It happened in the fall of 1993, a few weeks after the White House signing ceremony for the Oslo Accords and the historic handshake between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat that heralded a “peace of the brave.” Rabin, who was also defense minister, visited the army’s undercover Shimshon unit, which operated in the Gaza Strip.
The soldiers conducted an exercise for him, and then Rabin held talks with senior officers from the sector. After everyone had left, a major from the unit came over to its commander, Tal Shaul, and gave him a scrap of newspaper that had been left in the meeting room, with a few words handwritten on it.
Shaul, who recalls the character Krembo from the Dror brothers’ film “Operation Grandma,” glanced at the paper and discovered a bombshell. This is what it said: “I told Dichter that ever since I shook Arafat’s hand, I haven’t dared scratch my butt.” There was no doubt about who wrote it. Only one person present at the base had met Arafat, and that was the prime minister.
What should they do? Shaul called Avi Dichter, who at that time was in charge of the Shin Bet security service’s southern district, and told him about the paper with Rabin’s handwriting. Dichter knew exactly what to do.
“The entire peace agreement rests on your shoulders now,” he told the officer, whom he knew well through joint operations in Gaza. “You have to destroy that note, because if it leaks, the entire peace agreement will collapse.”
Shaul heeded him and burned the note, and thus a historic document describing Rabin’s thoughts about his partner in the peace process was lost forever. Dichter has since come over to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s way of thinking, and maybe today he regrets having missed the opportunity to destroy the Oslo Accords at the outset.
Today, Rabin is viewed as a leftist who was eager to give up the territories and create a Palestinian state on the ruins of the settlements and the settlers’ dreams of the entire Land of Israel. This image serves both sides of the political map: The left needs a hero, and the right needs a traitor. But it’s complete nonsense.
Rabin sought to bolster Israel’s international standing with the help of his friend, U.S. President Bill Clinton, and developed alliances with the Mideast’s “moderate” regimes – Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Oman, Qatar and Turkey (before Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power there) – as a counterweight to Iran’s growing strength. But he was miserly about returning territory.
He was leery of an agreement with Syria that would have put President Hafez Assad’s soldiers on the shores of Lake Kinneret. He moved slowly with the Palestinians (“There are no sacred dates”) and preferred giving Arafat symbolic gestures like the title ra’ees (which can be interpreted as meaning either chairman or president) and a Palestinian policeman stationed on the Allenby Bridge crossing to Jordan instead of handing over large amounts of territory or freezing and evacuating the settlements – which actually grew during his term of office.
Once, I had the opportunity to get a peek at a meeting between Rabin and Arafat, together with my colleague Udi Segal (then with Army Radio, now with Channel 13 News). The two had received some award in Spain, and at the end of the ceremony, they sat down for a diplomatic discussion. Security was light, as was the norm before Rabin’s assassination, so we could watch what was happening through a thin curtain.
The Israeli prime minister sat there with a cigar and a glass of whisky in his hand, and across from him sat the leader of the Palestinian people. Rabin talked and talked, and Arafat wrote nonstop in his notebook. We joked that Rabin was saying, “Now write 100 times, ‘I will fight terror.’ With no mistakes.”
Arafat’s notebook didn’t survive, so it’s not clear what he wrote there. But Rabin demonstrated no friendliness or collegiality toward him and viewed him with suspicion to his dying day. He felt much more comfortable with Jordan’s King Hussein and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The agreements Netanyahu has signed with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain recall the Rabin legacy far more than Ariel Sharon’s unilateral pullout from Gaza. In this case, Arab countries are accepting Israel as a desirable neighbor and a lobbyist in Washington. Not a single bit of land or a single settler had to move in exchange, and the Palestinians got only vague lip service. That’s exactly what happened during Rabin’s forgotten visits to King Hassan of Morocco and the regional economic conferences that then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres organized in Casablanca and Amman.
The last conference took place four days before Rabin’s death. It took another 25 years for Israel to get back on the road that had been blocked by three bullets from Yigal Amir’s gun.