John Barry: The Ghosts of Israel’s Past

Roundup: Talking About History

John Barry joined Newsweek's Washington bureau as national-security correspondent in 1985.

“There were two hunters,” Yitzhak Rabin began. It was 1975, and Rabin was prime minister of Israel. He was trying to explain to a visiting reporter Israel’s policy toward “the Palestinian question.” And, as usual, he was telling a story to make his point. “The hunters were stalking deer in thick brush. Suddenly, a deer appeared in front of them. They fired and the deer dropped. They took the deer by its antlers and began to drag it back toward their car. But the deer’s antlers caught in the brush. Finally one of the hunters suggested: 'If we drag it the other way, the antlers won’t catch like that.' So they took the hind legs of the animal and began to drag it the other way.  After a while, the first hunter said: 'There, didn’t I say it would be easier this way?' 'Yes,' the other replied, 'but aren’t we getting a long way from the car?' ”

Rabin had a story for everything, and all his stories had a sting in the tail—especially when they were parables of Israel’s policies toward its neighbors. Close to 45 years on, the storming of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo underscores the fact that Israel now faces the prospect of new Arab regimes whose energized peoples are certain to be far less tolerant of the Israeli/Palestinian impasse than were their complaisant rulers.  Internationally, Israel confronts a near-certain vote in the United Nations General Assembly to recognize Palestinian statehood; while only a U.S. veto will stave off a Security Council resolution to the same effect—a veto that, as Saudi Arabia has warned, will cost the U.S. dearly in its relations with the Arab world. In his gloomy musings about the future, Rabin seems increasingly a prophet.

“Victory is better than defeat,” he remarked that afternoon in 1975. “What people want to ignore is that victory brings its own problems.” He wondered whether Israel’s victories in 1967 and 1973 had been, as he put it, “too complete for Israel’s good.” In 1967 Israel had ended up occupying the West Bank—a move he said he had argued passionately against in 1948. (Rabin was baffled by King Hussein of Jordan, whose decision to join Egypt in the 1967 War led directly to Israel’s overrunning of the West Bank. “We urged him to stay out. Why didn’t he listen?” Rabin asked.) Looking back at the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he was torn. With his heart, Rabin rejoiced at Israel’s devastating response to the surprise assault. With his strategist’s brain, he privately regretted that Egyptian military incompetence had led to so sweeping an Israeli victory in the Sinai. “Politically, a stalemate would have been a better outcome,” he said...

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