Yitzhak Rabin was one of Israel’s greatest Prime Ministers. He stands in the same company as renowned Labor leaders like David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir. But not only that, Rabin’s courage and integrity in that role makes him stand out as one of the great global leaders of the past generation.
In today’s world in particular, Rabin’s legacy of leadership is clear. During his time as the Prime Minister of the State of Israel Rabin provided a compelling example of what national leadership looks like when the role is embraced by a person of courage, integrity and a commitment to facing the unvarnished truth of the challenges before them. In all these matters Rabin demonstrated national leadership that is the polar opposite of the example provided by the ideologically blinkered and populist rulers of many nations today.
Rabin knew what it was to fight for his country. As a young man he fought for the Palmach in the years leading up to the establishment of modern Israel. And then he fought on as a member of the Israel Defence Forces, rapidly rising through the ranks until finally serving as IDF Chief of Staff during Israel’s greatest military victory in the 1967 War.
Yet the same man who helped Israel take the Occupied Territories also understood that they would need to be relinquished in the interests of peace. In 1993, in the context of the Oslo peace process, Rabin had the courage to tell his former enemies in the PLO, as well as the nation that elected him to lead them:
“We, the soldiers who have returned from battle stained with blood, we who have seen our relatives and friends killed before our eyes, we who have attended their funerals and cannot look into the eyes of their parents, we who have come from a land where parents bury their children, we who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today in a loud and clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough.”
Rabin’s leadership, as a courageous soldier for both war and then for peace, was recognised around the world. His role as a peace-maker was acknowledged with the Nobel Peace Prize that he was awarded in 1994. It also formed the foundation of the deep friendship he forged with US President Bill Clinton as they took the bold actions they understood would be necessary if Israel and the Palestinians were to bring to an end their long history of blood and tears.
Rabin’s legacy seems even clearer today than it did at the time of his murder 25 years ago. One of his great strengths was his willingness to face the truth of the world, and of the challenges it posed for Israel. It wasn’t that he didn’t want a larger state incorporating all the lands mentioned in the Torah. It was that Rabin had the courage to face the reality that another nation, the Palestinians, held a yearning for those same lands, and not only that, that justice required their claim to be accommodated too.
It was that Rabin had the courage to tell his nation that painful compromises were necessary, a message that was particularly difficult for the Israeli settlers to accept because their ties to those territories were both genuine and deep.
Rabin had the courage to truly lead, rather than to merely follow.
Tragically for all, Rabin was cut down by the bullets of an extremist Jewish settler before he could implement his vision for peace, and the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians continues to the present day. And we cannot know what Israel would look like today if Rabin had lived on to lead his country toward peace.
But I am proud that support for the State of Israel as a vibrant and democratic nation, and for Rabin’s vision of just and enduring peace with the Palestinians, remain areas of bipartisanship in Australia’s often bitterly divided parliament.
I never had the honour of meeting Prime Minister Rabin, but as a friend of Israel and a friend of peace, on this 25th anniversary of his death I echo the words of President Clinton, who farewelled his dear friend with the simple but resonant, shalom, chaver – goodbye, friend.