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Rabin, Yitzhak (1922–1995)

Rabin, Yitzhak
(1922–1995)

Yitzhak Rabin was an Israeli general, politician, and statesman. During his twenty-seven years as an officer in the defense establishment of the Jewish state, Rabin participated in the Palestine Jewish community's military struggle for statehood during the mid-to-late-1940s and in all the Arab-Israeli military confrontations until the 1967 War, in which he served as the chief of general staff (CGS) of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). During his two terms as prime minister, Rabin laid the foundations for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and between Israel and the Palestinians. In 1995, in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process he was leading at the time, Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish Israeli religious right-wing extremist.

PERSONAL HISTORY

Rabin, the eldest child of Rosa ("Red Rosa") Cohen and Nehemia Rabin, was born in Jerusalem and raised in Tel Aviv. His parents immigrated separately during and after World War I to mandatory Palestine. There they became active in Zionist socialist settlement organizations such as the General Federation of Jewish Workers and the Hagana (the semi-underground military force of Palestine's Zionist Jewish community). Rabin was educated in the School for Workers' Children and in a Zionist social democratic youth movement called Hano'ar Ha'Oved V'Halomed (Working and Studying Youth).

In 1935, at age thirteen, Rabin was sent to study at Kibbutz Giv'at ha-Shlosha near the Jewish town of Petah Tikva. In 1937 he began studying at the Kaddoorie agricultural school in the lower Galilee. This school produced prominent members of the political and military leadership of the country's Zionist left. There, Rabin met Yigal Allon, who would be his commander, friend, and source of inspiration. And like most of the other youth there, Rabin was recruited into Jewish underground military activity.

Upon graduating from high school in 1940, Rabin planned to pursue studies in the field of water engineering. But as World War II approached Palestine, he decided instead to make security his primary occupation. In order to prepare for kibbutz life and integrate himself into the military operations of the Hagana with no financial constraints, he joined an agricultural training program at Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan near Haifa. During this period, Rabin spent most of his time in Hagana commanders' courses. As one of the first recruits to the Palmah, an elite Hagana fighting force established in May 1941 to prepare for the possibility of a Nazi invasion of Palestine, Rabin immediately assumed command and instruction responsibilities within the new unit.

During the 1940s, the political organizations to which Rabin belonged were radical activist Zionist-socialist groupings critical of Great Britain's anti-Zionist policies of the time. They cooperated with Britain during the war against Germany but did so reluctantly. At the end of the war, Rabin and his comrades participated in the Zionist struggle against the British. The Palmah carried out military operations during the rebellion, which also had political and settlement-oriented components, and a wing occupied solely with facilitating illegal Jewish immigration. On 10 October 1945, during on operation to free immigrants jailed in a British camp south of Haifa, Rabin, then a Palmah regiment commander, led the force that penetrated the compound. This was his first meeting with Holocaust survivors. In the summer of 1946, the British authorities arrested Zionist leaders and Palmah commanders in Palestine, including Rabin, in an effort to end the rebellion. The few months Rabin spent in a Rafah prison helped shape his image as a commander and a leader.

In 1947 Rabin and his Palmah colleagues prepared for the decisive phase in the Zionist struggle for a Jewish state. Immediately following the United Nation's (UN) historic 29 November 1947 decision to partition Palestine, the first Arab-Israeli war began, with Rabin on the front lines. At twenty five, he was the commander of the Harel Brigade, charged with the secure passage of Jewish supply convoys to Jerusalem and the campaign for the city. Rabin also participated in the battles for Latrun and the Lydda-Ramla road in May-July 1948. During this period, he experienced the horrors of war, as every third soldier in his brigade was injured or killed. According to his own testimony, this was the most difficult experience of his life.

In the summer of 1948, Rabin became the chief operations officer and deputy commander on the southern front and helped plan the October 1948–January 1949 campaign against Egyptian forces in the Negev desert. As he had neither served in a regular army nor participated in a major war, Rabin's professional military background—like that of many of his contemporaries in the new IDF—was limited. Nonetheless, he emerged as a professional, meticulous, and levelheaded military planner who made critical contributions to IDF successes toward the end of the war. Colonel Rabin participated in the Israeli-Egyptian armistice talks in Rhodes in early 1949. During this formative diplomatic experience, he proved to be an analytical thinker and a skilled negotiator.

