Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Special Report: Israel's New-Old Prime Minister; Still an Enigma

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Special Report: Israel's New-Old Prime Minister; Still an Enigma

Article excerpt

Special Report: Israel's New-Old Prime Minister; Still an Enigma

Yitzhak Rabin is a political enigma even to Israelis. They recalled, as he assumed the duties of prime minister for the second time last July 13, that he was the man who, as defense minister, had called in 1988 for "breaking the bones" of Palestinian demonstrators in Israeli-occupied Gaza and the West Bank, but who more than a decade earlier stated that he would have no misgivings about having to have a passport to cross into that same West Bank.

While serving as a Labor member of the Knesset on the opposition benches, he encouraged Labor to enter into a national unity government with the Likud Party, and served as the unofficial leader of the hawks within his party. Now, he is leading the most dovish government in Israel's history, with half of its coalition supporters in the Knesset advocating negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Rabin presided over the brutal suppression of the intifada and cheered the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, policies that were responsible for Israel's current neartotal international isolation. But the same Rabin has told the Knesset this year, in his first address as prime minister, that the Israeli people should stop thinking that "the whole world is against us."

Israel, he stated, in what seemed to be a dovish battle cry, "must overcome the sense of isolation that has held us in its thrall for almost half a century" and "join the international movement toward peace, reconciliation and cooperation that is spreading over the entire globe these days, lest we be the last to remain, all alone, in the station."

As Israeli ambassador to Washington in the 1970s, Rabin used the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its congressional supporters to sabotage the peace efforts of the Nixon and Ford administrations. Twenty years later he shocked many Israelis and most American Jews with his attacks on Israel's Washington lobby, and his implied message to AIPAC to shut up and allow him to negotiate with President Bush on issues ranging from the peace process to American arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

American Jewish leaders, after months of leading a nasty anti-Bush campaign in which they portrayed the president and his aides as "anti-Israelis" and "anti-Semites," could not hide their bewilderment at what seemed to be efforts by Rabin, through public statements and leaks to the press, to help the Republican president win a second term in office.

The Mystery Continues

At this point no Israeli political analyst will stake his professional reputation on trying to explain the enigma called Rabin. Journalist Uri Avnery, Israel's most celebrated peace activist, returning from Tunis after interviewing PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and calling for Israel to open a political dialogue with the Palestinian leader, nominated Rabin in his Ha'aretz column as "My Man of the Year," predicting the new prime minister would lead Israel to the promised land of peace. But Ze'ev Schiff, Ha'aretz defense columnist, expressed doubts about Rabin's willingness to take risks for peace and concern that Rabin's efforts to perpetuate the status quo in the Middle East would lead to a new war.

Rabin is not helping to solve the mystery. His chief of staff, Shimon Shavas, a former Golan Heights settler and a member of Labor's hawkish wing, told a group of settler leaders from the Golan that Rabin would never withdraw from that occupied area. On the other hand, Rabin personally has been engaged in recent weeks in what many Israeli observers describe as a campaign to prepare the public for just such a withdrawal.

Nothing better reflects the conflicting messages emanating from the Israeli prime minister's office than the two delegations he has sent to the peace negotiations in Washington. Heading the Israeli delegation to the talks with the Jordanians and the Palestinians is an old Likud hand, Elyakim Rubinstein. …

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