Rabin's death leaves brave legacy of peace

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 April, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 April, 1996, 12:00am

History will remember Yitzhak Rabin, the assassinated Israeli war hero and leader, as a towering figure of the 20th century. A martyr in the cause of peace, he is already a national legend.

'Both in war and peace, Yitzhak Rabin was a profile in courage,' David Makovsky, diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, said.

'His own public life spanned the life of the state and one would be hard pressed to find another person who has had a bigger imprint on Israel's peace policies and on the shape of Israel's security forces.

'He brought with him the history of the state's founders, David Ben-Gurion and Yigal Allon, and sought to carry that legacy towards the 21st century.

'Whether one agreed with his peace policies or not, it was indisputable that he was leading the country in a direction he deemed to be in Israel's best strategic interest.' A warrior turned peacemaker, Rabin believed peace backed by strength could bring Israel the tranquillity that had eluded the country since its inception.

'Rabin's legacy is his bold affirmative style of leadership,' Makovsky said. 'He also sought a new definition of Israeli strength, one that incorporated not just military prowess but also moral and economic fortitude.

'He realised that, by changing his position on the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation], he would earn the unremitting hostility of critics. But whatever doubts he had when he first made a deal with [the PLO chairman] Yasser Arafat, in the last several months he increasingly radiated a sense of confidence that he was leading Israel in a new direction.

'Rabin was a unique figure on the Israeli political spectrum. Those to his right had the strength but not the will to take calculated risks for peace, while those to his left had the will but not the strength. He alone could endow the revolutionary idea of peace with the PLO political viability, the way Charles de Gaulle did with Algeria and Richard Nixon with China.

'It remains unclear if there is any figure in Israel who can carry the torch of Rabin's political legacy forward and pursue his twin goals of peace and security. It would be ironic if Rabin in death united the country in a fashion that eluded him during his life time.

'At a time when a nation might have carried him on their shoulders, some may say he carried them on his.' Rabin was born in Jerusalem on March 1, 1922. He rose through the army to become the Israeli Defence Force's chief of staff in 1964.

Rabin led the IDF to victory in the Six Day War and in 1968, he was named ambassador to the United States, where he served for five years, and in 1973 he returned to Israel and was appointed minister of labour. A year later, he became prime minister.

He resigned the premiership in 1977 but returned to power in 1992. In 1994, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace with the then-foreign minister Shimon Peres - now prime minister - and Yasser Arafat.

Then on November 4, 1995, he was assassinated shortly after speaking at a peace rally in Tel Aviv's Malchei Yisrael square.

Historian Robert Wistrich, co-editor of the recently published book, The Shaping of Israeli Identity: Myth, Memory and Trauma, said: 'There has been a sudden idealisation - even mythification - of Rabin, who only a short time before was being savagely criticised and not only by the opposition. Suddenly in his death - his martyrdom - only his good sides are being perceived.

'Rabin now appears as the ideal leader - wise, sensitive, bold and unhesitating in his pursuit of peace. He has literally become a 'victim of peace', a term he himself used.

'He was the quintessential Israeli, a Palmah fighter, war hero and tough leader.' Kikar Malchei Yisrael has become a mirror of the nation's soul. Officially, Tel Aviv's largest square has not yet been dubbed Kikar Yitzhak Rabin, something Mayor Ronni Milo wants but it has become a sacred place.

At first the rituals were rough and improvised. A few memorial candles and bunches of flowers were placed on the spot where Rabin fell. Since then the Israelis and tourists have been making vigils to the square, lighting memorial candles in a tent.