Despite his talents, Rabin's rise through the ranks was impeded by his participation in a September 1948 demonstration against Prime Minister and Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion's decision to dismantle the Pal-mah, due to the unit's strong ties with a political party (Ahdut ha-Avoda [Unity of Labor]). As Rabin's act violated explicit orders, Ben-Gurion prevented him from attaining the position of CGS as long as he remained in office.

Rabin married long-time girlfriend Leah Schlossberg in August 1948 at the height of the war, and they eventually established their home in Tzahala, a Tel Aviv suburb populated by Israel's military and security elite. Between 1952 and 1964, Rabin filled a number of key positions on the IDF general staff. In January 1964, just seven months after Ben-Gurion's final resignation, Rabin was appointed CGS.

BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS

Name: Yitzhak Rabin

Birth: 1922, Jerusalem, Mandatory Palestine

Death: 1995, Tel Aviv, Israel

Family: Wife, Leah (d. 2000); one daughter, Dahlia; one son, Yuval

Nationality: Israeli

Education: School for Workers' Children, Tel Aviv; Kibbutz Giv'at ha-Shlosha, near Petah Tikva; Kaddoorie agricultural school, lower Galilee, 1937–1940; Royal Staff College, Camberley, U.K., 1952–1953

PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:

  • 1946: Commanding officer (CO), second Regiment, Palmah
  • 1947: Operations officer, Palmah
  • 1948: CO, Harel Brigade
  • 1949: Acting southern front commander, deputy CO, IDF
  • 1950: CO, Operations Department, GHQ Operations Branch
  • 1953: General; head, IDF Training Branch
  • 1956: CO, Northern Command
  • 1959: Head, GHQ Operations Branch
  • 1961: Head, GHQ Operations Branch, deputy CGS
  • 1964: CGS
  • 1968: Ambassador to United States
  • 1974: Minister of labor; prime minister
  • 1984: Minister of defense
  • 1992: Prime minister

Rabin's role as CGS during the June 1967 war occupies an important place in Israeli collective memory. Due to changes in the deployment of Egyptian forces in the Sinai desert in mid-May 1967, Rabin called for a large-scale mobilization of the Israeli reserves. Israel's political leadership was split over whether Israel should go to war immediately or first exhaust all diplomatic efforts. All eyes turned to Rabin, who was considered not only a military man but a political authority as well. Rabin was torn between the advantages of a pre-emptive strike and the importance of the diplomatic process. After Ben-Gurion accused him of leading Israel to war, Rabin crumbled under the pressure, suffering a physical and psychological breakdown; he resumed his duties 36 hours later. The army was tense and ready for war. Until the outbreak of hostilities, Rabin mediated between the still hesitant government and the war-ready General Staff. When the decision was finally made to go to war, Israel quickly defeated the surrounding Arab armies and conquered vast territory from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Rabin emerged a hero. In January 1968, he left the military and was appointed ambassador in Washington, D.C. In 1973 Rabin returned to Israel and joined the Labor Party.

In October 1973, surprise attacks by Syria and Egypt plunged the region into war again. Due to the unfavorable conditions in which Israel went to war and the high price it paid until the IDF gained the upper hand, the war was a watershed in Israeli history. The widespread public protests following the war resulted in the resignation of Prime Minister Golda Meir, which meant the resignation of the government as a whole. In June 1974, still revered as a hero and untainted by the recent war, a relatively young (50) and politically inexperienced Rabin became Israel's first native-born prime minister.

In the midst of a coalition crisis with the National Religious Party in late 1976, Rabin resigned on the assumption that new elections would stabilize the government. But as the elections drew near, the Israeli media revealed that Leah Rabin held an American bank account, which was illegal at the time. Rabin assumed equal responsibility for the offense, and immediately withdrew his candidacy for prime minister. Although no longer leading his party, Rabin was closely associated with its historic defeat in the May 1977 elections, after almost three decades in power. The dramatic reversal brought Menachem Begin and the Israeli right to power and sent Rabin into opposition. In 1979 he published his autobiography Pinkas Sherut (literally, "service notebook;" published in English as The Rabin Memoirs, 1996), in which he leveled scathing criticism at his political archrival at the time, shimon peres.

