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Middle East Roundtable / Edition 39

An Israeli View:
Arafat and Rabin

by Yossi Alpher

Yasser Arafat died a year ago; Yitzhak Rabin ten years ago. Both signed the Oslo accords and (with Shimon Peres) received the Nobel Prize for Peace. Both died tragically.

The comparison ends there. The contrasts begin.

Arafat's death seemingly produced little outpouring of grief among Palestinians or his fellow Arab leaders. While he was charming in person, Arafat was mainly corrupt and manipulative, too prone to rely on violence, developed too few strategies for building a viable Palestinian state, and had a disastrous inclination to fall back on lies and paranoid fantasies not seen in any successful Arab leader. A year ago, the impression was that much of the Middle East, not to mention the rest of the world, breathed a sigh of relief when he died.

From the perspective of a year's distance, Arafat deserves historic credit for coalescing a scattered people and giving it a cause. But he could not figure out how to exploit that success. He missed the boat in 1978 when he turned down the first Camp David offer of autonomy, in territories then devoid of settlements. Later, his ten-year stint at state-building was a fiasco; millions are still suffering for his mistakes. Alone among the twentieth century national liberation movements, his failed. He died sordidly and inexplicably, and nobody really seems to care. His death appears to have had nothing to do with whether he succeeded or failed in his life's mission.

Yitzhak Rabin, on the other hand, knew when and how to change strategies. He had his faults and drawbacks, but he pointed us in the right direction, and we are, willy-nilly and with a lot of zigzags, still on that course of defining ourselves as a Jewish and democratic state and letting the Palestinians go their own way. While he adamantly refused to present a detailed vision of a two state solution, Rabin nevertheless made sure everyone knew in what direction he was heading. In person he was diffident, ill at ease, not particularly communicative, even (as one of his ministers once described him to me) "autistic". But he was genuine, authentic and straightforward. His assassination ten years ago left most Israelis and others worldwide in shock and heartache; many continue to exhibit their strong feelings for him to this day, often to the extent (particularly on the political left) of distorting his legacy. Even most of those who, for political and ideological reasons, don't ! miss him, nevertheless recognize the huge setback to Israeli sovereign state-building that his murder constituted.

Rabin and Arafat first met in that excruciating handshake on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993. Rabin was not a dissembler, and everything about his body language told you he knew exactly whom he was dealing with. I remember at the time asking another retired IDF general, a comrade-in-arms of Rabin, whether he had watched that ceremony. "I couldn't," he replied. "I knew what Yitzhak was going through and couldn't bear to see it."

Had he lived, I doubt very much that Rabin would or could have made a genuine peace with Arafat. But that is merely informed speculation, based partly on the limitations of Rabin's vision in his day, but mostly on Arafat's performance in the ensuing years until his death. Still, Rabin's assassin succeeded in causing real damage to the cause of peace and coexistence.

Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, is a good man engaged in a dangerous experiment with Hamas, seemingly without the leadership qualities needed to tame even violent supporters within his own movement, Fateh. He confronts an Israeli leader, Ariel Sharon, who subscribes to Rabin's strategy of separation but not to his formula for a viable relationship with the Palestinians. And while Rabin and Arafat had the benefit of President Bill Clinton's stewardship and commitment, we now have President George W. Bush, mired knee-deep in a disastrous Iraqi adventure and barely able (or ready) to lend us the services of Secretary of State Rice for a day every few months.

These days, after the disappointments of Camp David II and the violence of intifada II, we are almost certainly farther from a peaceful end to the conflict than we were ten years ago, when Rabin was assassinated. But, thanks to disengagement and Abu Mazen, we are a little closer than we were a year ago, when Arafat died. Hopefully we can all, Israelis and Palestinians, learn something from both the ongoing nostalgia for Rabin as well as the lack of nostalgia for Arafat.- Published 14/11/2005 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and was a senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak. is an internet forum for an array of world perspectives on the Middle East and its specific concerns. It aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at and, respectively. 18-11-2005

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