Why I Still Miss Yitzhak Rabin

Fifteen years after the Israeli prime minister's assassination, Israel needs his guiding spirit more than ever.

As a journalist, I covered Yitzhak Rabin for the better part of eight years, from 1987 to 1995. During that period, I interviewed him when he was defense minister and in the political opposition, and I covered him when he was prime minister of Israel, during the zenith of the peace process.

Fifteen years ago, on Nov. 4, 1995, Rabin was gunned down by Yigal Amir, a right-wing extremist Jew, as he was leaving a mass rally in Tel Aviv in support of the Oslo Accords. I will never forget where I was when I heard the news of his assassination. While every Israeli was glued to their television and engulfed by grief, I drove through the Israel's deserted streets, from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, in the middle of the night to the Defense Ministry as the cabinet convened an emergency session to secure the transition of power.

Rabin had extraordinary faith in the people of Israel, even when it led to a fatal misjudgment. I remember attending a tiny cabinet briefing the Sunday before the assassination. It would be Rabin's last. One cabinet minister and Rabin confidant, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who had recently been the target of an assault by right-wing extremists himself, begged the prime minister to wear a bullet proof vest while attending the upcoming peace rally.

Ben-Eliezer would subsequently recall a similar Cabinet meeting a few weeks earlier. "I came and pounded on the Cabinet table and warned that a murder could take place," he said. "They silenced me and Rabin came to me, hugged me and told me, 'A Jew that would murder a Jewish minister? That's impossible!'"

Tens of thousands of Israelis commemorated this year's anniversary of Rabin's assassination in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on Oct. 30, where Israeli President Shimon Peres exhorted the crowd to sustain Rabin's legacy. "We are more determined than the enemies of peace, and therefore we will win," Peres said. "Because we vowed to bring an end to war, for us and our neighbors."

Reporters always loved to cover Rabin: His shyness was masked by his gruff demeanor -- chain-smoking and blunt-speaking - and he was incapable of telling a lie. He would begin answering a question by saying, "Well, I don't want to get into this, but...." I once counted 15 separate news stories that resulted from a relaxed session with journalists, of the kind that Rabin favored when he traveled.

The Middle East has too often been defined by leaders who think that toughness is saying hard things only to the other side. In no small measure, Rabin's greatness lay in his ability to deliver tough truths to his own people. He spoke directly to his public about the need to change national priorities in order to avoid radicalization and achieve peace with Israel's neighbors.

He also challenged Israelis not to take self-pitying comfort in international isolation. He sought to reshape a culture that too often was content with yiyeh b'seder -- "it will be OK."

Rabin was also an avid student of the Middle East. Part of his success in bonding with Jordan's King Hussein came from their visceral understandings that, given the rising wave of radicalism throughout the region, fellow moderates needed to navigate difficult challenges together. He was a master at identifying regional trends and determining their meaning -- long before they became apparent to many other members of Israel's political class.

For example, in the aftermath of the Cold War and 1991 Gulf War, Rabin immediately realized that tectonic shifts presented a remarkable opportunity for Israel. Like nobody else, he cut through the classic diplomatic conundrum: "If you are weak, you cannot afford to compromise and if you are strong, there is no need for compromise." He understood that it was in Israel's best interest to reach peace with the Palestinians at the peak of Israel's power, which had then been facilitated by regional and international change.

Rabin was willing to take bold steps to achieve peace, but his view of Israel's neighbors was unsentimental -- he knew that there would be no second chances if Israel could not defend itself. This unblinkered view led him to sign the Oslo Accords, which he believed was the best way to preserve Israel's national interests.

His leadership was rooted not just in the boldness of his thought and action, but in his personal history of military leadership. The Israeli public trusted him. As a young commander in the Palmach, the military wing of the Jewish community prior to the creation of the Israeli state, he was horrified that untrained Holocaust survivors were sent into combat during the 1948 war, only to be killed shortly after arriving in the country. This incident led him to decide to devote his life to the military.

The public appreciated his recognition that Israel did not exist in a vacuum, and had to make its way in a rough region while being true to the Zionist dream of restoring an ancient homeland. His views reflected the pragmatic strain of Zionism that is associated with David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, and Chaim Weizmann, its first president.

