OBITUARY:Yitzhak Rabin

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The Independent Online

Yitzhak Rabin was the least predictable of peacemakers, an old soldier with an instinctive distrust of the kind of bright young intellectuals who contrived the Oslo breakthrough with the Palestine Liberation Organisation. He visibly cringed when President Bill Clinton coaxed him to shake hands with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in September1993.

As Prime Minister of Israel for the first time from 1974 to 1977, Rabin could hardly steel himself to utter the word "Palestinian". He and his Defence Minister in that administration, Shimon Peres, connived, however reluctantly, at the establishment of the first Jewish settlements planted among Arab towns and villages on the spine of Palestine. As Defence Minister in the 1984-90 national-unity Government, Rabin ordered his troops to break the Intifada uprising "with might, power and beatings".

Yet on the night of his death at the hands of a lone Israeli gunman, Rabin was singing "Shir Hashalom", the Hebrew hymn of peace, with 100,000 supporters of Peace Now. It was, Peres said afterwards, probably the first time in his life that the croaky-voiced Rabin had sung in public.

His farewell message had a ring of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream". His Government, he said, had decided to give peace a chance. "I was a military man for 27 years. I waged war as long as there was no chance for peace. I believe there is now a chance for peace, a great chance, and we must make the most of it."

What wrought the transformation was the realisation that Israel could not batter the children and mothers of the Intifada into submission, without compromising its own humanity and alienating the civilised world with which Israel identified itself.

As early as the 1988 election campaign, Rabin and Peres argued that Israel could not go on ruling a large and hostile Arab minority if it wanted to remain a Jewish and a democratic state. The only alternative was separation, a line on the ground with Israelis on one side and Palestinians on the other (though to the last Rabin refused to acknowledge that his policy might spawn a Palestinian state).

The 1988 electoral stalemate denied the two Labour leaders an opportunity to put "territory for peace" to the test. But after their narrow victory in June 1992, Peres, as Foreign Minister under Rabin, convinced himself and his chief that Arafat was ready for a symmetrical compromise. Isolated and impoverished by the historic miscalculation of siding with Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf war, the leader of the PLO had become a partner for peace.

It was Peres, always the more imaginative and restless of the two, who selected and backed the freelance diplomats for the Oslo back channel. But without Rabin, checking every detail, reining in their enthusiasm, a deal would never have gelled. And without Rabin, elected on a platform of "peace with security", the Israeli public would not have acquiesced.

Despite their history of bitter personal rivalry, Rabin and Peres were an extraordinary team. In their seventies, they recognised that a solution to a century-old conflict between Jew and Arab was attainable. This was their own last chance, and they were not going let mutual recrimination get in the way. Nor would they be deflected by the enemies of peace, Arab or Jewish. After every Islamic suicide bombing, a grim-faced Rabin announced to the television cameras that the negotiations would continue. Echoing a celebrated phrase of Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, he said he would "fight the terrorists as if there were no peace process, and fight for peace as if there were no terrorism".

Rabin was equally stubborn in defying a campaign of unprecedented vilification by the Israeli right and its paymasters abroad. They branded him a "traitor" and an alcoholic, portrayed him in Nazi uniform or Arafat kefiyeh head- dress. To their enduring shame, leaders of the parliamentary opposition were slow to disown these excesses. Even when his Knesset majority was reduced last month to a single mercenary MP, Rabin bulldozed on. "A majority of one is still a majority," he insisted.

Foreign critics accused Rabin of dictating a humiliating peace to a vulnerable Arafat. But for most Israelis, Israel too was paying a price - not just in territory, but in personal security. By finely calculating when to accelerate the peace process and when to slow it down (by, for instance, closing the old Green Line border to workers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip), Rabin stopped the pragmatic centre of Israeli public opinion from joining the settler ideologues at the barricades.

His tenacity won Israel a peace treaty with Jordan to match that Menachem Begin signed with Egypt in 1979. It banished the kind of isolation that had dogged Israel in international forums for 47 years. Israeli commentators were quick to notice that when Rabin addressed the jubilee General Assembly of the United Nations last month, no Arab or Third World delegation walked out (the Syrians and the Libyans were not there to start with).

