October 21, 2005
Yitzhak Rabin’s 10th yarziet is approaching, and a series of events will commemorate Rabin’s memory and legacy. For each of us Rabin means something different. Some will remember him as the young Palmach officer who fought the battles to open the route to Jerusalem and release her from the siege in 1947. Others will remember him for his role as Commander in Chief of the IDF during the 1967 Six Day War. He may be remembered as the Minister who decided on the first retreat from Lebanon in 1985, or the Minister of Defense who faced the first Intifada in 1987. For some he will be remembered for the signing of the Oslo accords and shaking Yassar Arafat’s hand, and also for achieving the peace treaty with Jordan.
I would like to share some thoughts and memories of my first and only meeting with Yitzhak Rabin. This happened 20 years ago in the summer of 1985. Rabin was Minister of Defense in the Shamir-Peres government, and I was a young lieutenant serving as a Company Commander, posted on the Lebanese border, with some outposts in southern Lebanon. We were informed that the Minister would be visiting the border, and one of my outposts was elected to host this visit. You can imagine the preparations taken before the visit. Everything had to be cleaned up, tested and checked and the tension grew higher and higher towards the important day.
This is where I should describe a long known IDF legend that has never yet been denied. “The top brass will always ask the dumbest soldier the hardest question”, and for us young officers the greatest challenge was not preparing the facility but briefing and guiding the men for the crucial questions. For some unknown reason, no matter how much you prepare your men, the general/minister/officer will somehow find the soldier who was on leave or ill or on kitchen duty or on guard when the briefing was given, and hasn’t a clue about anything. As experienced young officers we did our best to prepare for this situation, and double and triple checked that all the men were properly briefed. We also made sure all the posts were manned with the best and most knowledgeable soldiers.
The first part of the visit went off as expected. Rabin was taken to two or three outposts overlooking Lebanon. The soldiers answered all the questions, recited all the names of the villages and the distance to the different mountains and all was going well. When this was over, Rabin asked if I could gather all the men for a conversation in the central courtyard. The Company all sat together on the paved courtyard and Rabin stood in front of us in his blue jacket and gave a short speech on the importance of guarding the northern border. Then Rabin surprised me by addressing one of the men, asking him for his name and where he lives. “Avner” he said “and I’m from Rishon-le-Zion”. I was devastated. Avner was the clumsiest of all my men, always late, never shaved, always losing his gear and getting into trouble. Rabin asked him in his deep slow voice: “OK Avner, what is your personal assignment in the Company?” (Every man has a personal assignment above his overall duties) “I carry the minefield sandals” Avner said. (The minefield sandals are two very large sandals made of cushioned material used to walk in minefields without putting pressure on the mines and causing them to explode). “And when was the last time you tried them on and checked they were in good order?” I was in a state of shock!!! The minefield sandals are an esoteric assignment, and they are usually stacked in a remote storage bunker, rarely checked and hardly ever used or tried out. They are wrapped in nylon protective sleeves which are hard to open and close again. I knew Avner’s answer. “Never” he said. Rabin gave me a long, penetrating look and then continued with his lecture and conversation.
After the Company was dismissed and all the men returned to their duties, Rabin called me and we sat together for a light lunch. “David” he said, “I know all the excuses and explanations, I have heard them many times and even have used some of them myself.” And then Rabin said something I never forgot for the rest of my military career in the regulars and reserves: “You are an officer in the IDF, in time of emergency you might not be near your men to guide them and lead them, but you will have to trust them. The only way you can influence their reaction is by keeping them ALERT and PREPARED. You prepare them by briefings and practice, and you keep them alert by drills and routine checks”. Rabin smiled and put a friendly arm on my shoulder and said “You won’t be as popular, but your men will never fail you…..”
Rabin always spoke his mind, and took action according to his beliefs. He lost his popularity among certain quarters in Israel and paid with his life for doing so. Unfortunately, the security around Rabin failed to prevent the assassin from shooting him, although this is one of the best prepared and most alert units in the world.
Something is missing – it is not enough to be prepared and alert? – Will there always be a crack for the unexpected to enter? Can this crack ever be sealed hermetically? And if so, what can be used as a sealer? Perhaps – unity, consensus, love or solidarity or maybe faith or God. Maybe this crack is not meant to be sealed. Perhaps it was formed alongside humankind and will always be there….
You are all invited to attend Yitzhak Rabin’s 10th Memorial Ceremony at the JCC on the Palisades, on Saturday night, October 29th at 8.00 PM. The keynote speaker will be Rabin’s son, Yuval. This is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on Rabin’s legacy: Peace, Democracy and Unity and to engage in the only way to achieve these goals, by daring.