Rabin's credibility as a leader derived from his moral authority. He was deeply aware that the source of this authority came from ensuring that he did not leave any stone unturned in the quest of peace. He once told me that it was his genuine pursuit of an enduring peace that gave him the inner strength needed to look in the eyes of mothers who lost their sons in battle.

If he were still alive, Rabin would undoubtedly feel embarrassed today as others routinely depict him as a legend. Like anyone else, he made mistakes. When Israel was convulsed in terrorism during the First Intifada in the early 1990s, he mistakenly thought that Yasser Arafat would be better able to fight terrorism without the constraints of democratic governance. His response to his boisterous right-wing Israeli critics, many of whom accused him of being a traitor for his willingness to cede territory in the West Bank and Gaza, was sometimes acerbic. In private settings, he sometimes questioned the security credentials of his critics, pointedly asking others what military rank, if any, these critics held in the 1967 War, when he served as Israel Defense Forces chief of staff.

Yet Rabin's mistakes pale in comparison to his courage of conviction and commitment. I will always remember my last exchange with him shortly before his death. The interview was held at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem and, in those days, demonstrators were allowed so close to the office that I could not always hear Rabin's replies.

After the interview ended and the tape recorder had been turned off, I told him that I hoped he was not despondent about the demonstrators. Speaking off-the-record, I said to him: "I hope you will not give up as the challenges are so great." He said, "They will have to carry me out of here. I will not give up."

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Can Progressives and Tea Partiers Find Love Across the Aisle?

Five foreign-policy ideas these natural enemies can both get behind.

With the first shock waves of Tuesday's election reverberating across Washington and the country, armchair pundits are taking it as gospel that the results will inevitably mean gridlock as progressives and newly elected Tea Partiers lock horns in mortal combat. This may be true on a number of issues, but there might also be several surprising areas of convergence, including on some aspects of foreign-policy. For many people, the Tea Party's foreign policy agenda has been largely a cipher. As Kate Zernike noted, "Tea Partiers say they want to focus on economic conservatism, meaning that they don't spend a lot of time talking about other topics -- foreign policy, or social issues like gay marriage and abortion." But it is not so difficult to predict where the Tea Party impulse lies on a number of issues.

As always, the toughest test for Tea Party novices in Congress -- beyond learning that nothing is really ever off the record in this town -- will be sticking to the ideals championed in their candidacies. Many of them will quickly be tested by whether their loyalty lies with the Republican leadership or the platforms on which they ran. Washington has seen many self-proclaimed outsiders come and go.  

Progressives face their own set of challenges. Some pundits will be quick to point to the election results as a repudiation of a progressive agenda rather than the natural fallout from the slow job growth after a devastating economic downturn. There will be the usual bout of finger-pointing that follows a hard loss. Progressives will need to ask hard questions about what they could have done better and figure out whether they want to work across the aisle and make incremental progress or simply try to portray the Tea Party as out of the mainstream.

Those obvious tensions within both the Tea Party and progressive politics aside, here are some areas where these two natural enemies might actually find common cause -- while still sticking to their core beliefs:

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Afghanistan and Iraq: Just as Afghanistan and Iraq have been difficult issues for Democrats, they will likely become more so for the Republicans with the rise of the Tea Party. Both Republicans and Democrats largely ignored Afghanistan and Iraq on the campaign trail, primarily because both parties have some sharp internal divisions on the wars and because economic anger seemed to touch far more buttons on the campaign trail than foreign policy. Some Tea Partiers, such as Marco Rubio and Sarah Palin, favor aggressive international interventions along the lines of Dick Cheney, but the majority of them view foreign entanglements of any kind with skepticism. Peggy Noonan argues that the Tea Party represents a sharp split from the previous administration's neoconservatism: "The Tea Party did something the Republican establishment was incapable of doing: It got the party out from under George W. Bush. The Tea Party rejected his administration's spending, overreach and immigration proposals, among other items, and has been only too willing to say so." President Barack Obama may well find pressure from centrist Republicans and more conservative Democrats to stay in Afghanistan and Iraq longer than he would like. At the same time, he will likely face growing pressure from both progressives and Tea Partiers to accelerate the pace of draw down in Afghanistan, which is slated to begin in July 2011.

