We were reminded November 4, of the 12th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. The following is most of my review of a documentary film (to be published in New Jersey Jewish News) that depicts Rabin’s life in juxtaposition with that of Shimon Peres, Israel’s current president.
What may be of special interest to supporters of Meretz is that Shulamit Aloni and Yossi Sarid were prominent talking heads, as was the radical peacenik Uri Avnery; the latter was somewhat caustic about Peres and surprisingly respectful toward Rabin— he believed that Rabin might have succeeded in achieving peace if he had lived. Although I share this general sentiment with Avnery, I was struck by the amazing succession of shocking disappointments and defeats suffered by the irrepressible Peres, which would have easily broken a lesser man. – R. Seliger:
Although the New York premiere of “Rabin-Peres: Everything Is Personal” at the Israel Film Festival, Oct. 24, was sparsely attended, this television documentary was well received by the audience. It was somewhat difficult to follow for viewers not fluent in Hebrew…, but judging from comments overheard in casual conversation and in the Q & A with director Arik Henig, it was gratifying for Israelis … who grew up with the decades-long rivalry between Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.
“Rabin-Peres” imparted some little-known facts and worthwhile insights. One feels for both protagonists, vicariously experiencing their triumphs and disappointments. But their rivalry diminished both of them. There’s no question also, as made clear in the film, that their mutual antagonism affected state policy and undermined Israel’s quest for peace.
They competed head-to-head for the leadership of the Labor party in 1974, 1977, 1980 and 1992. Rabin won all but the contest in 1980, and as prime minister in 1977, felt compelled to resign as the party’s candidate in favor of Peres over the ridiculously minor matter of his wife illegally maintaining a small US bank account. While out of favor in the early 1980s, Rabin wrote a memoir that slashed at Peres with accusations of underhanded dealings. Peres is shown shouting from the podium at a Labor party conference in exasperation at Rabin’s published charges.
And Peres, now generally thought of as a dove, is depicted as undermining the first Rabin government’s resolve in standing up to militant nationalists who had entrenched themselves at Sebastia in the West Bank in 1974. Peres, Rabin’s minister of defense at the time, negotiated personally with the demonstrators, basically capitulating and helping them to establish the first all-civilian settlements in the midst of the West Bank.
The film may be breaking ground in claiming that Rabin, as defense minister in turn, worked against a potentially dramatic development engineered by Peres as foreign minister in the national unity government in 1988. According to the film, Peres had successfully negotiated with King Hussein in London for a peace treaty that would have involved Jordan taking back the West Bank. There are no exact details on what Peres had actually negotiated and no exploration of how this would have played in the Arab world, but if such a deal had in fact been concluded, Israel’s vexing problems of occupation and dealing with the Palestinians might have been largely resolved. It would be outrageous if personal animosity were a factor in forestalling this agreement.
It was emphasized that they had radically different backgrounds: Rabin was born and raised in the “sabra” Labor-Zionist elite, rising within the inside track of the pre-state Palmach and then the army to the pinnacles of power. Peres came to Palestine as an immigrant child, regarded at the start as an outsider who suddenly embarked upon his meteoric career by gaining the notice of, and attaching himself to, David Ben-Gurion.
They also had radically different temperaments: Rabin was known for simplicity and directness in expression, typical of the sabra-Zionist ideal of the “new Jew.” Exemplifying this pioneer ethic of the man of action as a combat soldier, Rabin is said to have disliked politics and politicians. He came to prominence during the 1948 war, including as commander of the Harel Brigade that relieved the siege of West Jerusalem. But as a Palmach commander related politically to the Achdut Ha’avoda movement, he felt that he was being blocked from promotions in the early 1950s by Ben-Gurion’s Mapai, for which Peres was a key operative.
Peres is described by one talking head as reading two books at once while writing a third. In contrast to Rabin, he is intellectually inclined and retains some repute as a poet. They even differed sartorially: Rabin favored the informal open-collar style of the classic sabra while Peres is always resplendent in suit and tie.
Peres made his mark as a bureaucrat and politician, having never served in uniform. Still, his experience in security affairs, in arms procurement, as director general (chief administrator) of the defense ministry at the record young age of 29 and in establishing Israel as a nuclear power, might have qualified him to receive a political commission— something that would have helped him politically.
The film is thin in its depiction of the Oslo peace process. Oslo’s downfall had much to do with bloody Palestinian terrorist attacks, but the first major violent incident of the Oslo era was Baruch Goldstein’s mass murder of 29 Muslim worshipers in Hebron in February 1994. Not only is this critical event unmentioned, but there is no examination of Rabin’s lack of resolve at that time, particularly his failure to act dramatically against the militant settlers of Hebron and/or Kiryat Arba (something he considered), which might have allayed the Palestinian anger that triggered the terrorist activities of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
There is discussion of Peres’s error of omission in not calling for a snap election immediately after Rabin’s assassination. Their competition is shown to have been so all-consuming, that even with Rabin dead and buried, Peres could not bring himself to ride to power on the back of the country’s grief and affection for Rabin.
But there is no mention of Peres’s tragically shortsighted decision to kill Yihya Ayyash, the Hamas “engineer,” who adapted the suicide belt for Palestinian use. This assassination by the Shin Bet, however morally justified, triggered a wave of revenge attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad (including two exploding buses on the same line in Jerusalem and one attack in Tel Aviv that killed numerous children celebrating Purim in costume), which cost Peres his 20-point electoral lead and eventually led to Bibi Netanyahu’s narrow victory of 1996. Peres’s failure to successfully shepherd the peace process he had begun, and Rabin had gone along with, links the two forever in tragedy— and still threatens to consume all Israel in its wake.