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Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated 22 years ago. His second term (1992–95) was consequential and dictates the political discourse in Israel and about Israel to this day. The Oslo process, which began in 1993, had been all but pronounced dead, but its basic logic—resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by partitioning the land, based on UN Security Council Resolution 242 (1967)—is as relevant as ever. The current Israeli government under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu might dislike this notion and can dismiss it, but the Oslo logic—and its projected end with a two-state solution—is the only viable option for the international community and dominates the Israeli political discourse.
This book's author—Itamar Rabinovich, a Tel Aviv University professor of Middle Eastern Studies, focusing on Syria—served as ambassador to the United States and headed the negotiation team with Syria under Rabin and after the latter's assassination on November 4, 1995. Rabinovich continued under Rabin's successor, Shimon Peres, until he resigned after Netanyahu won the 1996 election.
In this capacity of ambassador/negotiator, Rabinovich had a unique view of Rabin. Chapter 6, "Rabin's Peace Policy, 1992–1995," is the most insightful and illuminating of Rabin's decision-making from one of his closest aides. The author provides a firsthand explanation of what happened during the negotiations with Syria and why they eventually failed. Particularly interesting is "Rabin's deposit," a hypothetical statement conveyed through United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher, regarding a potential complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for full peace, delinked from other peace processes and implemented in part before Israel's full withdrawal. Rabinovich blames Christopher [End Page 689] for mishandling it by hastily using the so-called deposit in his interaction with Syrian president Hafiz al-Asad. Christopher viewed Asad's reply far more positively than Rabin. This gap created a rare tension between Rabin and the administration of Bill Clinton (pp. 194–99).
Rabin's decision to proceed with highly controversial peace processes with the Palestinians and with Syria—both involved decisions on sensitive issues, such as territory, refugees, and holy sites—was based, in Rabinovich's account, on his assessment that Israeli society's stamina was declining. Rabin concluded this from the large numbers of Tel Aviv residents who left the city during the 1991 Gulf War when Scud missiles rained on the city (p. 193),1 and from polls that indicated decreasing willingness to continue fighting endlessly and an increasing willingness to reach a deal with the Palestinians, even the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).2 Moreover, his decision to push forward possible peace with the first tier of Israel's neighbors (i.e., Syria and the Palestinians) was combined with his assessment that the rising threats were emanating from the second and third tiers, mostly from Iran and Iraq.
One of the greatest benefits of the book is the regional and international context that the author provides for Rabin's views and actions throughout his career. The author's expertise on Middle East affairs also makes this book a valuable introduction to the regional (and, where relevant, international) affairs that Rabin dealt with in his different roles and shaped him as "a political dove and a military hawk" (pp. 149, 156). Because Rabin played a central role in Israel's history for so many years, his biography parallels the country's history, not only when he served as prime minister but when he commanded the Har'el Brigade in the 1948 battle for Jerusalem. The author does an excellent job in introducing readers to Rabin the soldier, statesman, and politician. This includes detailing Rabin's generation-long rivalry with Shimon Peres within the Labor Party. Indeed, Rabin and Peres dominated Labor for many years, such that younger leadership could not emerge. Their rivalry during Rabin's first government assisted the settlement movement in the Occupied Territories (with then–Defense Minister Peres's approval, despite Rabin's objection) (pp. 123–24). In later years, they usually took opposite positions...