For success-driven Rabin, the election was a military campaign he had to win

June 24, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Yitzhak Rabin wanted to lead Israel as he once led the army.

His successes in the military eluded him in the transition to the civilian reins of power. At 70, he wanted that victory.

He was a hero of two wars and a strong minister of defense. But his one term as prime minister was cut short by what now seems a minor scandal, and he had to take a back seat in his Labor Party while it suffered a succession of election losses.

This time, he was determined that his chance would not meet failure.

Mr. Rabin campaigned like a soldier. He made a point of taking his campaign into hostile areas, to the strongholds of the opponent's Likud bloc. He went to the development towns, the ethnic markets, the blue-collar working neighborhoods where previous Labor candidates had been heckled and jeered.

It was partly an illustration of his style, to meet the fight head-on. At each of those stops, he questioned party workers like a commander, mixed with the people like he was visiting the troops, gave a short, wooden address and then left, mission accomplished.

It is this image of strength that he hoped would allay voters' suspicions that the Labor Party is too liberal, too weak. The same image, he hoped, would allow him as prime minister to make the kind of deals necessary to end the long bloodletting between Israelis and Palestinians.

Unlike the Likud's Yitzhak Shamir, who fervently believes in Israel's biblical destiny to occupy the Gaza Strip and the West Bank of the Jordan River, Mr. Rabin advocates pragmatism.

He campaigned on the promise that he would reverse the intransigence of the current government and come to a quick agreement with Palestinians to allow them autonomy in the occupied territories. He would end much -- though not all -- of the settlement in those areas, settlement that has been nurtured by Mr. Shamir's government.

He is moved not from concern for Arab human rights but for Jewish control of its own state.

"I don't want to include 1.7 million Arabs in the state of Israel," he told voters.

He promised to take the money spent trying to settle those lands and plow it back into Israel's crying domestic needs.

To a country immobilized by the long and divisive debate over those lands, it was an appeal to action. And many more voters than expected appeared yesterday to have embraced the view.

Mr. Rabin's career had been built on action. Born in Jerusalem to Russian parents, he was planning to study irrigation engineering in California when World War II intervened. He joined Palmach, the commando unit of the Jewish Haganah forces in 1941, and fought in Syria and Lebanon against the Vichy French.

At the end of the war, the Jewish fight turned against the British. Mr. Rabin led underground raids against a British camp south of Haifa and a police post. He was arrested in 1946 and spent six months in a prison camp.

When the British withdrew from Palestine, leaving the Jews and the Arabs to fight over the land, Mr. Rabin commanded the famous Har-El Brigade in unsuccessful battles for Jerusalem.

After Israel was born, he remained in the army, advanced through the ranks and was the chief of staff who planned the lightning-quick victory of the Six-Day War in 1967.

He served as ambassador to the United States from 1968 to 1973 and thus was spared association with the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Israel was surprised and suffered heavy losses. Prime Minister Golda Meir resigned after that war, and Mr. Rabin was chosen to take her place in 1974.

In his term he forged agreements with Egypt to withdraw from the Sinai and engineered the bold raid on the airport at Entebbe, Uganda, to rescue Israeli hostages. But he resigned in 1977 when journalists disclosed he and his wife had bank accounts in the United States, illegal under Israeli law.

His term ended the Labor Party's long supremacy over Israeli politics. In the 1977 election, the Likud surged to power. In successive elections, Mr. Rabin took a back seat in his party to Shimon Peres, but the closest Mr. Peres came to success were two shared-power arrangements with Likud in 1984 and 1988.

During those arrangements, Mr. Rabin was defense minister. His iron-fist attempt to break the Palestinian uprising that began in 1987 won support among conservatives, including Mr. Shamir. But it brought international condemnation.

Because of his stern orders to crush the revolt, Palestinians were not enthusiastic about his candidacy during this election, despite the more flexible approach he advocated for control of the territories.

Mr. Rabin's history did not all work for him in the campaign. He had to confront and deny old rumors about excessive drinking and once again explain a 24-hour lapse shortly before the Six-Day War when he collapsed, he said, from fatigue and nicotine consumption.

But his forthright discussion of the matters put the issues in the background and permitted him to focus on his past strengths and future proposals.

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