Rabin’s Life — Sharon’s Legacy

How did two hardliners turn into unlikely peacemakers?

November 12, 2004

How did two hardliners turn into unlikely peacemakers?

These days, as Israel moves forward with Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza strip, the country’s political climate is eerily reminiscent of the weeks preceding then-Prime Minister Rabin's assassination.

Back in 1995, protesters picketed outside Rabin's home and in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They called Rabin a "murderer", a "traitor", even a "Nazi." Today, members of the far right — the same group that was responsible for Rabin's murder — are directing similar accusations at Sharon.

In early November 2004, as Israelis commemorated Rabin's assassination, vandals sprayed graffiti on walls in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv reading, "We got Rabin and we'll get Sharon" and "a hearty wish to the next assassin." These threats were not the first of their kind.

In truth, it is unlikely that Sharon's enemies will succeed in actually killing him. If Rabin's death taught Israelis one thing, it was that assassinations are a real possibility — and they learned their lesson.

When Sharon entered the Israeli parliament on October 26, 2004, for the vote on Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, he was surrounded by no fewer than 16 armed bodyguards.

And when Shimon Peres spoke at a rally the preceding night — in front of an audience cheering on Sharon's decision to withdraw from Gaza — his podium was encased in bulletproof glass.

That is a stark contrast to the night Rabin was murdered nine years earlier. Despite several attempts on his life — most of them by his eventual murderer, Yigal Amir — Yitzhak Rabin refused to wear a bulletproof vest. He found the idea of a Jew murdering a Jew inconceivable.

What is most remarkable about Israel’s current political climate is that these two prime ministers — Rabin and Sharon — are now spoken of, often in the same breath, as Israel's great peacemakers. Back in 1995, who would ever have imagined Sharon might try to follow in Rabin's footsteps?

But while the comparisons between Sharon and Rabin may seen ironic, it is in fact no more difficult to imagine Sharon — Israel's great hawk — as a peacemaker than it is to call Rabin a "soldier of peace."

Rabin had one interest throughout his military and political career: Israeli security. He signed the Oslo accords in 1993 not out of concern for the Palestinians, but rather because he knew that the best way to ensure security of the state was through peace.

Similarly, Sharon chose to withdraw from Gaza not out of a heartfelt wish for Palestinian sovereignty. Rather, he recognized that retaining control over Gaza would cause a huge demographic shift, turning Israel from a Jewish state into an Arab-Jewish state — thus threatening Israel's survival.

Rabin and Sharon are alike in another crucial way. Rabin served as Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces and led Israel to victory in the 1967 war. Many have argued that therefore he was the only one who could give away the land that he himself had conquered.

By the same logic, Sharon — whose zeal to expand Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank had earned him the nickname "father of the Israeli settlements" — may be the only one who can give the settlements in the Gaza Strip away.

Whether or not Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan will succeed remains to be seen. But its critics cannot afford to write this off as too little too late.

Should the settlers or other members of the far right in Israel continue to stall the peace process, the intifada will undoubtedly continue on its bloody path, sending many more Israelis and Palestinians to their graves.

And an assassination of Sharon — either physically, by a religious fanatic, or politically, by the collapse of his coalition — would lead Israel down a path that will benefit neither the settlers nor the peaceniks.

As both sides remember, Rabin’s death led to the election of Benjamin Netanyahu, a hawk who knocked the peace process off track in a manner from which it has never recovered. There is no reason to believe that the premature end to the Sharon government would yield different results.

Despite attempts by Rabin's successors — most notably Ehud Barak at Camp David II in 2000 — no Israeli prime minister since Rabin has been willing to risk his career, and potentially his life, to the extent that Sharon has in Gaza to make peace.

It may be difficult for Israelis and Palestinians to trust Sharon, the man whose former mantra was to refuse giving up "just one inch" of Israel's settlements.

But was it any easier for Palestinians to watch Yasser Arafat shake the hand of Yitzhak Rabin? He was the very man who once gave orders to "break their bones."

Nine years ago, Yitzhak Rabin — who was the first Israeli prime minister to be born in Israel, led Israel's army to its greatest victory in 1967, served as Israel's ambassador to the United States and twice as its prime minister — died as Israel's first great peacemaker.

Today, Sharon is poised to continue Rabin's legacy, albeit in a very different way. Rabin recognized the importance of reaching a negotiated bilateral agreement with the Palestinians.

In contrast, Sharon is insistent on conducting a unilateral withdrawal — a move that has angered many in Israel and abroad. But regardless of their methods, the bold moves taken by both Sharon and Rabin have had the same end goal: peace.

And throughout 56 years of military and political battles, both Rabin and Sharon have learned the same lesson: Peace comes not from a change of heart, but from desperation. And today — as in 1995 — Israel is desperate.

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