The Prime Ministers: My Version of Events

A new biography of Yitzhak Rabin serves up a stirring story of service to the nation. But since this is settled fact, what else might it contribute to the bigger picture? Akin Ajayi reads between the lines to find out.

Political biography, it goes without saying—well, it should go without saying— tests the thin line separating fiction and non-fiction more vigorously than any other writing genre.

I’m not suggesting that all political biographers are professional porky-pie tellers (with the sub-genre of the political memoir or autobiography, I reserve judgment, for obvious reasons). However, one cannot but acknowledge the transactional nature of the relationship between the genre and that thing that we call Truth. These days, everyone has their own version of events; so too the political storyteller, who achieves verisimilitude by means of contradicting, explaining away or straight-out ignoring (with varying degrees of success) the inconvenient facts that detract from the grand narrative.

There’s a reason for this flexibility, intimately connected to the garden in which the books are nurtured. The political biography is pitched, commissioned, written, edited and finally flogged to a (hopefully) susceptible public with a specific objective in mind—and not those usually attached to publishing. Few make enough money to justify the trouble; many are soporific to the nth degree.

Essentially, the political biography is directed toward a higher (or baser, depending on one’s disposition toward the political class) objective. Its goal is to create, sustain or rejuvenate a somewhat nebulous quality, generally referred to as Legacy. Horrid word, legacy. One would want to think that politicians go into the business for purer reasons, like improving things and making the world a better place. But here we are. Having grasped the glittering prize, the next objective (and there is always is a “next” in politics; politicians aren’t very good at calling it a day) is to cast the golden image that, with good luck and a fair following wind, will be venerated evermore.

But sometimes, even the simple matter of preserving one’s legacy seems an insufficient pretext by itself. Take, for example, Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman (Yale University Books), by Itamar Rabinovich. Rabin, prime minister of Israel between 1974 and 1977, and again between 1992 and his assassination in November 1995, is hardly short of reputational kudos. The (incomplete) bibliography on the website of Tel Aviv’s Rabin Center—the national institute founded by the Knesset in 1997 to advance “the legacy of the late Israeli Prime Minister”—lists nine English-language biographies devoted solely to his life story. There are a similar number of biographies in the Hebrew language (not all translated); any number of treatises assessing Rabin’s place in the broader history of Israel and the Middle East; a collection of speeches; and a memoir (we’ll return to the last in due course). Almost all were published after Rabin’s death in 1995. Of those, all, in one way or another, take as their reference point a basic assumption: Rabin brought the Jewish State closer than anyone to an accommodation with her Arab neighbors. Rabin’s legacy is clear. There’s nothing more to say. So why another biography, and why another biography now?

Even in the crowded field that is Rabinology (albeit a field thinning somewhat of late; before Rabinovich’s book, the most recent major addition was Dan Ephron’s Killing a King, from 2015), there are a number of distinguishing features to Professor Rabinovich’s book, part of Yale’s expansive (and extremely eclectic) Jewish Lives series.

For one thing, the author knew and observed Rabin from reasonably close quarters. A distinguished historian of the Middle East, Rabinovich was Rabin’s choice as the chief negotiator of the Syria “track” of the Peace in the Middle East Industry, following the flurry of activity after the 1991 Gulf War; he subsequently served (like Rabin before him) as Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, between 1993 and 1996.

This background and positioning runs plainly through the stronger patches of his book. Rabinovich devotes quite a bit of this relatively slender book—43 of the book’s 250 pages—on this period, an insider’s account of the three years bookmarked by the Madrid Conference and a chilly Tel Aviv evening in 1995. Here, we meet the “leader” of the title; cautious yet optimistic, hard-headed but possessing a surprising degree of flexibility. Like others before and since, Rabinovich notes that Rabin’s instincts with Middle East diplomacy was always to maintain several fronts at once, reasoning that the Arab collective would always be radicalized—and thus, immobilized— by the most extreme of their number. Rabinovich—unlike some commentators—also argues that Rabin did indeed engage in the Syria track in good faith. Its ultimate failure was in part down to the unexpected progress of the “Oslo” track of secret (and, arguably, unsanctioned; Rabinovich is coy on this point) negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization; and stymied further by “amateur hour” missteps by the US interlocutors. Rabin made, to US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, a “deposit” – a hypothetical commitment to withdraw Israel from the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace treaty with Syria. Christopher, however, promptly took the deposit out of his “pocket” and brandished it before Assad Pere, turning it into a Middle-Eastern mutation of Schrödinger’s cat; both live and useless at the same time. Christopher then went on holiday.

