Yitzhak Rabin: Sol­dier, Leader, Statesman

Ita­mar Rabinovich
  • Review
By – February 8, 2017

The first native-born prime min­is­ter of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin exem­pli­fies his gen­er­a­tion. He was brought up in the Labor tra­di­tion, grad­u­at­ed from a pres­ti­gious high school, then joined the Pal­mach, an elite fight­ing force in the prestate under­ground army. Like many of his con­tem­po­raries, he served in the War of Inde­pen­dence, an expe­ri­ence that shaped his life. Shy, out­spo­ken, and not always long on patience, Rabin was not a nat­ur­al leader, but he had a strong sense of pur­pose. Despite his awk­ward man­ner and many dif­fer­ences with oth­er polit­i­cal lead­ers, notably Shi­mon Peres, he left his mark on Israeli history. 

Ita­mar Rabi­novich, for­mer Israeli ambas­sador to the Unit­ed States and pres­i­dent of Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty, served as Rabin’s chief nego­tia­tor to Syr­ia. From his first­hand knowl­edge of Rabin’s poli­cies and close work­ing rela­tion­ship with him, he has writ­ten a sym­pa­thet­ic and high­ly infor­ma­tive biog­ra­phy that tracks Rabin’s career from chief of the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) to his not entire­ly suc­cess­ful first tenure as prime min­is­ter — he did plan and exe­cute the Entebbe res­cue — to his return to the prime min­is­ter­ship after fif­teen years — a rare event in pol­i­tics — as a more expe­ri­enced and skilled leader.

The hor­rif­ic and bloody bat­tle on the road to Jerusalem in 1948 in which Rabin lost half his men was a key point in Rabin’s career. It burned itself into his mem­o­ry as both a mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal fail­ure. Believ­ing that the lead­er­ship had not pre­pared the troops for war, Rabin, as he moved up in the mil­i­tary chain of com­mand, deter­mined that Israel’s secu­ri­ty would nev­er again be com­pro­mised. He devel­oped Israel into a dom­i­nant region­al pow­er, cul­mi­nat­ing in the stun­ning suc­cess of the Six-Day War. This vic­to­ry and Rabin’s record as a high­ly effec­tive defense min­is­ter gave him author­i­ty with the pub­lic as a leader who ensured Israel’s security.

As an insid­er dur­ing Rabin’s sec­ond tenure as prime min­is­ter, Rabi­novich is able to con­vey the ten­sion and sense of imme­di­a­cy in this com­plex and dif­fi­cult peri­od. A mil­i­tary hawk, Rabin was also a polit­i­cal dove, deter­mined to pur­sue the peace process; above all he was a real­ist who believed Israel could not exist with­out resolv­ing the issue of the West Bank. Paths to peace agree­ments had been opened, and in a com­pelling account Rabi­novich gives a first­hand report of the events that led to the sign­ing of the Oslo Accords.

Equal­ly com­pelling is Rabinovich’s account of the anger and hard­en­ing of posi­tions lead­ing up to Rabin’s assas­si­na­tion. Israeli secu­ri­ty failed to take seri­ous­ly the increas­ing­ly vicious threats against Rabin and incite­ment of the right wing, believ­ing that a Jew would nev­er kill a Jew, and Rabin him­self chose to main­tain his pub­lic appear­ances. His assas­si­na­tion in 1995 at a large and enthu­si­as­tic peace ral­ly in cen­tral Tel Aviv threw the coun­try into a state of deep shock and mourn­ing. Rabin’s funer­al was an emo­tion­al out­pour­ing attend­ed by world lead­ers, an acknowl­edg­ment of his stature and place in Israeli history.

Rabi­novich, a promi­nent his­to­ri­an, brings both his deep knowl­edge of the Mid­dle East and his insider’s expe­ri­ence to this close-up pic­ture of the years in which Israel grew into a full-fledged nation and Yitzhak Rabin’s part in that devel­op­ment. Well-orga­nized and high­ly read­able, Yitzhak Rabin: Sol­dier, Leader, States­man is of def­i­nite inter­est to any fol­low­er of Israel’s history. 


Read an inter­view with Ita­mar Rabi­novich here.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions