Fifteen years ago last month, three leaders, united in their determination for change, stood together on the White House lawn. Along with King Hussein of Jordan and President Clinton, my father, Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister of Israel, signed the Washington Declaration, which brought to an end 46 years of belligerence between Israel and Jordan. The success of their efforts was helped immeasurably by the force of human chemistry between two men who shared a desire to end a lifetime of conflict. The bond of trust between them trickled down to the Israeli public, who also developed a special affection for the Jordanian king.
The drama of the ceremony in Washington thrilled the world. For Israelis it was a time of hope and optimism. But there was a blunt honesty about my father’s words that day. While sending his congratulations to the inhabitants of Israel and of Jordan, he also wished “to remember the fallen in the wars on both sides, and to tell children on both sides of the border: we hope and pray that your life will be different than ours”. This frankness was characteristic of Yitzhak Rabin. He was a pragmatic leader and a realist. For him, the risks taken to make peace were justified by the personal memory of the cost of war.
Much criticism was heard then, and is still heard today, from left and right, about the path my father pursued. The peace with Jordan, while cooler than its founders would have hoped, has held firm. The Oslo peace process with the Palestinians, however, which made the Washington Declaration possible, did not proceed as had been hoped. Because of all that has passed since, those hopeful days can feel like a distant dream. There is no denying that the deterioration of the Oslo framework after my father’s death devastated the peace movement as a political force. Israelis today have low, resigned expectations and little faith in the Palestinians as a partner for peace.
But it would be a mistake to think the Israeli people lost the will or ability to make the difficult decisions necessary to achieve peace.
In fact, the reverse is true. The central tenets of my father’s legacy are irreversible. The Israeli peace movement as represented by mass rallies and left-wing political parties may be a shadow of what it was, but the logic that led my father to pursue a path to a settlement is now more ingrained in the Israeli consensus than ever. In 1994, a small minority of Israelis were in favour of dismantling settlements; today the majority are in favour. The disengagement from Gaza, orchestrated by Ariel Sharon, demonstrated that the insight that drove my father to make an agreement with the PLO had been accepted by many of his former opponents. Sharon had come to understand, as my father had, that the basic values of the State of Israel, a democratic state with a Jewish majority, necessitated a separation from the Palestinians. Then, an even smaller minority of Israelis were in favour of a Palestinian state. Today, even Binyamin Netanyahu, for years a fierce opponent, acknowledges the need for a two-state solution.
What lessons can we draw from the events of 15 years ago to help to transform Israeli public acceptance of a two-state solution into a realistic peace process? How can we use the memory of those better times? First, we have to remember the importance of leadership. It was not easy
for my father to embark on the peace process, but when he saw it was the only choice, he confronted it. Second, Israel cannot make peace alone. What made the agreement with Jordan a success was a partner who recognised that it was in his country’s interests. He was willing to reverse years of public opposition and stand shoulder to shoulder with an Israeli leader.
King Hussein’s actions were made possible by the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians, but they also reinforced that process and helped to legitimise it. Today we need other Arab leaders to show similar courage and take constructive steps towards normalisation of relations with Israel. The Israeli people need to see that the Arab world is ready to embrace them – as King Hussein did – should progress with the Palestinians be forthcoming.
The Washington Declaration put great emphasis on the belief that “steps must be taken both to overcome psychological barriers and to break with the legacy of war”. Yitzhak Rabin knew that Israel had to build a new reality based not only on trust between leaders, but on trust between peoples. We need to renew that approach, whether through interfaith dialogue, cultural exchange, business partnership, academic partnership or joint infrastructure projects. The vision of the Jordan valley as a valley of peace, with joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian development projects, continues to be promoted by Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, who was my father’s political partner at the time of the Washington Declaration.
Fifteen years ago is not ancient history. The symbolism of that day should inspire us. We live in a world of constant change that presents fresh opportunities for those who have the courage to take them. With a new US president determined to promote the peace process, and a shared interest between Israel and the Arab world in containing the threat of radicalism, there may be such an opportunity today. It is time for politicians to show the leadership and courage of Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein.
Dalia Rabin-Pelosoff is the daughter of the assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. From 1999-2003, she was a member of the Knesset. She now runs the Rabin Centre, an organisation dedicated to ensuring that the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin continues to shape Israeli youth and the people of Israel in general