As interesting as these insider accounts are, I don’t think they’re the underpinning rationale for Rabinovich’s book. Rather we should look to what Rabinovich writes in the opening pages of Soldier, Statesman, Leader, referencing the meta-narrative that this slender volume will join. “An assassination is not only the terminal point of a person’s life, but also the starting point for a new reality the death itself has created,” he writes. “The slain leader will often become the subject of a new mythology…casting a different light on the leader’s life and tenure.” We understand from this that Rabin’s murder recast history. But is this book, with its candor about the inevitability of history dressed up in new clothes, merely a part of this new mythology?

Although Soldier, Statesman, Leader follows a well-rehearsed path, it adds context to many of the events that have become part of the Rabin Canon. The sabra firstborn of politically conscious and committed parents. Determination. Loyalty. Tactical nous. Brusqueness, occasionally mistaken for rudeness. A marked disinclination for standing on ceremony. To illustrate this, Rabinovich repeats the (I’ve always assumed apocryphal, but apparently not) tale of Rabin and the necktie. Arm-twisted into attending armistice talks in Cyprus at the end of the 1948 Independence War, Rabin actively contemplated fleeing the hotel and returning home because a “helpful” steward had unknotted his only tie. Rabin, it seems, could not knot a tie; every evening he carefully removed it, four-in-hand intact, ready to be donned the next days.

These small details do serve a larger purpose. They are the granular detail that contribute to what is presented as a precise portrait of the man who will fulfill Destiny. This is all very well and good, but this is—in a general sense, at least—not far removed from working backwards from an answer. The inconvenient and contradictory stuff, when it features, is recast in revised (i.e. non-contradictory) terms. One example: Rabin had a motorbike accident during his service in the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the Haganah, the pre-state forerunner to the IDF. This was a sensitive period, and Rabin had significant responsibilities in the Palmach despite his youth. However, the motorbike accident—plainly due to the archetypal crossover of youthful enthusiasm, exuberance, and poor judgment—now becomes the first beat in a short digression into brave resistance against the perfidious Mandate of Albion. The cautionary point here is that the reader, who won’t be invited to sift through the writer’s waste-paper basket, can’t distinguish fact from fan-fiction. Caveat emptor and all that.

Selective recall or retelling is a problem with non-fiction writing as a whole, and should not, in itself, preclude Rabinovich’s book a fair reading. And Soldier, Statesman, Leader does do some things quite well, fairly addressing many—but not all—of the more contentious aspects of Rabin’s journey to fulfill Destiny. He discusses Rabin’s role in the Altalena affair, for example, and explores the post-Palmach political intrigues that slowed Rabin’s progress to Chief of Staff for a decade. We are given, too, a reasonably comprehensive airing of the notorious “nicotine poisoning” incident—Rabin’s brief nervous breakdown on the eve of the Six Day War of 1967.

The last is reminder that “truth” has no master. Frankly, it’s no surprise that Rabin trembled, briefly, under the enormous weight of the State of Israel in May 1967. It is interesting—and maybe this is not a precise enough word—though that the affair only came to light seven years later, when Rabin was running for the leadership of the Labor Party. The story was brought into the public domain by his erstwhile deputy Chief of Staff during the Six Day War, Ezer Weizmann, who, by this time, was also a politician, but with another political party.

The broader point, however, is that Rabinovich is not as rigorous as he could have been—as he ought to have been—where it matters. A key aspect of the Rabin narrative must be his first stint as prime minister, between 1974 and 1977. Broadly speaking, these three years were—for Rabin, for the Labor Party, and by extension for the country at large—an absolute disaster. This was not all Rabin’s fault. Israel was a mess, after the Yom Kippur War and the scathing conclusions of the Agranat Commission. Rabin himself was a novice politician—he’d spent much of the preceding six years in Washington DC, as Israel’s Ambassador to the United States—and had been accelerated to the position of prime-ministerial material (to be precise, leader-of-the-Labor-Party material; the two were much the same at the time) by default.

