If he had not been assassinated, would Yitzhak Rabin really have made peace? “Not likely” say Palestinian-Canadian analysts

The famous Rabin-Arafat handshake under Clinton’s watchful eye in 1993. Was the Oslo deal really a basis for lasting “peace” or was it a US backed trap for the PLO leadership? Some Israelis still venerate Rabin, claiming that if he had not been assassinated by a right wing Zionist, the Oslo agreements would have brought about peace based on a two state solution. But many Palestinians disagree. Read more…

A political firestorm erupted in the USA a few weeks ago when a leftist US congressperson, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (known familiarly as “AOC”) declined an invitation to attend a ceremony commemorating the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He was killed by a right wing Jewish fanatic in Tel Aviv in 1995.

Actually, the congresswoman had first accepted the invitation from Americans for Peace Now (AFP), a liberal Zionist organization which is very hostile to the current Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, and promotes a 2 state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Her agreement to participate in the event delighted the organizers but provoked much criticism from Palestinians and their supporters around the globe. She then reversed her decision, which provoked more criticism – this time from Zionists of all stripes.

For many people in Canada and the USA, Rabin was a man of “peace” whose memory should be cherished. Had he only lived, they believe, Israel might be living today in peace side by side with a Palestinian neighbour.

Unlikely “dove”

Rabin’s history before becoming Prime Minister of Israel made him an unlikely “dove”. He had spent most of his adult life fighting Palestinians, first as a member of the “Palmach” militia and later, as a senior officer in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). An article in the New Yorker Magazine by Israeli journalist and author Ari Shavit revealed that Rabin, as a military “operations officer” in Lydda, issued an order which led to the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians and the expulsion of thousands more in 1948.

Later, during the First Intifada, as Minister of Defence, he was responsible for the famous “broken bones” policy in which Israeli soldiers were urged to break the arms and legs of Palestinian resisters, including children.

So Rabin was a tough guy, a hardened fighter. Some might say “a terrorist”.

Did Rabin change?

But people can change. Did Rabin? Those who eulogize Rabin today as a “warrior-turned-peacemaker”, almost exclusively focus on the final four years of his life, in which as Prime Minister, he agreed to negotiate with the PLO get it to agree to a peace deal. A cult of personality as a “man of peace” has arisen. Rabin was even given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.

This cult of personality around Rabin as a man of peace has particularly relied on a counterfactual argument: that had he not been killed, Rabin might have helped to bring about a two-state solution.” argues Amjad Iraqi in +972 Magazine. Iraqi is Palestinian citizen of Israel. He is also a Palestinian Canadian.

Of course, Rabin played a leading role in the signing of the Oslo Accords, which created the Palestinian National Authority and granted it partial control over parts of the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Rabin did get PLO chairman Yasser Arafat to renounce violence and officially recognize the State of Israel. In return, Rabin sent Arafat a letter officially recognizing the PLO (though significantly, not “Palestine”).

In the West, there was optimistic talk about how peace had “broken out”.

Canadian Friends of Peace Now, a liberal Zionist organization is actively encouraging attendance at a ceremony to remember Rabin and his legacy.

At the time however, there was strong opposition on the ground to the Oslo Accords – from both Palestinians and Israelis – for different reasons.

Right wing Zionists were furious that Rabin had recognized the PLO. Then opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the accords (and Rabin) as “treasonous”. In fact, Bibi’s speeches against Rabin are seen by many as incitement which led up to the eventual assassination of Rabin by a right wing Zionist fanatic.

Palestinian misgivings.. but also hopes

On the Palestinian side, there were also many misgivings. They centred on a few main issues including:

  1. By agreeing to recognize the “State of Israel”, the PLO was abandoning its role as a defender of the rights of the more than 1 million Palestinians living inside Israel (which clearly defined itself as a “Jewish” state.)
  2. By agreeing to sign an agreement which did not include a resolution to the issue of the Palestinian refugees, the PLO was abandoning its role as a defender of the rights of the over 4 million Palestinian refugees living outside historic Palestine.
  3. By agreeing to set aside other key issues until illusory “final status negotiations”, the PLO was giving a green light to Israel to continue establishing settlements in the West Bank, and expanding its presence in Jerusalem in defiance of existing international law.