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Cutting Defense Spending: The Republican leadership has traditionally been loath to cut a nickel from the Defense Department, despite the fact that annual U.S. military spending has more than doubled over the last decade. The Tea Partiers say they are serious about balancing the budget and substantially cutting the deficit, a goal that is almost impossible to achieve without taking a hard look at the Pentagon. It will be interesting to see where the Tea Party comes out on defense spending. The philosophy of the movement's leaders on defense spending runs a remarkable gamut -- from Palin's preference for increased spending to Ron Paul's libertarian argument that sharp cuts are needed. Mark Meckler a founding member of the Tea Party Patriots argued, "Everything is on the table," adding, "I have yet to hear anyone say, 'We can't touch defense spending.'" Progressives and Tea Partiers may find that cutting some defense spending would both reduce the deficit and allow for sensible investments in infrastructure and job creation that could produce greater growth and competitiveness over the long haul.

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Reforming Foreign Aid: While foreign aid has often been demonized by conservatives, progressives and Tea Partiers alike should be able to find some common ground around recent efforts by the Obama administration to tighten and refine international development programs. The White House's plans for development programs, recently announced after a major strategy review, focus on fewer countries with a distinct emphasis on working with reform-minded governments to nurture broad-based economic growth. The Tea Partiers should also appreciate the administration's recognition that foreign assistance needs to be more focused on results and that some of the biggest proponents of development assistance are the unimpeachable voices of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen. Progressives should laud the fact that the administration seems newly willing to consider key factors like a country's human rights record in determining whether it is a good candidate for aid. One big caveat here: Foreign aid is always an easy target for the budget ax, and if development programs are gutted, reform will be almost impossible to make operational. Rep. Eric Cantor's recent suggestion that aid to Israel should be decoupled from the rest of the foreign operations budget to make cuts to other programs easier is just the first signal of what might be many tussles over aid funding.     


Cutting Agriculture Subsidies: At first blush, this might seem like more of a domestic issue than an international one. Yet, the continuing high level of U.S. agricultural subsidies -- which disproportionately benefit large agribusinesses, often at the cost of small farmers -- has complicated international trade talks and made it consistently harder for developing countries to grow economically as they face a playing field tilted against them. Helping developing countries might not be high on the Tea Party agenda, but creating new markets and new jobs will be. Cutting these ag subsidies would give both progressives and Tea Partiers something to like: The federal budget would be reduced, developing countries would more likely grow and develop as markets, small U.S. farmers would be better positioned to succeed, and minimal costs would be passed on to the average American consumer. Agriculture subsidies have lived on for so long because of lobbying by corporate interests inside the Beltway, and it will be interesting to see whether the new blood in the Republican rank and file challenges their leadership on such orthodoxies. Several Tea Party candidates, including Joe Miller in Alaska and Stephen Fincher in Tennessee, have benefited directly from agriculture subsidies in their professional lives, but most of the Tea Party is inclined to see these subsidies as little more than continued government bloat.

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Taking on Earmarks: Both Democrats and Republicans have had an abiding fondness for earmarks over the years despite repeatedly swearing them off. Earmarks on the foreign-policy accounts are some of the least remarked on in terms of the public debate, but also some of the most important in shaping, and sometimes distorting, U.S. policy abroad. There are many examples of members of Congress pushing for earmarks for their favorite local university doing research abroad or a local charity delivering pet projects -- even when these programs have little to do with U.S. foreign-policy objectives or a sensible plan for long-term development. If the Obama administration is committed to being more transparent and consultative on where it wants to spend money around the globe, Congress should live up to its own end of the bargain and try to limit the sheer number of earmarks and other efforts at micromanagement of foreign policy. Both progressives and Tea Partiers recognize that earmarks usually do not make for good government; it will be telling to see whether they can make common cause to limit them.

It would be naive to think that the bruising 2010 midterm election will leave in its wake sunny harmony, particularly on the foreign-policy front. But it would be equally mistaken to assume that a divided government is incapable of getting anything done -- especially on key areas of foreign policy, where unexpected alignments might actually bring the extremes of both parties across the aisle. Washington has always made for strange bedfellows, and 2011 should be no exception.