  But not only did he not build any checks or safeguards into Oslo, but when faced with the absolute proof of Arafat's mendaciousness, he went into a period of complete denial where he continued to guide the country toward the thundering falls over which Arafat hoped hoped to finally send the hated Zionist entity.

Since I enjoy the luxury of 20/20 hindsight, I can say without hesitation that Rabin's Oslo gamble was rash and naive.  However, at the time, though I was opposed to Oslo, I harbored a deep hope that Rabin was right and I was wrong.  After all... sometimes when navigating uncharted waters, hope is all you have to guide you.  But as soon as the Oslo war proved beyond all doubt that Arafat had never changed his spots, Rabin had an obligation to turn his ship of state around and sail it for shore.  But instead of doing this, he stubbornly held his course... in full view of the looming disaster ahead.

There are many in the right wing camp who view Rabin as a monster whose memory should be obliterated like Haman.  I think that such a view is as misguided as that held by the camp which considers him a saint.  By pretending Rabin did nothing good, the political right is guilty of collective amnesia and ingratitude since it is Rabin's early hawkishness and shining victory in the Six Day War that reunited Jerusalem and placed much of our historical land under Israeli control. 

But by placing his memory above examination or criticism, the left is equally guilty of willingly depriving future generations of the ability to learn from his mistakes.

Back in 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stood up and stated:

"We're familiar with the Likud's horror stories. They promised us Katyushas from Gaza, but Gaza has been under the primary control of the Palestinian Authority for more than a year now, and there hasn't been a single Katyusha."

[You can listen to the speech here (thanks Dave)]

I promise you that this post isn't about saying 'I told you so'.  There is nothing to be gained by scoring cheap points.  It is about removing the taboo from criticizing 'saint Rabin'.  It's about allowing Israelis to continue to venerate the country's founding fathers (and mothers) for their contributions and sacrifices.  But at the same time, Israeli schoolchildren - and their parents - need to be allowed to recognize that these people weren't infallible saints.  We need to be allowed to learn as much from Rabin's failures as from his achievements. 

Posted by David Bogner on March 4, 2008 | Permalink


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Some great points Dave.

By the early 90's, I had almost totally withdrawn myself from any relationships with Israel. Not for political reasons, but it was just no longer, my focus in life. And perhaps because of the distance, I felt less inclined to be active in Israeli affairs, but I remember feeling betrayed by the new changes that were about to happen in Israel. But back then until probably the last four years or so, when I became reassociated through the blogosphere, I felt that I had to trust the Israeli public with their stance and decision to go forth with this. I don't live in Israel and don't have to experience life such as they do. So how can I give my two cents when I am safe and comfortable at home, in the US.

As you and others agree, in hindsight, it wasn't and still isn't the way to go. But one only learns from their mistakes by making them in the first place. And I can imagine that when you are so fed up and desperate to live in peace, you are willing to try just about anything, ignoring any gut intuitions.

I can also understand that in this age of the Internet and globalization, that all the myths and fears are able to be melted away by really getting to know the human side of a society, or a culture, or a people. And I surmise this is what is happening in Israel. Real friendships are being made and it makes it even more difficult to want to be at war with a group of people who are almost no different than oneself, when you get to know the individual. However, on the flip side, I hope they (arabs and other muslims) are able to open their eyes and soon be able to safely stand up for what's right towards Israel as a country and towards Israelies/Jews as individuals. The friendships have to go both ways, and the years of propaganda programed into them will hopefully be removed as they allow themselves to step back and see past what's been fed to them all their lives, as well.

(i know - that's my humanist/liberal and to many, my naive side poking through.)

Posted by: jaime | Mar 4, 2008 4:05:16 PM

Funerals are a good example of a moment when people tend to overlook the black spots on a person's record. Eulogies rarely contain criticism, just comments about how good a person was.

You are right, our leaders should be critiqued. Their records should be studied so that the good can be emulated and the bad avoided.

