Yitzhak Rabin was a politician, statesman, and general who was the fifth Prime Minister of Israel. He was the first native-born prime minister, the second prime minister to die while in office, and the first prime minister in the country to be assassinated. Rabin served in this position for two terms – from 1974 to 1977 and then in 1992 until his assassination in 1995.
Rabin led a long 27-year military career, first with Haganah’s elite Palmach forces and then with the newly established Israel Defense Forces (IDF). He was IDF’s chief of staff who led Israel to a stunning military victory in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Rabin was ambassador to the United States (1968 – 1973), becoming the architect of the close relations between Israel and the U.S.
As Prime Minister, Rabin led his country towards Arab and Palestinian neighbors. In 1992, he was re-elected on a platform involving the peace process between Israel and Palestine. He jointly received the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with his long-time political rival Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat.
Early life and education
Yitzhak Rabin was born in Jerusalem, Mandatory Palestine (now Israel), on March 1, 1922, to Nehemiah Rabin (formerly Rubitzov) and Rosa Rabin (nee Cohen). His parents were Jewish Eastern Europeans who arrived in the third wave of Jewish immigrants to Palestine from Europe (“Third Aliyah”).
Rabin finished his schooling at the Kadoorie Agricultural High School in Kefar Tavor. He planned to become an irrigation engineer, but the ongoing resistance of the Palestinian Arabs against the British administration of the Mandate caused his interests to shift to the military.
In 1941 he joined the Palmach, the elite strike force of the Jewish underground army Haganah. The Palmach was under the command of Yigal Allon, whom Rabin first met while he was still at Kadoorie.
Rabin participated in actions against the Vichy French forces in Syria and Lebanon. In 1945, he was deputy commander of the operation that freed 208 Jewish illegal immigrants who had been detained at the Atlit detention camp. In 1947, Rabin rose to the rank of Chief Operations Officer of the Palmach.
Israel Defense Forces (IDF)
During the first of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Rabin directed the operations in and around Jerusalem and also fought the Egyptian army in the Negev. Around the same time, he married Leah Schlossberg, a reporter working for the Palmach. They had two children, Dalia and Yuval.
Rabin studied at a British staff college until 1953. The following year he was appointed head of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and headed Israel’s Northern Command from 1956 to 1959. In 1964, Rabin was appointed as IDF’s chief of staff by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. In 1967 Rabin led the IDF to a decisive victory in the Six-Day War. His strategies, including air supremacy and swift mobilization of reserves, proved successful in the war.
The victory made Rabin a hero in the eyes of many Israelis, who began to see him as someone who could ensure Israel’s security in the future.
Retirement from the army and early political career
Following his retirement from the IDF in 1968, Rabin joined the newly formed Israel Labor Party. He was subsequently appointed ambassador to the United States. During his five years in Washington, he forged deepening relations with American leaders and played a significant role in promoting “strategic cooperation” with the U.S. The U.S., in turn, provided massive military support to Israel.
Rabin earned bitter criticism from Israeli hard-liners as he advocated withdrawal from the Arab territories that Israel seized following the Six-Day War as part of the Middle East peace process.
First term as Prime Minister
Rabin returned to Israel in March 1973, several months before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. He was elected to the Knesset (Israel parliament) as a member of the Labor Party the following December.
In March 1974, he was appointed Minister of Labor by Prime Minister Golda Meir. But it was a short-lived position as Meir resigned the following April. Following Meir’s resignation, Rabin assumed leadership of the Labor party and Prime Minister of Israel on June 2, 1974. At 52 years old, Rabin became the youngest Prime Minister at the time.
As Prime Minister, he expressed his willingness to negotiate with his adversaries. He was also willing to take other actions as deemed necessary, such as securing a ceasefire with Syria in the Golan Heights.
During his term, Rabin ordered the IDF to carry out a daring raid at the Entebbe Airport, Uganda, in July 1976, in which Israeli and non-Israeli hostages were rescued after being hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Revolutionary Cells (a West German leftist terrorist group). The rescue mission was an astounding success. The IDF had only one casualty on their side – Lieutenant Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu, who commanded the unit. He also happened to be the older brother of Israel’s current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Perhaps the most significant and enduring accomplishment during Rabin’s term was the Sinai Interim Agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1975. It laid the foundation for a permanent peace agreement between the two countries, which was achieved in 1979.
Rabin resigned as Prime Minister in 1977 and head of the Labor party in favor of Shimon Peres following the exposure of a joint US dollar bank account held by him and his wife, Leah. It was considered illegal for Israeli citizens to maintain unauthorized foreign bank accounts at the time.
Second term as Prime Minister
In February 1992, Rabin was elected Chairman of the Labor Party, winning against Peres. Following his election win the following June, Rabin began his second term as Prime Minister. He also assumed the position of Defense Minister.
His second term as Prime Minister was highlighted by two historic events – the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians and the Treaty of Peace with Jordan. In the Oslo peace process, Israel recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and granted Palestinians limited self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He also halted new Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.
Rabin, Peres, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for their role in the Oslo peace process.
As the realization of Israel’s territorial concessions to the Palestinians came near, they provoked intense opposition among several Israelis, in particular the settlers in the West Bank. Demonstrations by right-wing groups outside Rabin’s apartment would sometimes end up violently; at one point, the protestors vandalized his official car.
On November 4, 1995, Rabin attended a mass peace rally at the main square in Tel Aviv under the slogan “Yes to Peace, No to Violence.” As he left to go to his car, a student and right-wing extremist Yigal Amir broke through lax police security and fired several shots at Rabin’s back. Rabin was rushed to Ichilov Hospital but died shortly after. He was 73 years old. The funeral at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem was held before a devastated and grieving nation and attended by several world leaders.