Despite these worries, many Palestinians were cautiously optimistic about Oslo at the time. They hoped that this would be a breakthrough and they preferred to ignore warnings from those like Edward Said who called the accords a “Palestinian capitulation”.

Palestinian Canadian lawyer Diana Buttu was one of them.

“Buoyed by the Oslo Accords, I moved to the West Bank as a legal advisor to the PLO team”, notes Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer (who is also a member of the OFIP Advisory Council.) “I was wrong. Twenty five years after that iconic Arafat-Rabin handshake, (…) Palestinians are no closer to freedom”.

Many Palestinians now agree that accepting Rabin’s Oslo agreement was a disastrous strategic error by the Palestinian leadership. It opened a pathway for Israel to greatly expand its penetration of the West Bank, exploiting its natural resources and implanting hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers. It created a Palestinian Authority “security force” which coordinates with Israel’s forces to protect Israeli interests, and it allowed Israel to divide the Palestinians into geographically separate areas, cutting Palestinians in the West Bank off from those inside Israel and those in Gaza.

Was Rabin really a “man of peace”? Perhaps, but he never apologized for his earlier violent actions against Palestinians. Instead of a “change of heart”, it seems more likely that he had decided on a “change in tactics”. Some say that instead of “peace and equality” Rabin was looking for a way to get “peace and quiet” from the Palestinians so Israel could keep on expanding.

Rabin’s eulogizers usually overlook the fact that despite what he was telling the Western world, Rabin himself was not actually envisaging a real “state” for the Palestinians, but something less. In an address in Hebrew on October 5, 1995 Rabin told Knesset members that he was proposing a Palestinian “entity” which would be “less than a state”. He also reassured them that he had no intention of returning to the ’67 borders.

The memorial event for Rabin being promoted by Canadian Friends of Peace Now and liberal Zionist organizations in the USA, papers over an important fact: Oslo was not derailed by Rabin’s death. For Israel it has been a success. But for the Palestinians it has been a disaster. It achieved pretty well what Rabin had set out to do.


Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.

Want to learn more about us? Go to http://www.ottawaforumip.org.


  1. Rabin always indicated (including 2 months before his assassination) that the Jordan valley is the Eastern border of Israel, and that no sovereign Palestinian state will ever be established. This is not peace maker but a General that tries to contain the “enemy” rather than live as equal partners near each other.

  2. Another important contribution to public understanding. Thank you Peter Larson!Charles McFaddenFredericton, NB

  3. There are a couple of interesting, recent commentaries on this from the expat Israeli “New Historians” Ilan Pappé and Avi Shlaim:
    Pappé’s assessment of the Oslo “mediation” process is that it was essentially “a search for the best that the stronger party was willing to offer, followed by an attempt to coerce the weaker party into accepting it.”

  4. One can argue Rabin either way, as an Israeli General who realized that Palestinians would never be defeated militarily and Israel must work out a compromise; or as a Machiavellian playing both good cop and bad cop for his nefarious ends. I’m not sure who benefits from the latter interpretation.

    I’m particularly troubled by this sentence: “Oslo was not derailed by Rabin’s death. For Israel it has been a success. But for the Palestinians it has been a disaster. It achieved pretty well what Rabin had set out to do.” That makes “Israel” commensurate with its most right-wing elements. What about Palestinian Israelis? What about liberal Zionists?

    I’m afraid the increasing hard line of North American academics and activists leaves no out for Jewish Israelis. This has been going on for a long time. When was it that Zionism was determined to be not a (possibly misguided) effort to find safety for Jews but simply a knowing partnership in European colonialism? According to this view, liberal Zionists, like Rabin in his later years, never made mistakes: they just scheme; happily, real supporters of Palestine are not fooled.

