Yitzhak Rabin and the Case for Courage

Today, on the 25th anniversary of his death, I honor the friend I loved.

Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat, and Yitzhak Rabin.
Cynthia Johnson / The LIFE Images Collection via Getty

Late at night on November 4, 1995, while leaving a huge rally in Tel Aviv, moments after leading the crowd in singing the “Song of Peace”—“Don’t say the day will come; bring the day!”—Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was shot by a young Israeli bitterly opposed to the peace process with the Palestinians.

Although Rabin and I worked together for less than three years, we built a close working relationship and a deep friendship. Yitzhak possessed a rare combination of gifts that made him remarkable, and well suited for the moment. He was a brave soldier, principled patriot, skilled strategist, and keen judge of character who understood how people thought and felt, and why they did what they did. He grew into a masterful political leader able to navigate diplomatic negotiations and domestic politics, including an extremist opposition wing that slandered and attempted to delegitimize him.

Rabin lived the history of Israel. He was a military hero who fought for his country in 1948 and 1967. He then became, as he put it in his 1994 speech to Congress, “a soldier in the army of peace,” recognizing that Israel’s fundamental values and interests—freedom, tolerance, security, and democracy—could be preserved and advanced only if it shared the future with its neighbors. He sought a victory that could be won only on the battlefield of the human heart.

When Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat traveled to the White House in 1993 to sign the Declaration of Principles, it was a leap of faith and act of courage on both sides. Before shaking the hand of the man he had long considered his mortal enemy, Rabin spoke directly to the Palestinian people, making clear why he thought the risks were worth it:

“We have come to try to put an end to the hostilities, so that our children, our children’s children, will no longer experience the painful cost of war, violence, and terror … [We] are destined to live together, on the same soil in the same land … We, like you, are people—people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, live side by side with you in dignity, in affinity as human beings, as free men.”

For the remaining two years of his life, Rabin proved that these were not hollow words. He worked tirelessly to be a real partner to Arafat, the Palestinians, and other Arab leaders, especially King Hussein of Jordan, with whom Israel signed a peace agreement in 1994.

My job was to ensure that the United States was a credible mediator committed to maximizing the benefits and minimizing the risks of peace for both sides. Both Rabin and Arafat knew that if they made an agreement, their lives would be at risk for a few years. More than once, I told them that the United States would do everything we could to try to keep them safe. Sadly, the threat to Rabin’s life materialized before the agreement.

Yitzhak Rabin
Yitzhak Rabin (Bettman / Getty)

Twenty-five years after his assassination, I continue to believe that, had Rabin lived, we would have reached a comprehensive agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians in the next two or three years. If we had, the past two decades would have been very different.

Today the path to peace is very steep. Israeli settlements occupy much more of the West Bank, Gaza has long been controlled by Hamas, and the Arab states care less about the Palestinians and more about modernizing their economies and containing Iran, two goals that make it advantageous to strengthen their relationships with Israel.

Every Israeli leader I have known, beginning with Rabin, wanted peace with Israel’s neighbors. In that sense, we should be encouraged by the recent agreements Israel reached with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

The current Israeli government seems to hope that the PLO will someday be willing to trade its claims to land and statehood for money and some form of autonomy. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the PLO leadership have rejected that. Meanwhile, the Palestinian public living in the West Bank remains under Israel without a vote or a voice in their own affairs.

The best long-term solution remains the one for which Rabin gave his life—a two-state solution that ensures Israel’s future as both a Jewish and a democratic state, and embraces the Palestinians’ right to freedom, security, dignity, and a viable state of their own.

Meanwhile, there is an urgent need to focus on improving the lives of all Palestinians. They need more economic opportunity, better public services, genuine security, and fundamental human rights.

While the idea of reviving a peace process may seem remote, the parties should build on the positive relationships Israel has developed with Arab states, which would reduce the risks of pursuing peace. Doing that would put a strain on the current Israeli government’s long strategy of allowing the far right to prevent any territorial concessions, but a genuine agreement, if achieved, would be good for everybody.

Perhaps Rabin’s most enduring gift was his ability to understand the insecurities that roil every society in every age. Instead of being paralyzed by them, or trying to take advantage of them, he took account of them and tried to bring everybody along. He knew the horrors of war and perpetual conflict, and they compelled him to search for peace.

On this 25th anniversary of his death, I will honor the friend I loved, and pray that Yitzhak’s blessed memory will continue to inspire those he lived and died for to go forward with vision, faith, understanding, and courage. Shalom, haver.