A Turning Point

By Ghassan Khatib
There is no doubt that the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, 13 years ago, was a turning point in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and that the period that followed could have turned out very different in his presence.

Rabin had three reasons to enter into a serious peace process. The first was his experience in trying and failing to suppress by force the first Palestinian intifada, a period of popular Palestinian non-violent resistance against the occupation. The failure came in spite of his direct orders to be as tough as "breaking their bones", an order Israeli soldiers followed to the letter. This experience led him to conclude that there could be no military solution to the conflict.

The second reason was his long experience of negotiations with the Palestinian delegation in Washington. During this time, the Israeli government, first under Yitzak Shamir but later under Rabin himself, tried to bypass the legitimate Palestinian leadership, the PLO, to reach an agreement on creating an autonomous body led by local Palestinian leaders in the Palestinian territories. That experience led him to the conclusion that Israel would have a better chance of achieving its objectives by dealing directly with the PLO.

The third reason was his strong domestic political and military credentials. The great credibility he had garnered throughout both his military and political careers reduced the opposition to his peace strategy and enabled him to justify his policies on security as well as political bases.

For all these reasons, Rabin was the only Israeli leader able to break several Israeli political taboos. He dealt directly with the PLO, first secretly in Oslo and then openly. At the same time, he gave serious and public consideration to the idea of an historic territorial compromise that would include giving up the Israeli occupation over most of the occupied territories. This had been taboo for two reasons: it implied the end of the Jewish quest to control all of the "God-given" Eretz Israel; and it went against the traditional opinion that saw Israeli military control over the West Bank as necessary for Israel’s security.

In addition, Rabin’s experience of negotiations created an unusual bond with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The latter always referred to Rabin in his speeches as "my partner". There were signs that the two’s relationship could overcome the many problems that used to emerge, either in the talks between their respective negotiating teams or in developments on the ground, e.g., acts of violence, whether Palestinian or Israeli.

Domestically, and although the Israeli public seemed behind him, it took all Rabin’s charisma, determination and credentials to overcome Israeli political hesitancy and, in some quarters, strong opposition to his peace strategy. He prevailed, and in addition to his solid popular support, maintained a working majority in parliament. It was probably this, the real potential that he would succeed in exchanging land for peace, that caused the Israeli right wing to consider a bullet the surest way to curtail his efforts.

It soon became clear that the absence of Rabin altered the balance of power inside Israel against the peace camp. In the elections that followed, Israelis voted against Rabin’s peace strategy and his long-time associate and successor Shimon Peres to elect the anti-peace process leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, now again head of the Likud.

From then until 2000, Israeli policy was characterized by hesitation on both the public and political levels and a weakness of leadership, whether under Netanyahu or Ehud Barak. Those years of hesitation and stagnation in the political process did not, unfortunately, only delay a possible peaceful agreement but caused a trend of radicalization to gain ground in both societies. This trend culminated in Israel with the election of the right wing extremist Ariel Sharon in 2001, a second wave of fierce violence that was called the second intifada and the eventual election of Hamas in Palestine.

-Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham. (Originally published in Bitterlemons.org, November 10, 2008)

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