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.
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”.
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:
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
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