When peace-seeking Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem in November 1977, Rabin greeted him eagerly. Despite his objection to a few details of the evolving Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and the opposition of some members of the Zionist activist left, Rabin supported the agreement unwaveringly, regarding it as the continuation of his earlier interim-agreement policies. But Rabin also supported the government's 1982 decision to go to war against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon, although he spoke out sharply against the war when it deviated from the original plan. (Israel's direct involvement in southern Lebanon began in 1976, when Rabin was still prime minister.)

In 1984 Rabin was appointed defense minister as part of a national unity government. Although he regarded another war with the Arab countries as the greatest threat facing Israel, it was the routine security operations involved with the occupation of the West Bank that came to occupy him most. The eruption of the first intifada in 1987 faced Rabin and the IDF with a new type of popular resistance to Israeli occupation, based not on guns and bombs but on mass demonstrations, stone throwing, and Molotov cocktails. Rabin employed harsh measures against the uprising, reportedly ordering troops to "break the bones" of violent Palestinian demonstrators (instead of shooting them, as a method of controlling them). At the same time, he attempted to improve Palestinian living conditions. He also began trying to extract Israel from Lebanon by gradually redeploying IDF forces into a "security zone" adjacent to the Israeli-Lebanese border.

The Labor Party was voted back into power in 1992. Upon returning to the prime minister's office with a large camp of supporters, Rabin was faced with the challenge of integrating Israel into the post-Cold War international reconciliation process then underway. He immediately renewed the stalled multilateral talks between Israel and its Arab neighbors that had started with the Madrid conference in October 1991. Although he saw the Palestinian issue as the heart of the conflict, he also worked on the Syrian track in hope that this would reinvigorate the Palestinian track. But Rabin also continued his aggressive policies aimed at curbing hostile acts against Israel. In the Occupied Territories, he applied closures and expelled hundreds of suspected terrorists. In Lebanon, he ordered a wide-scale military operation in retaliation for a cross-border missile attack.

On 13 September 1993, Rabin and PLO chairman yasir arafat signed a "Declaration of Principles on Interim Self Government Arrangements" on the White House lawn. The highlight of the event was an historic handshake between Rabin and Arafat. In Israel, the agreement sharpened divisions between supporters and opponents of the Oslo process. A massacre carried out in February 1994 by a Jewish settler in a Hebron mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs further heightened tensions, and Palestinian groups began a campaign of suicide bombings in Israel. Although initially in favor of removing all Jewish settlers from Hebron in light of this escalation, Rabin, concerned about sharpening divisions among Jewish Israelis even further, ultimately refrained from this course of action. In this way, he legitimized the continuation of "political settlements" in the West Bank which he himself was fighting.

Rabin received the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1994 together with Arafat and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Rabin regarded this international gesture toward those leading the way to peace as extremely significant. The ceremony took place before the completion of a final status agreement, in the shadow of increasing Palestinian terrorist attacks and the intensifying anti-Oslo campaign of the Israeli right. Rabin returned to Israel with the support of the international community, determined to begin solving the tough issues that remained. The signing of the Oslo II agreement in May 1994 and the signing of an Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty that October again intensified political divisions among Palestinians and Israelis alike. Convinced of the justness of his approach and aware of the dangers involved, Rabin now faced a personal smear campaign the likes of which he had never known. Cries of incitement were voiced at demonstrations organized by Oslo opponents, and rabbis legitimized the attacks by making similar pronouncements. Lost in the storm of incitement, voices of supporters could not stop the assassin who awaited Rabin as he descended from the stage of a 4 November 1995 peace demonstration at Kings of Israel Square in Tel Aviv. "Violence erodes the basis of Israeli democracy," he had warned in his final speech, delivered less than an hour before his assassination. Rabin was shot three times at point-blank range by Yigal Amir, a Jewish Israeli from the religious right wing, which since 1967 had been working to make Israeli control of the "whole Land of Israel" (Israel plus the West Bank and Gaza) permanent.

INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS

Rabin's most important contribution to Israel's defense establishment was his role in shaping the IDF's doctrine of warfare. Rabin saw the IDF as a people's army and an educational framework, responsible not only for military tasks but a partner in civilian tasks as well. As head of the Education Branch during the early 1950s, he worked to integrate the army into national undertakings of the time. His main focus was overseeing the military's role in absorbing the more than 1 million Jewish immigrants who had recently arrived in the war-torn country, more than doubling its population. Rabin saw this work as a mission with critical security importance.

As CGS from 1964 to 1968), Rabin was faced with Egyptian and Syrian acquisition of advanced Soviet weaponry, Syrian attempts to divert the sources of Israel's water supply, and the Arab states' expanding patronage of terrorism. In this context, Rabin labored over the quantitative and qualitative development of the IDF as a formidable reserve-based military force and a deterrent to war. He also worked on preparing an operational plan in case of escalation.

Rabin was more than just a general, and this found clear expression in his performance as CGS and the Israeli government's senior military adviser. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who also served as defense minister from 1963 to 1967, was interested primarily in the economic side of the military, leaving to Rabin the development of warfare doctrine, from the tactical to the strategic. In this way, Israel had two defense ministers on the eve of the 1967 war: Eshkol and Rabin.

EXPLORING

The Oslo peace initiative that Rabin adopted during his second term as prime minister was a product of the Israeli peace movement. This movement, which existed on the fringe of Israeli politics until 1978, consisted of a number of uncoordinated groups working independently and in an unfocused manner. Until 1967, some aimed at creating a counterbalance to Israel's close relations with the West, while others promoted Israeli integration into the Arab Middle East at the expense of the state's Jewish character. The conquests of 1967 refocused debate on geopolitics, as Israel now had territorial assets with which to bargain. The 1973 War, the Israeli settlement movement, and Israel's peace talks with Egypt resulted in the emergence of an extraparliamentary political movement known as Peace Now. From its establishment in 1978, Peace Now worked in conjunction with other groups to secure three primary goals: peace, the Jewish character of Israel, and a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem through the creation of a Palestinian state. Its strategy was territorial compromise, or "land for peace." Due to the failure of the Oslo peace process and the renewed violent confrontations between Israel and the Palestinians in 2000, the Israeli peace movement lost much of the public support it had enjoyed during the previous decade.

When Jordan joined the war in June 1967, Rabin saw it as an historic opportunity to finish the battle for Jerusalem he had started in 1948. His conquest of East Jerusalem's Old City and the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, in 1967 was one of the high points of his life, and the Hebrew University's decision to award him an honorary doctoral degree following the war reflected Israeli society's respect for his achievements. His speech on the occasion expressed pride, modesty, and concern about how Israel would make use of its victory, and revealed signs of a future supporter of peace.

During his first term as prime minister, Rabin opposed what were then referred to as "political settlements," or ideologically motivated settlements in parts of the West Bank that the Israeli government was still willing to consider giving up as part of a future peace plan. Nonetheless, he refrained from forcefully removing a group of radical settlers who occupied a military camp near Nablus against government orders in 1975, thereby establishing a precedent for the future settlements to come. Although his revitalization of the Israeli economy and the 1976 Israeli commando rescue mission at Uganda's Entebbe airport earned him additional respect in Israel, he was unable to overcome the government corruption that plagued Israel's political and economic leadership.

During the 1980s, Rabin was seen as Israel's top defense authority and enjoyed immense influence throughout the military. The Palestinians' new method of resistance, steadfastness, and willingness to incur losses convinced him that the intifada could not be defeated by force. The struggle's continuing impact on Israeli society made him regard a peace initiative as urgent. In 1989, as he began to recognize the need for a peace treaty with the Palestinians, he promoted a peace initiative that called for elections in the occupied territories and the commencement of final status negotiations with the elected leadership.