Yitzhak Rabin was born in Jerusalem in 1922. His life and career marched step-by-step with the struggle for, and consolidation of, a Jewish state in the biblical homeland. His father, Nehemia, a working-class Ukrainian Jew who had emigrated to the United States, arrived in Palestine in 1918 as a volunteer for the Jewish Legion, fighting to help the allies oust Turkey from the Levant. His Russian-born mother, Rosa, the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, immigrated with a Zionist uncle.

In the best pioneering tradition, Rabin studied at an agricultural school, then joined the Palmach, the elite professionals of the Haganah Jewish defence force, in the struggle for independence. During the 1948 Arab- Israeli war, he commanded a battalion that kept open the lifeline between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

He made a career in the army, reaching his peak as chief of the general staff in Israel's resoundingly victorious Six-Day War in 1967. Rabin collapsed with nervous exhaustion (excused at the time as nicotine poisoning) on the eve of war, but after two days' rest he returned to his post. Moshe Dayan, the flamboyant Defence Minister, seized the international limelight, but the more taciturn Rabin was credited with the planning and control that expanded Israel's borders to the Suez Canal, the Jordan river and the Golan Heights.

After retiring from the military at the end of 1967, Rabin was appointed ambassador to Washington. He scorned the frivolities of the cocktail circuit, but established a highly productive working relationship with the Nixon Administration.

Rabin returned to Israel in 1973 and ran for election on the Labour ticket in the elections of December that year. Israelis welcomed him as a leader with a record of success, a man who was untainted by the almost disastrous errors that exposed Israel to invasion in the Yom Kippur War. In April 1974, he defeated Shimon Peres in their first contest for the party leadership, after Golda Meir had stepped down.

Despite his initial popularity, Rabin had a disappointing first term as Prime Minister. He had difficulty adjusting to the demands of political life. He found the Knesset, Israel's parliament, a bore and showed it. He lacked the patience to cultivate party allies. He failed to stem a flood of corruption scandals that started under previous leaders, but fed escalating disenchantment with his party, which had ruled since independence.

On the eve of the 1977 general election, Rabin was forced to resign after an Israeli correspondent in Washington unearthed an illegal foreign currency account in the name of Rabin's wife, Leah, who survives him with their two children. Labour lost to Menachem Begin's Likud, which prompted a West Bank settlement boom designed to prevent a repartition. The present Government is finally trying to unravel this.

But Rabin stayed in politics and the Knesset, a restless subordinate to Shimon Peres, whom he accused in an autobiography, The Rabin Memoirs (1979), of undermining him when he was Prime Minister. None the less, the pair remained locked together like Siamese twins through three unsuccessful attempts to regain power.

In 1992, the party concluded that Peres could never win and turned again to Rabin. It worked, but by a dizzyingly precarious margin. The peace process - and the Nobel Peace Prize that it brought to Rabin, Arafat and Peres - was the improbable outcome. In the spirit of the Palmach and the Israel Defence Forces, Rabin insisted on leading from the front. In a Tel Aviv square on Saturday night, he paid for it with his life.

Eric Silver

Yitzhak Rabin, army officer, politician: born Jerusalem 1 March 1922; Commander, Palmach Brigade 1943-48; Commander-in-Chief, Northern Command, Israeli Defence Forces 1956-59, Head of Manpower Branch 1959-60, Deputy Chief of Staff and Head of the General Staff Branch 1960-64, Chief of Staff 1964-68; Israeli Ambassador to the United States 1968-73; Chairman of Labour Party 1974-77; Member of Knesset 1974-95, Minister of Labour 1974, Minister of Communications 1974-75, Prime Minister 1974-77, Minister of Defence 1984-90, Prime Minister and Minister of Defence 1992-95; married 1948 Leah Schlossberg (one son, one daughter); died Tel Aviv 4 November 1995.