There were structural issues too, not of his making. Already beset by economic uncertainty, the financial burden of the Yom Kippur War and the broader defense infrastructure (close to 30 percent of GDP in the years immediately after the 1973 war) was crippling. And the Labor Party, with its political allies in The Alignment, had largely forgotten the traditional compact between the political class and the people. Israel was polarized by class, culture and social conditions, and the socialist party of government had become the elite.

Prime Minister Rabin made a bad situation worse. He picked an unwinnable fight with the United States over Egypt and the conquered Sinai territories—he described this, later, as “one of the worst periods in American-Israeli relations.” His economic reforms were ineffectual. The Palestine Liberation Organization, forced from Jordan and into Lebanon, had turned life in the northern border communities—and, every now and again, further south—into a living hell. Gush Emunim, the settlement movement once dismissed as a bunch of crazies, had evolved into an organized and strategically astute operation, outsmarting the government at every turn—at times with help from within Rabin’s own coalition government.

But we don’t grasp very much of this from Soldier, Statesman, Leader, thanks to the impossibility of explaining away one central fact in the Rabin Canon: his dysfunctional, intemperate, relationship, decades in the making, with his political rival Shimon Peres.

Rabinovich does refer to the feud. It would be impossible not to. Dating back to the late 1950s, it was pretty visceral stuff. Peres was the influential Director-General of the Ministry of Defense; Rabin, passed over for Chief of Staff, was head of the Staff Division at GCHQ. The two clashed over anything and everything: arms procurement, the development of a local munitions project, quite possibly whether the sun indeed rose in the east and set in the west. Rabin won some early skirmishes; Peres a major battle, when he (apparently) pushed—successfully—Tzvi Tsur’s candidacy for Chief of Staff in 1958, at Rabin’s expense. Lifelong friends, they were not. But thanks to the fractured configuration of intra-party partisan politics in Israel, the price Rabin had to pay for becoming leader of the Labor Party and prime minister, in 1974, was to be saddled, as his minister of defense, with the man he had defeated in the Labor primaries—one S.Peres.

Peres, in Rabin’s estimation, was only interested in deposing him in order to assume his (Peres’) rightful position as the Anointed One; Rabin, as far as Peres was concerned, was “paranoid and petty.” As Rabinovich reports: “This unhealthy state of affairs between the two leaders was worsened by the actions of their eager, often overzealous assistants and spokesmen, who kept stoking the fires with gossip and leaks to the media…” But, perplexingly, he arrives at a conclusion that runs counter to even the dry facts he recounts: “Although the two men did, of course, work together much of the time and the cabinet and the government did function, the Rabin-Peres rivalry cast a permanent shadow over Rabin’s first tenure.” I suppose that’s one way of putting it.

There isn’t enough time in the world to consider, fully, just how badly this sclerotic relationship influenced the political trajectory of the State of Israel. Just as a taster, though; the first major victory of the settlement movement was largely thanks to the prime minister and his minister of defense forgetting that there should always be at least one responsible adult in the room. Always remember, boys and girls: the settlements started with Labor.

But that’s not really the point here. I, for one found it hard to fully engage with Rabinovich’s book after this point. I found myself more interested in what he had not written about, than what he had. And that’s a shame, because the interesting parts of his book have this shadow cast over them. But still, the basic question remains: what purpose does this biography serve, now? Pointers to the answer, oddly enough, lie in the past.

For many years—until 1995, to be precise—the go-to book (in English at least) on Rabin was Rabin of Israel: A Biography (1977, Robson Books), by the late Robert Slater. Rabin of Israel isn’t quite a hagiography, but it does cleave closely—extremely closely—to its principal. Slater draws from “lengthy interviews” (his words) with Rabin, Rabin’s wife, Rabin’s sister; the preface, which details Rabin’s last day as prime minister, has the breathless veracity of an eyewitness account—or of a story told by an eyewitness, which in the land of the political biography is as good as the real thing.

