Rabins legacy, from warrior to peacemaker

NEW YORK — In the final words of his final public speech, a call for peace was on the lips of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Speaking to some 100,000 supporters at a Tel Aviv pro-peace rally Saturday night, Rabin articulated the pursuit that, more than anything else, defined and distinguished his second term as Israel's leader.

"This rally must send a message to the Israeli people, to the Jewish people around the world, to the many people in the Arab world and indeed to the entire world that the Israeli people want peace, support peace."

An hour later, the man who led his country through war and peace was declared dead, the victim of an assassin's bullets.

The pursuit of peace did not come easily to Rabin.

The old general who had repeatedly vowed never to negotiate with the people he called "PLO murderers" later found himself at the center of the "handshake that shook the world," signing an accord with Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Rabin forever struggled to balance peace's possible benefits with the demands of Israeli security and with his longtime distrust of Israel's Arab foes.

And it was possibly because of these doubts, shared by many Israelis, that Rabin's people entrusted him — the most acclaimed hero of 1967's Six Day War — with the daunting job of pursuing the peace process.

Rabin's ambivalence about that task was perhaps most evident in the uneasy smile that crossed his weathered face when he shared that historic handshake with Arafat on the White House lawn Sept. 13, 1993, to seal the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The chain-smoking, often gruff-sounding Israeli leader who recently said the only place he would not smoke was the White House — because he was not allowed — traversed many a blood-soaked battlefield on his long journey to the White House lawn.

In fact, he was barely out of boyhood when he got his first taste of war.

Born Yitzhak Robicov March 1, 1922, to Russian parents who had immigrated to what was then British-mandated Palestine, Rabin grew up hoping to become one of the pioneer farmers who would make the Land of Israel blossom once again.

But at the age of 19, he changed course, taking a step that would alter his fate — and that of a country that had not yet been reborn: He joined the Palmach, an underground elite commando unit led by Moshe Dayan to fight British rule in Palestine.

Rabin rose through the ranks, promoted first to platoon leader and then to deputy commander of an operation that in 1945 freed 200 illegal Jewish immigrants from the Atlit detention camp.

A year later, British forces arrested him along with hundreds of other Jewish leaders in what came to be known as "Black Saturday." He spent six months in a British detention camp.

In October 1947, Rabin was named deputy commander of the Palmach. There he met fellow member Leah Schlossberg, who became his wife in August 1948.

In the 1948 War of Independence, Rabin led the Harel Brigade in the fight to open the road to a besieged Jerusalem, and then led the brigade in liberating city neighborhoods.

After the war, he served on the 1949 delegation that signed armistice agreements with the Arab states on the Greek island of Rhodes.

Having decided to pursue his military training, Rabin graduated in 1953 from the Staff College in Great Britain.

In 1954, he was named head of the Israel Defense Force Training Branch, where he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general.

During the next 10 years, he rose through a series of positions: commander of the northern sector from 1956-1959; IDF Chief of Operations from 1959-1960; deputy chief of staff from 1961-1963. He became the seventh IDF chief of staff Jan. 1, 1964.

It was as chief of staff that Rabin led the IDF to victory in the lightning Six Day War, in which Israel seized the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem from Jordan, the Gaza Strip from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria.

Years later, Rabin publicly admitted that he had suffered a brief "breakdown" in the tense days leading up to the war.

But he also said in a 1975 television interview that the 1967 liberation of the Western Wall, which he had failed to liberate 19 years earlier during the War of Independence, was the "fulfillment of a dream" and the "peak of my life."

In 1968, Rabin left the military and was appointed ambassador to the United States, a post he held until 1973.

In the spring of 1973, Rabin returned to Israel and became active in the Labor Party.

He was elected a member of the Knesset in December 1973, and when then-Prime Minister Golda Meir formed her government in April 1974, he was appointed minister of labor.

After 1973's nearly disastrous Yom Kippur War, when Arab forces caught Israel off guard, Rabin was still a relative political novice. Yet he was the ruling Labor Party's choice to succeed Prime Minister Golda Meir, who resigned June 2, 1974.

At 52, he became the youngest — and the first native-born Israeli — ever to lead his country.

Asking the Knesset to approve his new government, he referred to Israel's social crisis since the Yom Kippur War and pleaded for national unity.

"Some have forgotten the ancient historic lesson that because of needless hatred, Jerusalem was destroyed," Rabin said.

In June 1976, Rabin's government issued orders to carry out the Entebbe raid in which Israeli commandos liberated hijacked Air France passengers from the Uganda airport.

In 1977, Rabin was forced to resign, as his wife was found to have held an illegal bank account in the United States.

After the May 1977 elections, in which Menachem Begin became the first Likud prime minister, Rabin served as a Knesset member in the opposition Labor Party and was a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

In the national unity governments that Likud and Labor shared from 1984 to 1990, Rabin served as minister of defense.

In that capacity, he orchestrated the withdrawal of IDF forces from Lebanon and established a security zone in southern Lebanon to guarantee the safety of Israel's northern border.

It was also during his tenure as defense minister that the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, broke out in 1987 in the territories.

In a stern but controversial order, Rabin told the troops to "break the bones" of the Palestinian protesters.

Rabin was elected Labor Party chairman in the first nationwide primaries, conducted in February 1992.

Running with the slogan "peace with security," he led his party to victory in the June 1992 Knesset elections.

A month later, Rabin formed Israel's 25th government, in which he held the dual portfolios of prime minister and defense minister.

This provided him with the confidence to pursue his peace policies — a course that would lead to the famous handshake with Arafat and to the equally historic signing of a peace treaty with Jordan Oct. 26, 1994.

Also last year, Rabin shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Arafat, the man Israel had long branded a terrorist.

Rabin's assassination took place two weeks after he delivered a speech before the U.N. General Assembly in which he warned world leaders about the dangers of terrorism.

It was also little more than a month after he traveled to Washington for the Sept. 28 signing of the agreement to extend Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank.

The prospect of an Israeli withdrawal from territories Israel had held since 1967 prompted widespread protests among the Israeli right, whose members considered the actions of Rabin government's a blow to the dream of a Greater Israel.

Rabin's dream of peace led to the nightmare of assassination.

Rabin is survived by his wife; two children, Dalia and Yuval; and three grandchildren.

His death left Israel in a state of shock and grief, and prompted messages of condolence from leaders the world over.

Peres — once Rabin's longtime political rival, though the pair became partners in the quest for an enduring regional peace — delivered an emotional speech in which he referred to a scrap of paper that was found in Rabin's shirt after the prime minister was shot.

Written on the paper were lyrics from a song of peace that Rabin and his fellow Cabinet ministers had sung at Saturday night's rally.

"A bullet can tear through a piece of paper. It also can tear a body," said Peres, who was named acting prime minister at an emergency cabinet meeting shortly after the assassination.

"But a bullet cannot destroy the ideal of peace."