Editor’s note: This piece by Peter W. Rodman appeared in the Nov. 27, 1995, issue of National Review. Rodman passed away after a fight with leukemia on Saturday.
When Yitzhak Rabin was Israel’s ambassador to Washington in the early 1970s, he got into hot water with liberal American Jews by letting all and sundry know that he preferred Richard Nixon to George McGovern and that he supported Nixon’s policy in Vietnam. Rabin the strategist knew that a small country which relied on America for its survival had the greatest stake in America’s steadfastness. And Rabin the blunt ex-soldier had little talent for concealing what he really thought.
Rabin as the prime minister of Israel showed the same realism and the same integrity. He remained a staunch friend of the United States and was always eager to coordinate Israel’s strategy with ours. His support for the peace diplomacy with the Palestinians, Jordanians, and Syrians was the product not of sentimentality, as it was for some of his colleagues, but of a strategic analysis: that Israel was now able to negotiate from a position of strength; that the diplomacy would enable Israel to split the coalition of its enemies, to break out of its international isolation, and to consolidate relations with its immediate neighbors so as to position itself the better to resist new threats that came from a different quarter (namely, Iraq, Iran, and Islamist radicalism). As a military man and a war hero — he saved Jerusalem during the 1948-49 War of Independence and he was Chief of Staff in the triumphant Six-Day War — he could defend the diplomacy with a credibility that reassured an anxious Israeli public, while his vision of Israel’s strategic opportunities was bringing the country into a new era immeasurably strengthened.
He was of the second generation of Israel’s leaders, so long in the shadow of the founders (Ben-Gurion, Eshkol, Meir, Begin, Dayan, Allon). But now Israelis and Arabs alike, staring into the void created by his assassination, could suddenly see how he had dominated the scene, how profound had been the challenge he faced, and how much his country’s fate hung on his courage and leadership. In his absence, Israeli politics is dangerously unbalanced, poised between those who yearn for peace but cannot so sure-footedly reconcile it with Israel’s security, and those who fear that the diplomacy undermines Israel’s security but have no coherent alternative to offer.
Rabin was no more a natural politician than he was a natural diplomat. Even more than the stereotypical sabra, he masked an inner shyness and sensitivity with a gruff exterior. In an earlier term as prime minister (1974 – 77) he was a failure; by his own later admission he alienated friends and lost the confidence of his party. His weakness for alcohol and cigarettes left admirers in mind of what President Lincoln said about General Grant, but also secretly praying for his health. He was a man who tried very hard to be unlovable, but at this too in the end he failed, as the shock and grief at his murder have so stunningly demonstrated.