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Tuesday, April 21, 1998 Published at 10:37 GMT 11:37 UK

Yitzhak Rabin

By Gerald Butt

Yitzhak Rabin was a born soldier, dedicated and brave. Equally, he was a clumsy politician, moody, and blunt to the point of rudeness.

Yet his military background and his openness as a politician endeared him to many Israelis. Above all, they trusted him.

In making peace with the Palestinians, they felt confident he would not compromise Israel's security. Few Israeli leaders have enjoyed the same trust.

Public confidence in Rabin stemmed from his military career which began when he was a young man. He was born in Palestine in 1922, of a Russian mother and Ukrainian-American father.

In his mid-twenties he was in the Palmach, an elite Jewish commando force, fighting the British. Later, during the war against the Arabs after Israel was created in 1948, Rabin distinguished himself by leading a force that kept open the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, thus preventing an Arab blockade of the latter.

[ image: Yitzhak Rabin, Chief of Staff of the Israeli forces during the '67 war]
Yitzhak Rabin, Chief of Staff of the Israeli forces during the '67 war
By 1964 Rabin had risen to chief-of-staff, and the 1967 Middle East war was the finest hour of his military career. Israel annihilated its enemies in six days and captured vast areas of Arab land.

The reward for the military hero was a spell in Washington as Israel's ambassador. Freely flouting diplomatic convention, Rabin won friends in the Nixon administration and secured practical American help for Israel's strategic role as a defender of Western interests in the Middle East.

In 1974, Rabin defeated Shimon Peres in a vote for a Labour leader to replace Golda Meir. Rabin became the youngest Israeli prime minister, and the bitter rivalry between him and Peres intensified.

Rabin's coalition fell apart in 1977, and the subsequent election brought the right-wing Likud bloc to power.

Rabin returned to prominence in 1984 as defence minister in a government of national unity. Three years later Palestinian anger against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip erupted with the start of the Intifada (uprising).

Rabin ordered the army to put down the Intifada. But tough military force did not work. Nor did mass arrests and deportations.

Rabin realised that 1.7 million Palestinians under occupation could not be ruled by force. A negotiated peace was the only solution.

Back in office as prime minister in 1992 he prepared the Israeli public for compromise with the Palestinians.

But years in politics had not softened Rabin's abrasive manner. He needed a statesman to work alongside him. His old rival Shimon Peres fitted the bill exactly.

[ image: A hesitant handshake]
A hesitant handshake
The climax of secret negotiations with the Palestinians came on September 13, 1993. On the White House lawn, in the presence of President Clinton, Rabin shook hands with Yasser Arafat.

Even at that historic moment Rabin could not assume the guise of a statesman and hide his feelings. His grimace and his hesitation showed that he was reluctant to shake the hand of the PLO leader.

His reluctance stemmed, perhaps, from the knowledge that many right-wing Israelis considered him a traitor. Rabin knew he had a tough political fight on his hands back home.

And that battle was still under way when a young Israeli called Yigal Amir assassinated the 73-year-old prime minister after a peace rally in Tel Aviv in November 1995.

It was the only battle that Rabin, the born soldier, failed to win.

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