The dates that frame the production and publication of this particular book are very significant. Slater conducted his interviews (he did cast his net wide, though: Yigal Allon, Yigael Yadin, even Rabin’s frenemy, Ezer Weizmann. Not Shimon Peres, though.) across the summer of 1976. The wheels had not quite fallen off Prime Minister Rabin at this point, and there is a distinct sense of…how can one put this?… legacy-making in the air. But the orientation is different. The basic furniture is the same—many of the anecdotes that Rabinovich uses to shape his character can be found here—but the arrangement of the room is very different.

Part of this comes from the scale, of course. Of similar length to Rabinovich’s book, Rabin of Israel covers a full twenty years less. We get to see this in the more scenic route taken by Slater in defining his hero. But there are also marked distinctions in tenor and tone. There’s nothing about Altalena; a bit more about Rabin’s slow ascent of the greasy pole of military politics.

There is more, a lot more, about Rabin’s tenure in Washington DC. Much if this is (to be frank) rather dull, and can be summed up in one sentence: Despite the odds, Yitzhak Rabin fought Israel’s corner, and fought it hard. The context to this is useful. Once upon a time, Israel could not count on the uncritical and unstinting support of the United States. In the late 1960s, Israel was just another piece in the three-dimensional game of Chess being waged between the United States and the Soviet Union—a piece that could be sacrificed, should the need arise. Rabin of Israel, researched and probably largely written before the wheels came off Prime Minister Rabin Mk1, was explicit intended to present Rabin in a specific light: a strong and decisive leader, competent and capable of leading an Israel beset by troubles on all sides. The tone of the book is very much one of strategic cunning facilitating comprehensive victories. In the Army, as Chief of Staff, as Ambassador to the United States, even as leader of the Labor Party. The account of Rabin’s victory over Peres, and the subsequent construction of his governing coalition, is a fascinating account of careful calculations amidst shifting loyalties and unbridled veniality. As for the Arab neighbors and Palestinian cousins? Undifferentiated threats to the Jewish people, and thus to be subdued, one way or another.

But there is much more besides which Slater was obliged to contend with—specifically, the proximate factors that combined to end the first Rabin premiership. There was the Asher Yaldin affair, for starters. In mid-1976, Yaldin, a Histradrut and Labor Party veteran, was appointed Governor of the Bank of Israel—only to be arrested shortly afterwards, accused of fraud and accepting bribes. (He was convicted in due course; he claimed that the funds all went to the Labor Party.) Then, there was the bizarre sequence of events that led to the dissolution of his coalition. In December 1976, Israel took delivery, with no small amount of pomp and pageantry, of a number of F-15 jet fighters, purchased from the United States. The problem was that the ceremony was scheduled for late afternoon, Friday. Even then, the government was expected to take the Sabbath seriously. More so since the junior coalition partner was the National Religious Party, already itching for a pretext to poke Rabin in the eye.

Early the next month, farce turned to tragedy. Abraham Ofer, Rabin’s minister of housing and facing a very public (and ultimately inconclusive) investigation for corruption, drove to a deserted Tel Aviv beach and killed himself. The prime minister, some claimed, had been less than effusive in supporting his minister. Fair or not, mud was flung and mud stuck. And then, there was the Dollar Affair. I’ll come back to that presently. Slater is sympathetic, and the various affairs are explored in very soft focus. Still: The Rabin of Rabin of Israel doesn’t really look like he would eventually grow up and become the Rabin of Soldier, Statesman, Leader. Funny, that.

The word that best describes the shifting scenarios is Spin (verb, with object: to give a news story a particular emphasis or bias). Spin, as a concept, didn’t really enter the political lexicon until the late 1980s and early 1990s. This wouldn’t surprise anyone who decides today to read The Rabin Memoirs (Little, Brown, 1979; published the same year, in Hebrew, as Pinkas Sherut). The presumption, one suspects, was that there was a limited cross-over audience that would read both this book and the preceding Rabin of Israel: Rabin’s memoir recycles a fair number of the anecdotes/footnotes on character presented in Slater’s book.

It’s tempting to say that the principal contribution of The Rabin Memoirs to Israeli political history is the deathless phrase he appends to his old mucker, Shimon Peres: Chatran Bilti Ne’aleh, the indefatigable subverter. However, amidst the self-justification (and there is plenty of this), there is…well, not quite a refreshing honesty, but at least a different approach to truth-telling than what we get in his name today.

Take, as an example, his thoughts on US-Israeli diplomatic relations. Defending the rather cunning ploy which he used to nudge President Lyndon B. Johnson into selling, without unwanted preconditions, Phantom fighter jets to Israel: “Sensitive souls may find the notion of setting a Democratic president against his successor distasteful. If so, they will only be displaying their ignorance of the ways and means of American politics.” Happy times. He wouldn’t get away with such candor these days.

Along the way, my initial question has rearranged itself somewhat. Soldier, Statesman, Leader is necessary now, because—as Rabinovich notes himself—it is important to make sure that the “new” story—a quarter of a century old, more or less—is written up properly. That the canon remains intact. My wife’s two nephews, young adults serving in the IDF today, were not born that night in November 1995 when Rabin was shot. Many older adults have no functional recollection of the early-to-mid 1990s—the end of the First Intifada, the start of suicide bombings, the mass expulsions of Palestinians to the “security zone” of southern Lebanon; Madrid, Oslo, that handshake on the White House Lawn. They have no memory of this, nor of what led up to it.

Back then, people thought about these steps to peace as optimistic. Now, the word used more often is naive. A little more slippage, and Rabin’s name once more will be on the fringes of rather ugly territory. Yitzhak Rabin’s legacy is up for re-interpretation, and it matters that the right story is told.

But. There is always a but. Is canonical Rabin, he of Itamar Rabinovich’s book, indeed the story we should be telling? Here’s a short and cautionary tale. A few weeks ago, an excruciatingly embarrassing spat grew out of a confrontation on Twitter. In response to some disobliging comparisons between the current prime minister (as of 1st October, 2019: Lord alone knows what’s going to happen in the next few weeks) and Rabin, Yair Netanyahu—younger son of the incumbent, a forthright presence on social media—made a number of disobliging statements about Rabin, his father’s immediate (elected) predecessor in the mid-90s. First, Netanyahu fils observed that Rabin had made a fair bit of money on the American lecture circuit—at a time when he was a serving public officer. Second, he continued, Rabin, as a Palmach officer, was responsible for the “death of Holocaust survivors” on the Altalena. That, to be clear, is not the embarrassment. Free speech within the context of justifiability, and all that. The embarrassment was the response of Amir Peretz, latest in the depressingly long line of successors to Rabin as leader of the Labor Party. He instructed party lawyers to file a claim for libel against…um. Well.

Actually, the axiomatic principle that the dead cannot be libeled (at least, not directly) isn’t the issue here. It’s the matter of our relationship with the truth, or what we’ve been coerced into believing to be true. On the second point, regarding the Altalena: putting aside the correctness (or not) of Ben Gurion’s order to sink the ship, laden with arms belonging to the (possibly, maybe) renegade Etzel militia, Rabin did have a role in its sinking. And there were Holocaust survivors on board.

As for the first point. Well, suffice it to say that way back in 1977, when the matter was fresh and impossible to elude, Rabin’s biographer did address it head-on. And, I’m sorry to say, it did happen, fairly much as Netanyahu fils describes it. Rabin of Israel explores the Dollar Affair (as it came to be known) at length, presents a mea culpa (by proxy), and even adds a bit of contextualization, as damning as it was illuminating. Senior government representatives did, as a matter of course, supplement earnings through talks and meet-and-greets with America’s Jewish community. Rabin may have been a bit overenthusiastic, but that was it.

Yair Netanyahu—like his father, and his grandfather—seems to be a keen student of history. Amir Peretz, it seems, is not. And he’s not alone. As is increasingly obvious today, the endeavor to create that thing called Legacy—or fan fiction, or wishful thinking, or whatever one wishes to call it—is, ultimately, as sensible as erecting a mighty edifice atop a foundation dug out of sand. Sometime, sooner or later, it’ll rain, and the foundations will collapse. And, instead of the ultimately rewarding prospect of understanding flawed individuals who have done important and good things, we’ll be left with nothing but a puddle of mud. And what happens then?

*Itamar Rabinovich, Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Statesman, Leader, Yale University Press, pp. 272.

*Robert Slater, Rabin of Israel, Hobson Books, pp. 304


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