Rabin knew war and never shirked from the responsibilities of defending his state or its people, but he also understood that to realise the full potential for the benefit of humanity Israel could not live in a perpetual state of war and existential crisis. He showed courage in seeking to find peace no matter how unsavoury the partner or how great the challenge.
Mr LEESER (Berowra) (11:29): ‘Yitzhak Rabin’s story is the story of Israel.’ That was a comment made to me by Ron Weiser, the former President of the Zionist Federation of Australia, recently, and the truth of that statement is absolute. Rabin’s life had been about making peace for Israel, first as a general and then as a statesman.
People came to admire Rabin for leading Israel’s forces to victory in the Six-Day War, when Israel’s Arab neighbours simultaneously attacked the fledgling Jewish state. For those of us not alive to witness those events, it’s difficult to appreciate the impact of the threat to Israel’s very existence in awakening the consciousness of Jews throughout the world. The member for McNamara rightly mentioned Jonathan Sacks, the recently deceased former chief rabbi of the Commonwealth, who, as the member rightly says, was a towering figure not just of theology but also of Jewish and global religious leadership. He was a student at Cambridge at the time, and he captured the atmosphere. For those of us not alive at that time, it’s hard to appreciate. I just want to quote from him:
The State of Israel was exposed to attack on all fronts. A catastrophe seemed to be in the making. I, who had not lived through the Holocaust nor even thought much about it, became suddenly aware that a second tragedy might be about to overtake the Jewish people.
It was then that an extraordinary thing began to happen. Throughout the university Jews suddenly became visible. Day after day they crowded into the little synagogue in the centre of town. Students and dons who had never before publicly identified as Jews could be found there praying … Everyone wanted to help in some way, to express their solidarity, their identification with Israel’s fate … the same phenomenon was repeating itself throughout the world … Jews were riveted to their television screens and radios, anxious to hear the latest news, involved, on the edge, as if it were their own lives that were at stake. The rest is history. The war was fought and won. It lasted a mere six days, one of the most spectacular victories in modern history … Collectively the Jewish people had looked in the mirror and … felt part of a people, involved in its fate, implicated in its destiny, caught up in its tragedy, exhilarated by its survival.
In the centre of those events in the Six-Day War was Yitzhak Rabin, the chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces.
Rabin knew war and never shirked from the responsibilities of defending his state or its people, but he also understood that to realise the full potential for the benefit of humanity Israel could not live in a perpetual state of war and existential crisis. He showed courage in seeking to find peace no matter how unsavoury the partner or how great the challenge. As Prime Minister, Rabin undertook negotiations with Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, that culminated in the 1993 Oslo accords. Rabin captured the mood the day he signed those accords when he said:
… today, is not so easy neither for myself, as a soldier in Israel’s wars, nor for the people of Israel, nor to the Jewish people in the Diaspora who are watching us now with great hope, mixed with apprehension … Let me say to you, the Palestinians … We say to you today in a loud and a clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough. We have no desire for revenge. We harbor no hatred towards you. We, like you, are people, people who want to build a home, to plant a tree … to live side by side with you in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free men. We are today giving peace a chance, and saying again to you: Enough. Let us pray that a day will come when we all will say: Farewell to the arms.
We wish to open a new chapter in the sad book of our lives together a chapter of mutual recognition, of good neighborliness, of mutual respect, of understanding. We hope to embark on a new era in the history of the Middle East.
That day, Israel officially recognised the PLO and agreed to gradually implement limited self-rule for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In exchange, the Palestinians renounced violence and officially recognised Israel as a state. Sadly, the violence returned with the Second Intifada. In 1994, Rabin won the Nobel Peace Prize. Later that year, he also signed a momentous peace treaty with Jordan.
The territorial concessions made by Rabin aroused intense opposition in Israel. On 4 November 1995, Rabin attended a mass peace rally in Tel Aviv which was held to muster support for the Oslo accords. The rally ended in tragedy when Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist. The fact that Rabin was killed by a person who shared his faith and his homeland was a particular tragedy.
Rabin had this idea that you don’t wait for peace to come; rather you make peace. On the night he was killed people were chanting: ‘Don’t say the day will come; bring the day.’ That is the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin, and, although the Middle East peace process has stalled until recently, the changes in the environment between Israel and its neighbours as a result of the Abraham accords and as a result of Sudan announcing the normalisation of its relations with Israel well and truly honour the memory and legacy of this remarkable leader.