Posted by: Jack | Mar 4, 2008 5:00:21 PM

we won't be there for another couple of months, but the principle applies nevertheless:
אחרי מות קדושים אמור

Posted by: Lion of Zion | Mar 5, 2008 2:40:44 AM

I think the problem is this: when Rabin was assassinated, not only was he canonized, but so were his policies.

This is a phenomenon that (IMHO) worked in our favor when Anwar Sadat was assassinated. I have my doubts about Sadat's motives at Camp David. I seem to remember hearing that Sadat had written that the ultimate way to conquer Israel was through concessions and world pressure rather than open warfare. In any case, whatever Sadat's motives, once he was assassinated, Hosni Mubarak's hands were tied. He couldn't openly attack Israel even if he wanted to, because the world saw him as the successor to Sadat the Peacemaker. Thank G-d for that.

With Rabin, we saw the other side of the coin. By the time of Rabin's murder, most folks knew (even if they wouldn't admit it openly) that Oslo was basically a failure. Bibi Netanyahu was pretty much a shoo-in as the next Prime Minister, with a mandate to kill Oslo if he so desired. All of that changed with Rabin's murder. Anyone who regards Yigal Amir as a hero should think about that. Rabin's assassination essentially turned the Oslo Accords into the Holy of Holies, with Rabin as First Martyr. Netanyahu's hands were tied, and countless Israelis (and Palestinians) lost their lives to the Ghost of Oslo. Anyone who dared raise any doubts was seen to be a fanatical "settler type", who probably said nightly prayers for Amir and Baruch Goldstein. Ultimately, the political atmosphere became so poisonous that even folks we thought would be the settler's best advocates - guys like Sharon and Olmert - turned on them. Whereas if Rabin had not been killed, Oslo would probably be dead, Gush Katif would still be ours, and the citizens of Sderot would be able to sleep at night. And Rabin would be widely regarded - as you said - as a gifted, but ultimately fatally flawed, leader.

Or, of course, I could be full of bull poop. Your call. :-)

Posted by: psachya | Mar 5, 2008 5:23:31 AM

Psachya: What a great summary. You laid it out quite well. Thanks.

Posted by: jaime | Mar 5, 2008 6:05:18 AM

jaime... It is exactly this ready availability of any and all information that gets in the way. People get so overloaded with information that they find they can pick and choose only the parts of the story that fit with the narrative they are most comfortable with.

Jack... Unfortunately, Rabin's funeral seems to still be going on.

Lion of Zion... Great!

psachya... I'm with Jaime. that was an excellent synopsis.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Mar 5, 2008 8:49:59 AM

jaime... It is exactly this ready availability of any and all information that gets in the way. People get so overloaded with information that they find they can pick and choose only the parts of the story that fit with the narrative they are most comfortable with.

Jack... Unfortunately, Rabin's funeral seems to still be going on.

Lion of Zion... Great!

psachya... I'm with Jaime. that was an excellent synopsis.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Mar 5, 2008 8:50:56 AM

psachya wrote:
"Bibi Netanyahu was pretty much a shoo-in as the next Prime Minister"
I would dare to remind that in 1996 there were 2 votes to make - one for party (Knesset) and one for Prime Minister (direct election).
Bibi won by the thundering majority of 50.1% against 49.9% in a two-horse race. (The other candidate was Peres "who, me a loser?").

Posted by: asher | Mar 5, 2008 9:31:03 AM

forgot to mention that in 1999 the results were Barak 56.1% and poor Bibi 43.9%.
That's without the electoral fraud....

Posted by: asher | Mar 5, 2008 10:36:02 AM

The reason why the election was so close in 1996 is precisely because of Rabin's assassination. The right wing including Netanyahu was tainted by the assassination and Peres was seen as the "sainted" Rabin's successor. The fact that Netanyahu even won shows how bad people thought the situation was.

