THIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY caused a minor sensation in Israel when it was serialized in the Hebrew language press earlier this year -- not so much for its literary merit or historical insight as for its vituperative and not altogether accurate attacks on the author's political rival, Shimon Peres.
Even by the rough-and-tumble standards of Israeli politics Yitzhak Rabin's attack on the man who replaced him as the leader of the Labor Party, now in opposition, appeared petty and vindictive and seems certain to have further damaged the political fortunes of this lonely, aloof and ambitious man.
The Rabin Memoirs also aroused curiosity because the book contains very little about the Arabs of Palestine, whose star waned as Israel's rose during what Rabin calls the "heroic" period of Zionism. Given Rabin's military background, this omission is a little like Kit Carson neglecting to mention Indians.
However, we have recently learned that this omission is not Rabin's fault. Rabin's first-person account of the forcible expulsion of about 50,000 Arab civilians from their homes near Tel Aviv in 1948 was censored from this book by the Israeli government, according to a recent news article.
Under Israeli law, former government officials are subject to official censorship and, although this tragic incident has been widely told in other accounts, the present Israeli government thought fit to muzzle their former premier presumably on the grounds that such a retelling of history would reflect badly on Israel's image.
An able soldier, Yitzhak Rabin rose to become chief of staff of the Israeli armed forces in time for the 1967 "Six Day War" and served as ambassador to Washington during the Johnson and Nixon administrations. In the wake of the bitter recriminations that followed the 1973 "Yom Kippur" war, Rabin became prime minister mainly because his party was looking for a fresh face with clean hands.
Whatever Rabin's abilities as a soldier and diplomat, his shortcomings as a political leader soon became apparent. The dissatisfaction, corruption and internal division that had begun long before Rabin took office became ever more manifest under his stewardship and in the end, after a string of embarrassing financial scandals concerning his administration, Rabin himself decided to step down when he and his wife were found to have an illegal foreign bank account in Washington. A month later, in May 1977, the Labor alignment lost a general election for the first time in Israel's history and Menachem Begin was brought to power.
In this memoir, Rabin tends to blame others for his party's misfortunes. "Because of my own preoccupation with defense and foreign affairs, I was forced to delegate the handling of these economic problems . . ." Rabin says in a Nixonesque disclaimer.
Rabin's government did, however, negotiate two interim Sinai agreements with Egypt, and Rabin is correct in saying that these agreements paved the way for President Anwar Sadat's dramatic journey to Jerusalem in 1977 which changed the course of Middle Eastern history.
There are nuggets of information in this book which help to flesh out our knowledge of recent Middle Eastern events. One is reminded once again that Sadat offered to make peace with Israel in 1971 in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal in the Sinai and from Gaza. The initiative failed because in included Gaza, which the later Camp David agreement did not, and because there was a conditional "link" between real peace and a subsequent Israeli withdrawal on all fronts to the pre-1967 lines. But it was, in Rabin's words, "a milestone" because "for the first time in the chronicles of the Middle Eastern conflict, an Arab country -- indeed, the largest Arab country and the leader of the Arab world -- had issued an official document expressing its readiness to enter into a peace agreement with Israel."
We learn here that in 1971, Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev offered to make a deal with Nixon for an overall solution to the Middle Eastern problem along the same total-withdrawal-for-peace lines after the 1972 American election. The Soviet Union was prepared to eliminate its operational military presence in Egypt and join the United States "both in an embargo on weapons shipments to the region and in measures to safeguard the agreement in whatever form the United States found necessary." The then Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, opposed the deal. It would take the negative shock of the 1973 war and the positive shock of Sadat's mission to Jerusalem before Israel and Egypt would come to terms.
Rabin states that the Nixon administration did not object to Israel's "deep penetration" air raids in 1969 and 1970 -- air raids that took the "War of Attrition" to civilian and military targets deep within Egypt and not just to those along the Suez Canal front. As ambassador in Washington he wrote Jerusalem that: "A man would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to sense how much the administration favors our military operations and there is a growing likelihood that the United States would be interested in an escalation of our military activity with the aim of undermining Nasser's standing."
Rabin's invective against Shimon Peres, which permeates the book, culminates in the charge that Peres, defense minister at the time of the Entebbe hijacking, failed to take prompt action in forming a military option to release the hostages. In fact, according to reliable sources who were involved in the Entebbe rescue preparations, this charge is not true. The reader may long for more details of this dramatic rescue but very little new information is offered.
Indeed, the general reader will find little of the anecdotal material here of the sort that made Golda Meir's memoirs memorable. Nor are we given an exciting sense of sitting at history's ringside as is the case with Moshe Dayan's autobiography. This is pretty dry stuff.
But for all of that Rabin's analytical faculties have always been good and his insights into the nature of the Arab-Israeli dispute towards the end of the book are not without value.