Of course, a serious rethinking of past policies is always welcomed by historians, but perhaps the occasion of the 10th anniversary memorials to the late Yitzhak Rabin was not the best chosen time for Professor Sally Zerker to label him a ‘dupe’ (Jewish Tribune, Nov. 17). Most of us can recall the scene at the White House when Rabin reluctantly took the hand of Arafat. Distaste was written all over his face; it was not the expression of a dupe.
What then had led him to this point? It was not just some flim-flam offered by Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin. Rabin was elected in 1992 with what was, in Israeli terms, a convincing mandate to replace the negative policies of Yitzhak Shamir and the Likud. Shamir would concede nothing to the Palestinians. He was intent on maintaining all of the West Bank and Gaza, the goal was, in his words, to maintain “the integrity of the land of Israel,” meaning greater Israel. These policies were seen by most Israelis as unproductive, having given rise to the first intifadah and offering only continuing struggle.
Rabin was well informed of the Oslo talks as soon as they moved beyond academics and Uri Savir, director of the foreign ministry, began to take an active role. He was no dupe and before accepting the Oslo track, Rabin considered four evaluations. He listened to Itamar Rabinovich, ambassador to Washington and currently president of Tel Aviv University. Rabinovich was Israel’s foremost Syrian expert and he advised Rabin that the Syrian track could only be followed if Israel was prepared to give up the Golan Heights. Second, there were various intelligence reports that local Palestinian leadership could not provide an alternative to Arafat. Third, there was the assessment by IDF intelligence that Arafat might remain a symbol for the Palestinians but was so weak that he made a convenient partner for Israel. Finally, there were reports from Beilin and others that the Oslo talks with Abu Abas were preceding well. In this context Rabin declared that “there would be no escape from recognizing the PLO.”
Of course, I agree with much of Prof. Zerker’s evaluation of Arafat and I believe that Rabin and other Israeli doves also did. On more than one occasion American negotiator Dennis Ross expressed his frustration with Chairman Arafat to Palestinian leaders such as Abu Mazen, Saeeb Erekat, Abu Abas and others. Their answer was that the chairman was the symbol for the Palestinian people and could not be replaced. Yes, Rabin went ahead with Oslo despite his serious reservations about Arafat. He took the first Oslo agreement to the cabinet and it was unanimously endorsed with two abstentions. Prof. Zerker is, however, correct in asserting that there was greater opposition later on.
She makes a plea that anything as momentous as Oslo should have been approved by a “Jewish” majority. I find the concept of distinguishing between different types of citizens and different ethnicities of Knesset members a troubling one. If she really believes in a “double majority” system, on which areas of legislation would she grant Arab-Israelis a veto, perhaps on the displacement of Arab and Bedouin communities or budgetary decisions, which treat their population inequitably? Neither of us has to deal with this issue. It is a red herring so long as the constitution of Israel confers full political equality on all citizens and their representatives. We should all hope that Israeli democracy sustains that principle.
The Oslo Agreement, which Rabin signed, was not done with blind eyes. It was a phased accord, as readers will remember, that started with PA control of Gaza and Jericho. Ironically, some critics of Oslo believe that Rabin’s cautious approach undermined the prospect of peace because a bright future was promised and little was delivered. These critics believe that the phased approach delivered the fate of the accords into the hands of extremists on both sides. Yet, I believe, that neither Rabin nor a majority of Israelis were prepared to move directly to final status talks. Thus, Oslo presumed that both sides would move through stages in which they would prove their good faith. Acceptance of that kind of arrangement was the mark of a careful and cautious man – not a dupe.
The most painful part of Prof. Zerker’s piece connects Rabin and Oslo to the 1,700 Israeli lives that have been lost. That is too great a stretch for me. Too much happened between September 1993 and September 2000, when the second intifada commenced to blame Oslo and Rabin. Itamar Rabinovich sums it up:
“Led by Yassser Arafat, the Palestinian side projected a message of ongoing struggle rather than conciliation. Arafat also failed to confront and take on the terrorist organizations. The Israeli side did not suspend the settlement project and failed to devote adequate effort to improving quality of life for the Palestinian population…. Palestinian terror…brought to power a prime minister critical of, if not hostile to, the Oslo process.
In other words, the connection of Israeli deaths to Rabin and Oslo is as tenuous as blaming them on Sharon and Netanyahu. We should have none of that kind of character assassination. Yet, we should examine the mistakes that were made at Oslo, as we examine also the failure of the occupation. Rabin proved his courage to the world, the courage to defend his country when necessary and the courage to travel the road to peace.
Dr. Scheinberg is Professor Emeritus in History, Concordia. He is also a past chair of B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights and is presently Co-Chair of Canadian Friends of Peace Now.