“Rabin was the first to realize that the most serious security threat came from Iran,” said Dr. Chaim Asa, national security adviser to the late prime minister and former defense minister Yitzhak Rabin. “He had a strategy of signing peace agreements with the so-called ‘first ring’ countries, that is, our immediate neighbors, with the aim of producing a united Israeli-Arab front against Iran.”
Asa’s claim, that Iran has always been Israel’s most serious threat and that Rabin’s peace strategy was designed to counter their influence in the Middle East, is supported by Major General Amos Yadlin, former head of the National Security Agency.
“Regarding the Iranian threat, he would have prepared a military option, and tried to do everything possible by diplomatic means, especially in partnership with America, to avoid military action,” said Yadlin, who currently serves as head of the Institute for National Security Studies.
Both Asa and Yadlin assert that had Rabin been alive today, he would have been in full support of the Abraham Accords as a continuation of this strategy against Iran.
Asa and Yadlin belong to a generation born immediately after the War of Independence. They are both kibbutz natives who, like Rabin, were brought up on the values of the labor movement – defense, socialism and chalutziut, or pioneering. In their youths, they experienced the terror before the Six Day War, and the euphoria that followed the resounding defeat of the invading Arab countries, led by Rabin as Commander in Chief. They also lived through the trauma of the Yom Kippur War, where many of their friends fell in battle.
Over the years, the two have become prominent security strategists. 26 years after Rabin’s assassination at the height of the Oslo Accords, they believe that the geopolitical map of the Middle East has changed only slightly.
Syria as a missed opportunity to prevent Iran’s rise
“In the many years that have passed since Rabin was assassinated, the State of Israel has lost momentum and Iran has gained power. It has built influence in Syria and Lebanon, created strongholds in the Gaza Strip – it has come to sit on our borders,” Asa said. “It is a strong and developed power and its threat to Israel is not only nuclear, but first and foremost a conventional threat.”
Asa argues that Rabin made a mistake by delaying the start to peace negotiations with Syria, citing pressure to first deal with the Palestinians. He says that Syria's civil war possibly could have been prevented if Israel had normalized ties.
“Today it is seen as almost a hallucinatory vision to have a peace agreement with Syria, but I think if Syria had been closer to the West, it would not have collapsed in the way it did,” he said. “Look at Egypt, for example. The Muslim Brotherhood are a strong and extensive organization and yet the government remains in the hands of the secularists.”
Asa explains that in the 1990’s, at the height of peace negotiations with Jordan and the Palestinian authority, America pushed hard towards a peace agreement with Syria in order to draw it away from Iran and Iraq and towards the West.
“Rabin came to power after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, events that enabled the tectonic plates within the Middle East to shift,” Asa continued. “The disintegration of the Soviet Union, the power that supported Syria in the second half of the 20th century, created a need for the Syrians to rely on another power.”
But America demanded a condition of Syria – not democracy, but social and economic openness in the region.
“America saw clearly where Assad's government would go without this openness. Today, everyone understands that,” Asa said. “If Syria had changed direction, their situation at the start of the Arab Spring would have been different. I’m not sure the country would have fallen apart like that, which would have prevented Iran from entering.”
Asa adds that negotiating with the Palestinians and the Syrians simultaneously could have changed the nature of the negotiations. Today’s discussion of peace agreements with the Palestinians is stuck in territorial divisions from the Oslo Accords, according to him.
“The significant changes that have taken place since then are twofold: one, Iran has intensified on every scale, especially in its presence in Syria and Lebanon and two, Hamas has taken control of Gaza.”
Peace with security
Yadlin points to six key strategic issues in Israel’s national security today, the first being Iran’s continued progress toward nuclear capability, that it could have nuclear weapons ready in weeks to months’ time.
“The second issue is Iran’s military and political establishment in Syria and the continuation of the ‘battle between the wars’ that Israel is waging against this establishment,” said Yadlin, referring to frequent drone strikes and tensions between Israel and Iranian agents in Syria.The third issue is the threat of escalation from Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Much of Hezbollah’s funding and missiles are supplied by Iran.
“The stalemate in the political process with the Palestinians, which has lasted for many years and has led us to the reality of one state, is also a strategic issue in Israel’s security,” Yadlin continued. “It is the source of the recent campaign in Gaza and the ongoing military confrontation with Hamas, a terrorist organization that directly controls Gaza.”
The sixth and final issue that Yadlin notes are the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which he says are “the most positive development of the last two years.”
According to Yadlin, Rabin’s security strategy was to strive for peace agreements as much as possible without compromising on security. In his first term as prime minister in 1975, Rabin signed interim peace agreements with Egypt, paving the way for the peace accord to be signed four years later by Menachem Begin of the Likud Party, and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.
He continued this forging this path in his second term in 1992 with the peace agreement with Jordan, and the Oslo Accords process with the Palestinian Authority.
“His pursuit of peace was unequivocal, and yet he did not stop putting security front and center,” Yadlin said. The peace agreements he led did not contradict the concept of security. They completed it.”
“And this concept is still relevant today. An agreement must be reached with the Palestinian Authority, it is critical for the future of Israel,” he continued. “The agreement is essential for preserving Israel's character as a Jewish and democratic state. On the other hand, red lines must not be compromised on security and Jerusalem.”
“It’s time to continue what Rabin started”
Despite the political stalemate with the Palestinians, Asa is optimistic about the possibility of a regional agreement, saying it is only is possible, but necessary.
“Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, together with the Gulf states, and with the intervention of the United States and Russia, can reach a process that is definitely not easy, but nonetheless necessary for all to regulate the region,” he said. “This process should also happen with the involvement of Europe and China. We must push for such a process.”
Asa lays out his vision. He says the Russians and Americans should work as mediators, offering incentives and creating a comprehensive agreement between the major countries mentioned, even if Hamas or Hezbollah do not participate.
He proposes starting by reaching out to the Americans by “paying a significant political price, for example, building a controlled port in Gaza.”
“Palestinians should be offered two options that concern only Areas A [under full control of the Palestinian Authority] and B [under joint control of Israel and the Palestinian authority]: a confederation with Jordan or a demilitarized state,” Asa said. “The question of the connection between Gaza and the West Bank will be shaped within the talks, it is not something we can decide for them.”
He explained that Russia is likely the only country with the political leverage to cause Iran to withdraw its forces from Syria and Lebanon, but in order to do so, it must be offered an incentive by the Americans – “for example, in Ukraine.”
“The Gulf states can provide significant economic guarantees to the Palestinian Authority and Gaza,” Asa went on. “Jordan and Egypt must also serve as key figures in such a process.”
Asa’s plans are ambitious, but he says that anything sounds ambitious in Israel’s current stagnation. Not only that, Israel has succeeded in many other far-reaching initiatives, like making peace with Egypt only six years after the Yom Kippur War and returning the Sinai territory, double the size of Israel.
“I believe that in the end, sooner or later, there will be a political series of agreements in the Middle East,” Asa asserted. “Should we wait for more rounds of wars and fighting? Why shouldn’t we be the initiators? It’s time to continue what Rabin started almost 30 years ago.”
This article was translated to English by Matt Levy.