Posted by: Bluke | Mar 5, 2008 2:13:21 PM

Jack has been brushing up on "Julius Caesar" and Marc Antony's oration "Friends, Romans, Countrymen". Lot to learn from Shakespeare.

Bluke avoided the 1999 election, and yes, the right willways be tainted by 1995

Posted by: asher | Mar 5, 2008 4:25:56 PM

asher... "...and yes, the right will always be tainted by 1995"

In that one statement you've been able to sum up everything, but EVERYTHING I hate about the far left. 'The right' did not murder Rabin... a lone nutjob who happened to be a rightist did that. There are far more examples of systemic partisan violence and even sanctioned murder (the Altalena affair comes to mind) that should have permanently tainted the Israeli left. It is exactly your kind of baseless hatred for the religious right that will allow our enemies to divide and conquer us. Even Hamas and Fatah manage to close ranks when one is under attack by Israel. But even as Israel is under attack all you can think about is how the right is beyond redemption. I'm having a lot of trouble seeing you as a human being right now.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Mar 5, 2008 4:56:46 PM

You can't really compare the '99 election to '95. By 1999, Bibi had a chance to build up his own personal baggage as PM. The Left would never accept him, and the Right was disillusioned with his weak performance at the (aptly-named) Wye Convention, among other things. Also, Labor had jettisoned the perennial Shimon Peres in favor of Ehud "The-Most-Decorated-Soldier-In-Israel's-History" Barak. Bibi didn't stand much of a chance. And I agree with Bluke - had Rabin been alive and running against Bibi in '95, no way the election would have been that close. Bibi would have won in a landslide. IMHO.

Posted by: psachya | Mar 5, 2008 5:19:29 PM

joining hands and singing together in one voice is fine (at an Aiv Geffen/Aaron Razel show for example), but (A) if someone who doesn't like that song doesn't want to join in does that make her/him a creator of a house divided? and (B) who gets to say WHICH song, WHICH lyric and WHICH melody?
So if I don't sing according to YOUR tune, I'm the one who's dividing? Not so simple.
Of course only one finger actually pulled the trigger on Rabin, but the writing had been on the wall all summer, as those of us who were here them all too well know. No-one exists in a total vacuum, and no-one is an island, not Amir, not the guy who shot M L King, or killed Bhutto.
So if my voice seems out of tune, or I don't seem to be marching in step, just remember that the alternative (Phol Pot) is worse.

Posted by: asher | Mar 6, 2008 10:34:27 AM

I dont think your view of Rabin is very accurate. Its true Rabin wasnt a monster, but he wasnt a hero either. What he was was a life long alchoholic who was MIA during not one but 2 wars, yes he got drunk during a battle in the War of Independence, and a profoundly weak political leader.

Lets not forget that it was he who was commanding the attack on the Altalena, a event he bragged about for years.

During the Six Day War, Moshe Dayan was doing 2 jobs, his own and Rabin's, while I dont doubt Rabin's subordinates were competant they werent working in a vacuam they had a brilliant military commander to take the place of their absent superior.

With Oslo Rabin wasnt takeing a leap of faith, it was just a case of political weakness. While Rabin did indeed want to negotiate with the PLO he hadnt wanted to negotiate with Arafat, then Foreign Minister Peres presented Oslo as a fait accompli, and Rabin was too weak a man to make himself look like a fool by announcing his own foreign minister had gone against his wishes.

This pattern continued through Rabin's assasination, while I dont doubt Amir pulled the trigger. It was Rabin's fear of being pushed from power that caused him to put himself in charge of the Shabak while he was Prime Minister and greatly increase the rather totalitarian operations of the Shabak conducted against the right wing. The Shamgar commission itself has admitted Avishai Raviv was a Shabak agent who encouraged Amir to kill Rabin.

And there is no question that thousands of Jews died because of Rabin going along with the Oslo accords.

Posted by: kahaneloyalist | Mar 12, 2008 1:09:06 AM

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