A Soldier to Make Peace
In Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli voters chose a former hero, who knows both the triumph and anguish of war, to come to terms with the nation's enemies
`ISRAEL is waiting for Rabin." Under that personalized banner, Israel's Labor Party successfully waged its election campaign, attaching its fortunes to its new leader Yitzhak Rabin, a former Army chief of staff, defense minister, and prime minister.
Because of Rabin's leadership, the Israeli electorate returned the Labor Party to office and ended its 15-year romance with the Likud. The election was fought on personalities, while the critical economic and social issues that needed debate were pushed aside, as were the hard questions of how best to press forward the search for peace, how densely to settle the West Bank, what to do with Gaza, and how to manage the bilateral relationship with the United States. In the voting booths the campaign was redu ced to deciding who would be the best custodian of the national interests, and Rabin won that contest.
Rabin's victory is more impressive because he is devoid of the attractiveness that television adores. It is refreshing to witness the popular political success of someone whom the camera does not favor. What was it then in this TV age - and Israelis are as attached to television as are Americans - that made Rabin so attractive to Israeli voters?
The simple answer is that Rabin is trusted, and voters will support someone they trust even if the individual is without charisma.
What many Israeli voters expressed June 23 was the belief that Rabin is a competent and trustworthy man, a soldier and a diplomat, who understands the security needs of their country, and who will calculate the requirements of that security without reference to ideology.
He is a sabra, someone born in Israel who is a product of the new society that the Zionist pioneers created there. A national hero, his roles in the 1948 War of Independence and the 1967 Six Day War are part of Israel's folklore as well as its history.
Henry Kissinger has described Rabin as "taciturn." He is a man with few close friends or associates, whose only confidant is his wife, Leah. Israeli intellectuals are fond of criticizing the wooden quality of Rabin's Hebrew. Yet he possesses a superb analytic mind, and in discussions of Middle East or world affairs, Rabin's observations are always remembered. From 1968 to 1973 he was a successful Israeli ambassador to the United States who enjoyed the respect of President Richard Nixon.
The media have been clogged with references to Rabin the hard-liner. Not enough has been said about the character, intelligence, and values of the man that lie beneath the toughness. As a soldier, he knows the human cost of war. A successful warrior, he exhibits no thirst for blood.
At the victory celebration that marked the national thanksgiving after the Six Day War in 1967, Rabin delivered an address that in its hold on the rhetorical imagination of a generation can justly be likened to the inaugural address of John F. Kennedy. Rabin spoke of the "joy of triumph which seized the whole nation," and then reflected upon "a strange phenomenon among our fighters. Their joy is incomplete, and more than a small portion of sorrow and shock prevails in their festivities.... The warriors i n the front lines saw with their own eyes not only the glory of victory but the price of victory."
Hailed as a savior of the nation, Rabin spoke soberly when he could have reveled in the triumph of Israeli arms. He pointedly acknowledged the suffering of his adversary, saying: "And I know even the terrible price our enemies paid touched the hearts of many of our men." Given the daunting challenges of the peace process, one cannot overstate the importance of the fact that Rabin has never lost sight of the humanity of his country's enemies.
Rabin's view of the Arabs is both stern and discerning. He demands that their sincerity be subject to proof. As prime minister in the mid-1970s, he was slow to acknowledge that Anwar Sadat's professions of peace were genuine. Rabin is likely to demand much from the Arab side in the negotiations to come.
If the Palestinians are put off by his sternness, then they will miss the opportunity that his pragmatism and keen geopolitical sense offers them. He knows that Israel cannot be a democratic and Jewish state unless it separates itself from the Arab Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza. He will seek a territorial compromise that the Likud would never have considered, and require ironclad security guarantees in return. He will also seek a conceptual compromise, offering more than the constricted autonomy
favored by Likud, but less than the statehood the Palestinians demand.
Israeli voters returned to the prime minister's office the only one of their eight previous prime ministers who had a firsthand experience of war. A soldier has been asked to make peace.