    You might want to read about the optimism and the enormous celebrations by Palestinians and Jewish Israelis that followed the Oslo signing. To turn all that into tricky Jews and gullible Palestinians makes any resolution, except by the obliteration of side or the other, impossible.

    Read, too:

    Opinion | “Yitzhak Rabin Is Still Being Assassinated,” by Ori Nir in Haaretz

    “Rabin was no saint, but he changed, and was gunned down for it. When the U.S. left refuses to remember his peacemaking with the Palestinians, they hand victory to Netanyahu and the Israeli right”


    1. Hey Arthur,
      Thanks for your always thoughtful comments.
      Yes, lots of people on both sides (i.e. Palestinians and Israelis) were very optimistic that Oslo would bring “peace”. Even while others were very apprehensive. There are stories about Palestinians in Nablus giving flowers to bemused (and relieved) Israeli soldiers.
      But there were dire warnings that this was a capitulation, and, IMHO, they proved right.

      1. Peter, I don’t know how “dire warnings that this was a capitulation” could be PROVED right, given that Oslo and Rabin were stopped in their tracks. The question is: should we be cynical about the whole effort? There can be no doubt that many of Oslo’s adherents were sincere. There is no proof that Rabin was not. (“We will fight terrorism as if there were no peace process and we will fight for peace as if there were no terrorism.”) Are you saying the Israelis who called Rabin a traitor had nothing to fear?

        What passes for analysis seems to be: Israel can’t be trusted; Oslo was promoted by Israel; therefore Oslo was a ruse and Palestinian agreement was capitulation.

        Rabin was the last Israeli leader who might not have deserved cynicism. Some liberal Zionists want to believe Oslo was a genuine effort at a negotiated agreement between Israeli and Palestinian representatives. Why the determination to undermine even that?

      2. One last thing: You write: “Was Rabin really a “man of peace”? Perhaps.” And then “It (Oslo) achieved pretty well what Rabin had set out to do.” “Perhaps” implies doubt. “What Rabin had set out to do” implies knowledge. Which is it?

      3. Hey Arthur,
        Of course I don’t know what was in his mind. I have to go by his actions and infer.

        I assume he did want peace. I think most people do. The difference is in what they see as “peace”. The peace he wanted, based on his actions, IMHO was that of a complete subjugation of the Palestinians. That is not what we would commonly refer to as a man of “peace”.

    2. This is from a very interesting interview with Avi Shlaim, one of the “New Historians” (from Jacobin ):

      “What I felt was that Oslo was a modest step in the right direction, that they were following a smart gradualist strategy, building trust between the two parties, and that toward the end, the difficult issues would be addressed. I was quite euphoric at the time. I was confident that it was the beginning of a two-state solution.

      “… I believed it would kick-start an irreversible process of Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, the end point of which would be a Palestinian state. …

      “I could maintain … that this gradualist process would have reached its logical conclusion in a two-state solution. But history doesn’t disclose its alternatives. It merely tells us what happened. The historical significance of Oslo is that Rabin was the first and only Israeli prime minister who, in good faith, went toward the Palestinians on the political front.”

  5. Good description of the Rabin enigma and myth. He will continue to be a symbol among liberal Zionists that Israel is prepared to offer a state ro Palestinians mainly because he was assassinated by extreme Zionists pursuant to incitement from Netanyshu. But it is unikely he would have achieved a fair, just and acceptable 2 state solution even though he would have tried to evolve the Oslo agreements rather than seeking to destroy them like Netanyahu. In any case Netanyahu won by making refusal to grant anything more than a rump bantustan state a la Potus and to make occupation, annexation, discrimination the reality of Israel Palestine politics now including by weaponizing antisemitism against critics. and adopting a blaming the victim policy. It is evident that the Rabin legacy cannot go very far in creating the necessary explosion in thinking political action to get a real 2 state soln or revert to 1 state of equals. AOC understood this reality in taking a decision not to attend the Rabin event even at the risk of criticism by the Israel lobby.