When Rabin was returned to office in 1992, he changed Israel's priorities as he had promised. To the dismay of Israeli settlers, he cut settlement budgets and increased government investment in education, welfare, infrastructure, the Arab sector, and the Israeli periphery. Many resources were allocated to the creation of new jobs and the integration of the flood of new immigrants arriving from the former Soviet Union. When Rabin was killed, a large portion of the Israeli public felt that a great opportunity had been lost.

THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE

Rabin's political initiatives took place in a post-Cold War context. The high point of his first term as prime minister was the conclusion of interim agreements with Egypt and Syria in 1974 and 1975. This, it would later become clear, was the first step toward what would evolve into the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979. Rabin also strived for a peace treaty with Jordan and the establishment of final borders with Syria. His policies strengthened Israel's ties with the United States and Israel's status in the Middle East. Rabin saw the collapse of the USSR as an opportunity for an historic change in the region.

Rabin regarded the efforts of Islamic terrorists to operate in the west as disastrous for Israel and the world. The reaction of Israel's home front to the 1991 Gulf War strengthened his conviction that Israelis were ready to pay the price of peace. Israel needed to advance the peace process, Rabin reasoned, due to the very real possibility that Israel's enemies in the Middle East could acquire unconventional weapons as well. Israel has never officially acknowledged possessing nuclear weapons itself. The Oslo Accords made relations with Arab and Muslim countries possible and offered a chance for a new era in the region.

Rabin's funeral in Jerusalem was the largest in Israeli history. It was attended by leaders of many countries around the world, including the presidents of the United States, France, and Egypt, the prime minister of Britain and the king of Jordan.

VIOLENCE ERODES THE BASIS OF ISRAELI DEMOCRACY

I have always believed that the majority of the people want peace and are ready to take risks for peace. In coming here today, you demonstrate, together with many others who did not come, that the people truly desire peace and oppose violence. Violence erodes the basis of Israeli democracy. It must be condemned and isolated. This is not the way of the State of Israel. In a democracy there can be differences, but the final decision will be taken in democratic elections, as the 1992 elections which gave us the mandate to do what we are doing, and to continue on this course.

RABIN, YITZHAK. "YITZHAK RABIN'S LAST SPEECH." HAGSHAMA. AVAILABLE FROM HTTP://WWW.WZO.ORG.IL/EN/RESOURCES/VIEW.ASP?ID=171.

LEGACY

Rabin's main focus during his second term as prime minister was peacemaking. It was not true, he believed, that the world was against the Jewish people, and he maintained that Israel must join the international campaign for peace. He therefore resolved that his government would do everything possible to avoid war and bloodshed. He was the first prime minister since Ben-Gurion to move beyond diplomatic responses to actual initiatives. Israel's agreement to include the PLO in multilateral talks paved the way for progress in negotiations. Despite his misgivings, he approved the secret Oslo negotiating track, thereby providing official Israeli support for the creation of a Palestinian national entity alongside Israel for the first time since the beginning of the occupation. Aware of the dangers involved but convinced of the great opportunity at hand, he recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. The longtime military man who just a few years earlier had sanctioned the breaking of bones now adopted the approach that "peace is made with enemies."

Rabin's legacy continues to be contested in Israel, due to the deep divisions among those who support retaining the West Bank and those who call for a Jewish state in only part of historic Palestine/Israel, living in peace alongside an independent Palestinian state.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bar-On, Mordechai. In Pursuit of Peace: A History of the Israeli Peace Movement. Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace, 1996.

Hammel, Eric. Six Days in June: How Israel Won the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. New York: Scribners, 1992.

Inbar, Efraim. Rabin and Israel's National Security. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center, 1999.

Kurtzman, Dan. Soldier of Peace: The Life of Yitzhak Rabin, 1922–1995. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.

Parker, Richard B., ed. The Six-Day War: A Retrospective. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997.

Peri, Yoram, ed. The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Rabin, Yitzhak. The Rabin Memoirs. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

――― ―――. "Yitzhak Rabin's Last Speech." Hagshama. Available from http://www.wzo.org.il/en/resources/view.asp?id=171.

Ross, Dennis. The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.

Slater, Robert. Rabin of Israel: A Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Watson, Geoffrey. The Oslo Accords, International Law and the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreements. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

                                      Motti Golani

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