Profile: Peace through terror: Yitzhak Rabin

Israel's tough-talking, tough-acting PM was never the dove many took him for

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The Independent Online

Yitzhak Rabin didn't actually promise peace in our time, but when he was made Prime Minister of Israel a year ago there was a widespread feeling that he would deliver just that. Had he not promised during the election that he would push forward the Middle East peace process? Was he not the man to take the decisions which his defeated opponent Yitzhak Shamir had obstinately refused to take? Did he not say that within six to 12 months, he would have an agreement on autonomy for the Palestinians on the West Bank and in the Gaza strip?

The hopes he raised have not been realised. There is no autonomy agreement for the Palestinians. The peace talks in Washington have gone 10 rounds without achieving any tangible results. And now, after a week of relentless bombardment of southern Lebanon, Rabin has shown that he still believes in force to achieve his ends.

The hopes were always misplaced. True, Rabin had in his time taken part in peace negotiations - he was heavily engaged in the nitty-gritty of the 1974 disengagement agreements with Egypt and Syria. But he is primarily a soldier, not a visionary. He has never spoken in prophetic terms about his dreams for the future, a future without wars in the region, a future in which his children and grandchildren might be able to live in peace and security. Rather, he has an analytical mind, obsessed with the most minor detail of the most minor military operation. During the early period of the Palestinian intifada, the uprising in the occupied territories, when he was defence minister in a national unity government, he would sit up late at night at the Defence Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv poring over the raw intelligence reports from the field. His staff were always staggered by his grasp of detail.

The second reason why Rabin should never have been portrayed as a peacemaker was his record. The plan to force the mass flight of the population of southern Lebanon, which we are now seeing unfold, is entirely consistent with his previous behaviour. He had been responsible for a similar enforced flight of an Arab civilian population in July 1948, during the fighting which led to the creation of the state of Israel. This was part of Operation Dani, whose objective was to secure the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road. For some time the Arab towns of Ramle and Lydda (since Hebraicised as Ramla and Lod) had acted as bases for attacks on Jewish traffic. The two towns at that time had a combined population of roughly 70,000, according to the leading Israeli historian of the period, Benny Morris. Operation Dani's aim was to capture the towns. Many civilians fled the fighting. Others were shot in Lydda by Israeli troops when they rushed into the streets. But what to do about those who remained?

At a meeting of army commanders, the prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was asked this question. Somebody suggested expelling them. In Benny Morris's account: 'Ben-Gurion said nothing. Then Ben-Gurion, General Yigal Allon (in charge of Operation Dani) and Lt Colonel Yitzhak Rabin (chief of operations, Operation Dani) left the room. Allon asked: 'What shall we do with the Arabs?' Ben-Gurion made a dismissive, energetic gesture with his hand and said: 'Expel them.' At 1330 hours, 12 July, before the shooting had completely died down in Lydda, Operation Dani headquarters issued the following order to Yiftah brigade headquarters: '1. The inhabitants of Lydda must be expelled quickly without attention to age. They should be directed towards Beit Nabala. Yiftah must determine the method and inform Dani HQ and 8th Brigade HQ. 2. Implement immediately.' The order was signed 'Yitzhak R (Rabin)'.'

That operation should be seen in the context of the times. It was a tough time to grow up. Rabin was one of those officers who were given great responsibility at a young age. They were nurtured on noise and bloodshed, and the constant risk of sudden death.

Yitzhak Rabin was born in Jerusalem in what was the British League of Nations mandate of Palestine in 1923. He still has the distinction of being the only sabra (native born) prime minister in Israel's history. His parents were Russian immigrants. He attended the Kedourie agricultural college and later joined the Palmah, the commando force of the mainstream Jewish underground. He rose rapidly through the military hierarchy and became chief of staff, laying plans for Israel's dramatic victory over the combined Arab armies in the 1967 Six Day War. But just as Moses was unable to savour the fruits of his labours by reaching the Promised Land, so Rabin was deprived of seeing first-hand the successes his troops had on every front. On the eve of battle he suffered a nervous collapse.

It was in this period that Rabin was again responsible for eradicating traces of Arab habitation. After the 1967 war, while he was still chief of staff, the Israeli army bulldozed three Arab villages in the newly captured West Bank of the river Jordan. The aim was clear. If ever Israel was to give up that territory - as it was then expected it would - these villages could never again command the heights above the Tel Aviv- Jerusalem road. Yalu, Beit Nuba, and Imwas - one of the sites claiming to be the biblical Emmaus, where Jesus appeared to two disciples after his crucifixion - are now mere shells. Their broken stones, overgrown with cactus, form a picturesque corner of Canada Park, a popular picnic site for Israeli families.

