Documentary mines archives to let Rabin narrate his life story

Yitzhak Rabin

By Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The tremendous significance of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was brave on the battlefield and at the negotiating table, is vividly evident in the compelling documentary, “Rabin in His Own Words,” directed by Erez Laufer.

Despite being constantly thrust into the glare of publicity, Rabin was intensely private, and a man of few words. Thus, it is remarkable that Laufer’s documentary consists primarily of Rabin’s own words, unedited and unfiltered, including archival footage of never-before-seen home movies and private correspondence.

Audiences see Rabin up close and personal, not only the military and political leader who achieved greatness throughout the history of the Jewish State, but also the deeply flawed human being. The same Rabin who was Israeli Chief of Staff during the 1967 Six-Day War candidly admits that his chain smoking resulted in “nicotine poisoning,” described as a virtual nervous breakdown even as he and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan were making the critical decisions which led to Israel’s miraculous victory over five Arab nations.

Unlike David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, who wrote several autobiographical memoirs, Rabin, whose life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet on Nov. 5, 1995, did not leave a chronologically arranged written life story.

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We learn from Laufer’s film and Rabin’s own words that “nothing is harder than defining oneself.” Yet Rabin does just that with his detailed memories of growing up in a strict household in which he was expected to eat every bit on his plate. He movingly describes his complex relationship with his father and his deep regret at not being at his bedside to say farewell.

Rabin, like his longtime colleague Ariel Sharon, had originally wanted a career in farming, but the harsh realities of the Jewish State’s origins intervened, causing him to join the Israel Defense Forces in its infancy. He took part in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, serving with great valor, but was frustrated that he was not able to secure the Old City of Jerusalem, which had been seized by Jordan.

After his service during the Six-Day War, he took up the ambassadorship to the United States for the crucial five-year period of 1968-1973. He became prime minister the first time after Golda Meir resigned in 1974. He was forced to resign over a petty scandal involving an illegal U.S. bank account set up by his wife Leah Rabin. He bounced back as defense minister in 1984-1990 and won a new term as the Labor Party’s nominee for prime minister in 1992.

On Rabin’s watch, secret back-channel talks in Oslo between Israeli and Palestinian representatives led to the Oslo Accords, signed on the White House south lawn on Sept. 13, 1993. The agreement was greeted with great initial optimism and led to a shared Nobel Peace Prize for Rabin, Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Because of Arafat’s obstinacy and a highly negative backlash by much of the Israeli public, the Oslo agreement did not result in a firm peace treaty. Before Rabin could use his considerable diplomatic and strategic skills to rescue the peace process, an Israeli religious fanatic, Yigal Amir, shot him to death just after a peace rally in Tel Aviv. It is widely believed that had Rabin not been murdered, he could have put the peace process back on track.

The film mercifully does not show the actual assassination, but Rabin’s own words from an earlier interview are indeed poignant and on point, “I’ll allow myself to say, it’s a sad ending.”

Indeed it was, and “Rabin in His Own Words” is a painful reminder of how costly the murder of a great leader could be.