Yitzhak Rabin, z”l, whose assassination we commemorate this week, was a reluctant peacemaker. The image of his grudging, almost pained, handshake with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993 said much about the man. Many attribute to him larger than life qualities, and are convinced that but for his death we would now be living in a new, peaceful Middle East. But I am not sure Rabin would have shared that conviction.
What was apparent, to me at least, about Rabin as a man was precisely his rootedness in Middle East reality, and his suspicion for that brand of breathless optimism that imagines that the region can be transformed instantly. What was most striking about Rabin as a leader was that his realism and hard experience as a military man was not a barrier to diplomatic action and decision; it was almost an impetus for it. For him, the determined pursuit of negotiated agreements seemed to have more to do with better positioning Israel for the rise of Iran and extremism, than with a deeply held belief in the prospect of coexistence.
I connect with this side of Rabin because – though this is one of the less popular things for an Israeli to admit – I sometimes find the word “peace” quite irritating. It seems to conjure up a vision in people’s minds of a reality that for the foreseeable future may just not be within reach. As much as we may wish it to be different, it is difficult to read the headlines about Iran and terrorism, the empowerment of extremists and zero-sum diplomacy, and sustain the belief that true peace will break out any time soon. And this idea that a document on paper, however well-crafted, will usher in some utopian era in practice seems fanciful.
We live in a region with powerful militant actors, dysfunctional governments, and deep, systemic problems. To speak of a “peace agreement” as a kind of cure-all is to create expectations that cannot be met. If there is a case to be made for agreements with our neighbors – and there is – it is unfortunately not because it will produce the kind of peace enjoyed on the U.S.-Canadian border. It can only be because – assuming the right agreement can be reached – it offers a chance for a reality, and a future, better than the one we know.
In fact, most “peace agreements” do not really presume to establish peace in its broader sense. They do not try to reconcile grand historical narratives or produce deep bonds of friendship and cooperation between erstwhile warring peoples. Generally, they are technical documents. They focus on things like the military redeployment of troops, the composition of constituent assemblies, or the demarcation of a border. Even when done right, they tend to be less like exhilarating marriage ceremonies than unsatisfying divorce agreements, where bitter and scarred parents try, against odds, to make things less painful for their children.
We place too much weight on these negotiated agreements, and on the shoulders of the negotiators themselves, if we expect some form of words on paper to deliver salvation. Even at best, an agreement does not create peace; it creates the space for peace to grow. It creates a framework for the real potential engineers of peace – the teachers, the parents, the spiritual leaders, the children – to fashion a new reality and mindset over time; and for the extremists to gradually become unappealing and marginalized.
This is, of course, not the way leaders generally talk about negotiated settlements. More often than not, we are promised the dawn of some new age. The disillusionment associated with what can actually be reached and the rejection of what is on offer often follows.
Rabin’s legacy suggests that we may do well to shed this Messianic pretension. This language belongs to the age of Exile. When shaping your destiny is out of your hands, you can allow for the comfort of grand, unreachable visions to ease the long dull ache of your current predicament. But the real work of a sovereign State has more to do with improving the lot of its people than with revolutionizing it. And an imagination that is not grounded in reality can act as an obstacle to quality decisions, not just because the perfect can be the enemy of the good, but also because the good can be the enemy of the simply preferable.
This is not to say that agreements we reach with our neighbors should not bring real dividends. These agreements must produce, and must be seen to produce, a net advance in our interests and values (relative to the status quo). They must link somehow to our higher aspirations and our long-term prayers for a true peace. But they need not be all things to all people. They need not live up to some Romantic ideal that dreams can become realities overnight. They can and will be messy and sub-optimal even when they are the best alternative available.
It is said that at the conclusion of the Dayton Accords that brought an end to the war in Yugoslavia, the Bosnian leader, Alija Izetbegović, gave a speech in which he sought to justify the agreement to his people. But he did not try to convince them that some epic peace had been achieved. “This may not be a just peace”, he conceded, “but it is more just than the continuation of war.” In this same spirit, Rabin’s legacy suggests both that we must believe in the promise of peace, but also that we must make that promise believable. In honoring his memory, and advancing Israel’s interests, we could do worse than give more space for this kind of sentiment in our discourse and our decisions.