Rabin remained chief of staff until 1968, then entered politics. Like most of his generation, he was drawn to the Labour party - it was the party that had done most to build the state, it was the party, then, of the establishment. But first he went to Washington as ambassador. He found the US full of admiration for the plucky little state which had scored such a fabulous victory in 1967, and he met many of the American leaders who were to be crucial to Israel's security and future in the coming years.

After the 1973 war, Golda Meir turned to him to replace her as prime minister. Shimon Peres, a former assistant to Ben-Gurion, had always regarded the job as his rightful inheritance and the denial provoked an intense 20-year rivalry. Rabin dismissed Peres as a 'tireless schemer', but Peres was to get his revenge. In 1977, Rabin was forced to resign. His wife, Leah, had failed to close a bank account opened in her name in Washington after their return to Israel.

Rabin and Peres could not be more different. Rabin has no feel for relaxation, no ability for small talk, no time or inclination for social lubrication. He adopts a singular approach to a political problem. He states his own position. He lets the world react. It makes little or no difference. Unlike Peres, he does not like dialogue. It is as though he says: 'This is how I stand; I know the other side's position, but this is what I will do.'

This straightforwardness means he is much happier dealing with Americans than west Europeans, Syrians or Palestinians. He understands how Americans think. 'He prefers the American form of hypocrisy to the European,' a veteran Israeli commentator noted. He has never believed in subtlety. In his slow, gravelly voice, as grammatically dislocated in Hebrew as in English, his throat rasped by the cigarettes he chain-smokes, he speaks his mind without dissimulation. He openly called for the Palestinian intifada to be met with 'force, might, and beatings'. And when during last week's 'Operation Accountability' in Lebanon he openly declared its aims were to create a huge refugee exodus to put pressure on the governments in Beirut and Damascus, he was rebuked for his candour by an opposition Likud politician. 'Why does Rabin have to say what he is going to do? Let him do it, not say it.'

Such plain talking had a secondary effect. It helped terrorise the Lebanese population into fleeing, like the broadcast messages on Israeli-controlled radio saying that Tyre and Sidon were about to be bombed (they have not been bombed yet). The deception evoked that earliest of all ruses de guerre, when the Israelites sounded trumpets and clattered round and round the walls of Jericho to give the illusion of being numerous.

Rabin was, and is, a soldier's soldier. He always seems happiest talking, occasionally joking in a heavy, soldierly way, with troops. If they do not idolise him, as some were always found to idolise in their different ways the more dashing Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon, they were happy when he was in charge of them, as chief of staff, defence minister or prime minister. He responds to their trust, and it was these feelings that caused his reaction - overreaction in the view of many - to the kidnap and murder of Staff Sergeant Nissim Toledano at the end of last year. He rounded up and dumped on the Lebanese border more than 400 activists of the two main militant Islamist organisations in the occupied territories, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This was popular at home, but it provoked an international outcry. UN delegates angrily waved sheafs of draft resolutions condemning the Israeli expulsions. The United States joined the protests. It was a diplomatic catastrophe for Rabin, who had ridden roughshod over his advisers. But he survived the storm. He agreed on a compromise to let some of the deportees back, but they refused. The peace negotiations resumed, and the deportees on their bleak hillside faded from memory.

Does he hate the Arabs? Like Ben- Gurion, he was imbued with that early Zionist fervour that wanted a state for Jews in Israel, and felt that separating Jews from Arabs was the best way to achieve it. It is one of the paradoxes of Israeli politics that those of the right, the Likud, are generally less hostile to the presence of a large Arab population, so long as they control the land. The left, by contrast, harbours far greater fears about the demographic problem, and the rapidly increasing Arab population under Israel's control.

Outside Israel, many commentators felt Rabin's venture into Lebanon would jeopardise a peace process that was already on the verge of collapsing. Rabin sees no connection. For peace, it is Syria that matters and he knows that Syria has wider strategic interests; if it wishes to make peace it will, whatever Israel does in Lebanon. For him it was a calculated risk. Despite the pictures of fleeing civilians, he knew there was little sympathy in the world, including the Arab world, for the kind of militant Shia Islam espoused by Hizbollah activists in southern Lebanon. He hoped that this operation would alter the regional chemistry and open the way, perhaps, for peace on better terms. 'He needs a sensation,' one seasoned commentator observed, 'even if it splatters mud on Israel.'