Yitzchak Rabin

Yitzchak Rabin (1922-1995) served his native Israel as chief-of-staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Minister of Defense, Prime Minister from 1974 to 1977, and again from 1992 to his death in 1995.

Yitzchak Rabin was born in Jerusalem in 1922, the son of Russian-Zionist pioneers Rosa and Nechemia Rabin. At the age of 14, intent on becoming a farmer, he entered the Kadoorie Agricultural School at Kfar Tabor, graduating in 1940. Plans to go on to college work in irrigational engineering at the University of California were disrupted by World War II, however. Rabin joined the Palmach, the commando unit of the Jewish underground army, the Haganah, which later became the nucleus for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

In the beginning of his brilliant military career Rabin took part in several operations behind the lines against the Vichy French in Syria and Lebanon in 1941 on behalf of the British and in defense of Palestine. By 1944 he had reached the rank of deputy battalion commander in the Palmach. After the war Anglo-Jewish cooperation ended as British opposition to Jewish independence intensified. Rabin himself was involved in anti-British underground activity, and at one point in 1946 he was caught and sentenced to six months in a detention camp. He was released in early 1947 in time to participate in the final struggle over Palestine.

Promoted to deputy commander of the elite Palmach, Rabin fought with distinction against the invading Arab forces during Israel's war of independence in 1948. He played a role in the defense of Jerusalem, helping to keep open the vital supply road from Tel-Aviv and the coastal plain to the besieged city. In late 1948, now a colonel, he also fought on the southern front against Egypt. Then in the spring of 1949 Rabin served as military representative on the Israeli delegation to the Rhodes conference which resulted in a series of Arab-Israel armistice accords.

Having determined to pursue a military career, the post-1948 years saw Rabin advancing up the army hierarchy. He served successively as an armored brigade commander in the Negev, acting commander of the southern front (1949-1950), chief of tactical operations (1950-1952), head of the training branch (1954-1956), commanding officer of the northern front (1956-1959), and head of the manpower branch (1959-1960). During that period he was able to complete a year's study program at the British Staff College. Then from 1960 to 1963 Brigadier General Rabin filled two additional positions: deputy chief of staff and chief of the general staff branch. Finally, in January 1964 he was appointed chief-of-staff, remaining in that position until his retirement from the army in January 1968.

It was during his term of office as chief of staff that the 1967 Mid-East crisis occurred. Confronted by a military alliance of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, the Israeli government authorized a preemptive war which began on June 6. Within six days the Israel Defense Forces, acting under Rabin's command and according to contingency plans drawn up under his instructions, had gained a spectacular victory. The Six Day War ended with Israel in control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, and all of the West Bank territories of Judea and Samaria up to the Jordan River. And Rabin found himself a national hero.

This newly-acquired prestige led to his being appointed Israel's ambassador to Washington in March 1968. During his time in the United States Rabin was involved intensely in various Middle East peace efforts—none of which was successful—and deepening American-Israel relations, especially in terms of U.S. military assistance to Israel during the Johnson and the Nixon administrations.

In March 1973 Rabin left the United States and returned to Israel in order to enter politics, joining the dominant Labour Party. The national elections that year were interrupted in the fall by the surprise Egyptian-Syrian attack. In the wake of the Yom Kippur War, in which Rabin had no official or military role, the elections were finally held in December 1973. Although Labour's parliamentary strength declined, Rabin gained a seat in the Knesset and was appointed minister of labor in the new cabinet headed by Golda Meir. However, the government lasted only a month due to Meir's decision to resign, which led to formation of a new government and selection by the Labour/Alignment of a premier-designate. In April 1974 the party's central committee turned to Rabin, entrusting him with the task of putting together a viable coalition, which he succeeded in doing by late May. The Rabin government was approved by the Knesset on June 3, 1974, making Rabin the fifth, and youngest, premier; he was also the first native-born Israeli to achieve that high position.

Rabin's stay in power only lasted until 1977 and was a troubled one from the outset. In the Knesset his fragile three-party coalition had only the barest majority—a single seat—meaning it could fall at any moment. Domestically, the Yom Kippur War's aftermath caused demoralization and created structural problems in the economy under the weight of the defense burden. Diplomatically the years 1974-1977 coincided with Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy and efforts at pressuring Israel, thereby straining the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Nor did it help that sharp interpersonal rivalries within the cabinet further weakened the government's effectiveness. Finally, early in 1977 a coalition crisis led to the government's downfall. In the subsequent elections Labour and the Alignment were turned out of office; although re-elected to the Knesset, Rabin was soon replaced as party head by his arch-rival, Shimon Peres.

Nevertheless, upon formation of the National Unity government in September 1984, based on a unique power-sharing system of rotation between the Alignment and the Likud, Yitzchak Rabin was the agreed-upon candidate for the post of defense minister. Chosen to serve for the full four-year period, Rabin succeeded in improving his working relations with Prime Minister Peres and in gaining broad public confidence. He concentrated his efforts specifically on extricating the Israel Defense Forces from southern Lebanon, on reorganization plans for the defense forces, and on strengthening strategic cooperation with the United States.

Rabin's strong response to Palestinian insurrections gained him enough political support to make another bid to be prime minister in 1992. His victory came on promises of ending the conflict with the Palestinians. Secret talks with Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat led to a conference in Oslo, Norway where an agreement was reached in 1993. In 1994, Rabin led negotiations with Jordan's King Hussein which led to peace between those two countries. In December 1994, Rabin was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, along with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and PLO Chariman Yasser Arafat. On November 4, 1995, as he was departing a peace rally in Tel Aviv, Rabin was assassinated by a 27-year-old Jewish law student, Yigal Amir.


Further Reading on Yitzchak Rabin

Robert Slater's Rabin of Israel (1993) is the most complete treatment of Rabin's life. A more personal perspective is offered in Rabin: Our Life, His Legacy (1997) by Leah Rabin, his wife. Rabin's own autobiography, The Rabin Memoirs (1979) and his book Yitzhak Rabin Talks with Leaders and Heads of State (1984) are the best sources of additional material. See also Bernard Reich, Israel: Land of Tradition and Conflict (1985).