  6. I see you are maintaining your refusal to post the truth. Good for you. Stand up for what you believe in as your world crumbles around you because of your antisemitic lies.

    1. Only aoparent antisemitic lies are the accusations against AOC by the Israel lobby for her positions in favour of Palestine and choiosng not to participate in the Rabin memorial for very good readons..
      Or were you thibking of something else like accusations against Rabin himaelf by Netanyahu that he was antisemitic in signing the Oslo accords and threatening the supremacy of the Jewish atate. and therebye incitibg his assassination by an extreme Jewish nationalist. Hope you were not calling contributors to this blog antisemitic which is unworthy.of proper debate and very irresponsible.

  7. Nobody who was prepared to find a fair solution (or even to recognize that non-Jews in Palestine should have the same rights as Jews) could ever be elected as Prime Minister of Israel. The state was founded with the explicit goal of establishing a state that discriminated in favour of Jews and cleansing Palestine of non-Jews. They called Palestine the promised land. For most Jewish Israelis, “peace” means complete victory for them and surrender of all others. A leader who even seemed willing to accept anything less would inevitably be the target of assassination attempts

      1. Arthur,

        It is not what they say that matters, it is what they did and are still doing. The pre-state militias, whose leaders became leaders of the state, were destroying villages and driving civilians out. Today, using a variety of pretenses, Israel continues to do that. When Palestinians leave, they are often not allowed to return.

      2. David,

        So it wasn’t an “explicit goal.”

        Also, about “cleansing Palestine of non-Jews.” That would normally mean emptying Palestine of non-Jews. According to Wikipedia, in 1947 there were 1.3 million non-Jews in Palestine; in 2014, there were 6.2 million Palestinian Arabs living in historic Palestine (Israel and the OPT). Add in a bunch of other non-Jews and there are likely about five times as many non-Jews in historic Palestine now as there were at the time of Israel’s founding. Clearly, if “cleansing Palestine of non-Jews” is Israel’s goal, they’re not very good at it.

        Israel does so many awful things, I don’t know why we need to exaggerate or get things wrong.


      3. Arthur,

        First, I can only repeat that it is not what they say but what they do. Numerous Israeli policies make it uncomfortable for Palestinians to stay and unreasonably difficult for them to come back if they leave for education.

        Second, goals are something that you strive to reach, not something that is you can instantly achieve. Israel keeps increasing they pressure on Palestinians. Slow and steady can win a race. However, the Palestinian birth rate is not something that Israel knows how to control.

        Finally, not everyone is open about their goals. Adolph Hitler was unusual in openly stating that he wanted to make Germany “free of Jews” (Judenfrei). More often, there is a cover excuse for policies that work to make a country “purer”. In numerous private conversations that I had while working in Israel, people told me that they thought the only path to peace was for Arabs to go to other countries in the Middle East. Some seemed to have some regret about that but almost all saw no other hope. Some complained that the Palestinians were being let down by their “Arab Brothers” who did not welcome and support immigration to their countries.

        I agree that we should not exaggerate but we cannot ignore policies that have encouraged Palestinians to leave Palestine (and enrich the countries that they move to). Israeli policies have led to a kind of brain drain that led to many very talented people coming to Canada and other countries.

  8. I don’t think Arafat would have minded peace in his time. but he was intimidated by his people who did not want peace. They kept up the bombing regime even when negotiations were taking place. You can’t have peace if you don’t want peace. You can’t have peace if you refuse to come to the table and negotiate for peace.

    1. Hey Mary, thanks for your comment. My impression is slightly different. Arafat was being pressured by the Americans to make concessions (specifically for all the refugees to give up their rights, and for the Palestinians in Israel to give up their national rights) that he could not agree to without completely betraying the Palestinian cause and breaking up the PLO.

      1. That’s the beauty of free speech (what’s left of it these days) and thought, Peter. We can agree to disagree. I do appreciate your response.

Comments are closed.