Shalom Freedman on Rabin and Israel’s National Security by Efraim Inbar

, October 1, 2005

Jewish Political Studies Review 17:3-4 (Fall 2005)

In this book Efraim Inbar, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and director of its Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, closely examines former Prime Minister and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s conception of and contributions to Israeli security. In six clearly written and information-rich chapters, Inbar considers: (1) “The Approach to International Politics and the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” (2) “The American Orientation in Israel’s Foreign Policy,” (3) “Building a Conventional Military Force,” (4) “The Use of Military Force,” (5) “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” and (6) “Rabin of the 1990s: The Changing Strategic Assessment.”

Inbar views Rabin as someone for whom Israel’s security was the cardinal value, the guiding principle to which he dedicated his life. In surveying Rabin’s career beginning with Israel’s Independence War in 1948, Inbar notes:

“He served in important military positions and contributed to making the Israel Defense Force (IDF) into a mighty military organization. As chief of staff from 1964 to 1967, he commanded the army in the Six-Day War, and he served as Prime Minister after the Yom Kippur War (1974-77) presiding over the Army’s recovery process. During his 1984-90 tenure as Defense Minister, he oversaw a major restructuring of the army, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon, and the IDF handling of the Intifada. He served again as Prime Minister and Defense Minister in 1992-1995, signing several interim agreements with the Palestinians and the peace treaty with Jordan.”

Inbar maintains that Rabin was not a strategic thinker but rather a brilliant planner of military operations. Israeli generals Rehavam Ze’evi and Israel Tal called him the finest teacher of military skills the IDF had ever had. Rabin was also a skilled pragmatist, skeptical and cautious regarding Israel’s security needs. He viewed international relations in Realpolitik terms, promoting national interests through reliance on military power. Inbar remarks that “Rabin was of all Israeli leaders the one most closely associated with an American orientation, looking to Washington for signs of approval or disapproval in forging Israel’s national strategy.” He also believed Israel’s military power was not only necessary for its survival but to enable it to reach peace agreements with its Arab neighbors.

 

A Career that Raises Questions

Although generally praising Rabin’s military leadership, Inbar also points out faults. For example, he claims that, while preparing Israel for large-scale security challenges, Rabin at first ignored the threat presented by the Palestinian intifada, only later finding a military answer for it. However, Inbar neither overtly criticizes nor adequately explains – perhaps no one can – the turnabout wherein Rabin not only agreed to relinquish parts of the Land of Israel but also to allow a foreign armed force into them. “In the last years of his life,” Inbar observes, “Rabin seemed to have adopted the dovish diagnosis of the Arab-Israeli conflict as well as much dovish terminology.”

Inbar acknowledges that economic factors played a greater role in Rabin’s thinking in these latter years, and may have been one consideration. Still, the fact that Israel’s “Mr. Security” should have made such a flip-flop in adopting the Oslo process, arming those who were enemies a moment before and relying on them to protect Israel, is clearly the great shadow hanging over Rabin’s whole career in public service.

Regarding the increasingly critical area of nuclear defense, Rabin was traditionally known to emphasize the centrality of conventional forces. That is, in the 1980s and 1990s he still felt it possible to delay the entrance of Arab nuclear weapons into the region. “As far as Israel was concerned,” Inbar writes, “Rabin considered these weapons of very limited strategic value, usable only in scenarios involving survival. When the missile and chemical weapons threats became greater in the eighties, Rabin emphasized more a deterrence rather than a preemption approach.”

It is by no means clear what position Rabin would have taken toward the WMD threat Israel currently faces from Iran, whose missiles are reportedly capable of reaching every part of the Jewish state. In a work whose basic approach is a strong reliance on the historical record, Inbar does not speculate on this question.

Overall, this is a first-rate study and important reading for anyone concerned about Israel’s security.

Shalom Freedman

Shalom Freedman is a freelance writer in Jerusalem.