Yuval Rabin: Was his father too tough an act to follow

JERUSALEM — Even over the phone from his home in the Washington, D.C., area, Yuval Rabin evinces that Gregory Peck quality of his — the long pauses, the sense of someone wrestling with his conscience, the affecting clumsiness of a naturally reserved person who, in the course of events, finds there are things he wants to say.

For three years, between his father's assassination and his own sudden and surprising departure for the United States, he was a conspicuous presence in Israeli politics. He was the Rabin heir, the child of the slain leader who was trying, with evident discomfort, to carry on the cause of peace. Along with the unofficial title of Yitzhak Rabin Jr., he had an official title — chairman of the newborn movement Dor Shalom, or Peace Generation.

While it's easy to surmise that he left Israel because he was disillusioned with a country whose furies had killed his father, and that he left Israeli politics because it was just too dirty for him, Rabin says that that wasn't it. What happened, essentially, is that his older sister, attorney Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, decided to run for the Knesset, eventually making the Center Party list.

"We'd never discussed it, but there was an unspoken understanding between us that we shouldn't both go into politics," he says.

It was the end of 1998. He was half in public life, half in high-tech business, and felt he had to concentrate on one or the other. The Israeli high-tech company he was working for asked him to be its representative in the United States, so, with Dalia entering the political arena, off he went.

This is not an easy time for him. His mother, Leah, quickly lost her battle with lung cancer and died last month. The Oslo peace process, over which his father was assassinated, has been all but blown to smithereens. Rabin returned to Israel recently for a whirlwind visit to watch his friend Shimon Sheves be convicted for soliciting bribes while serving as director of the Prime Minister's Office under his father.

Dor Shalom, after having been cited by State Comptroller Eliezer Goldberg as a major funnel for illegal campaign contributions to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, is now under police investigation. The alleged driving force behind the financial trickery, Barak campaign manager Tal Zilberstein, was Yuval's political mentor.

Rabin, 45, returned to Israel in early November for the memorial services marking the fifth anniversary of his father's assassination. (His mother, too sick to participate, died just days later.) Living in the United States with his second wife, Tal, and daughter, Omer, has exposed him to a different perspective on that assassination, and on his country.

"The difference between politics in Israel and America is so stark. The main issue, almost the only issue, they're talking about in the presidential election is how to spend the surplus," he notes.

Every few months, he speaks to American Jewish audiences, often under the auspices of the New Israel Fund. He's disappointed by the lack of rigor with which American Jews approach Israeli issues. They're reluctant to criticize the Israeli government — any Israeli government. As for their understanding of his father's murder, American Jews who are supposedly "involved" in Israel have largely put it down to "one crazy guy," he says. "They don't really treat it as a political assassination."

Yet unlike many others, the "al-Aksa intifada" has not disillusioned him about the chance of peace — on the contrary.

"The violence has only underlined the importance of the Oslo Accord and the need to reach a negotiated peace," he says.

Rabin says he holds Arafat and the Palestinians partly responsible for the conflagration, but, when asked repeatedly to elaborate, he keeps coming back to Israel's mistakes and insensitivities — Israel's and Barak's.

This isn't the first time he's criticized the prime minister. Rabin supported Yitzhak Mordechai in last year's race for prime minister. And just prior to the anniversary of the assassination, his mother, who endorsed Barak in the campaign, voiced her objections to his handling of the peace process — first for offering to divide sovereignty over Jerusalem, and later for turning his back on the possibilities for restarting the negotiations.

Yuval joins in the criticism, suggesting that Barak, and the Israeli public, had all along disparaged the hardships the Palestinians endured.

"I don't understand the disparity between Barak's declarations and his actions," he says. He challenges Barak's claims to having gone "further than any previous Israeli prime minister," saying Barak conceded no new territory to the Palestinians, and only carried out the Wye accord withdrawals already agreed to by Benjamin Netanyahu in late 1998. He goes on to say that no one can be sure if Barak's concessions to the Palestinians at Camp David and afterward — none of which were written down officially — were really made.

If the media reports are correct — that Barak offered Yasser Arafat all of Gaza, 90-odd percent of the West Bank, at least a good chunk of east Jerusalem, and an end to Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount — then, Rabin says, "I can't understand why the Palestinians refused."

He is asked to clarify: Does he mean that Arafat evidently didn't trust Barak's offer because, on the basis of the prime minister's execution of the Oslo accord up to that point, Arafat had good reason not to trust it?

"That could be," Rabin replies.

He faults Israeli society for failing to part with land when the Palestinian Authority was delivering peace during their wholesale crackdown on terror during the two years leading up to the al-Aksa intifada, a period when, Rabin notes, "Israel was safer from terror than it had been, possibly, at any time in its history. Did this encourage us to move further in the peace process? I have my doubts."

While objecting to violence as a political tool, he conversely raises doubts that Israel would have signed the Oslo accord without the intifada, or that it would have signed the Camp David accord with Egypt without the Yom Kippur War.

"All the people who are now saying 'I told you so' should consider whether the situation would have been better had there not been an Oslo accord," he says.

In his view, Israel did not fulfill its key commitment under the accord — to go into the final status talks having relinquished everything in the territories save military bases, settlements and certain other vital installations. The government, he says, should now make good on Oslo and "find every way, truly turn over every stone, to reach a peace agreement."

Rabin is much less forthright on the subject of Dor Shalom. The revelations about the organization's overly cozy financial relationship with the Barak campaign "didn't surprise me," he says, adding that he had opposed any links between the group and Barak's One Israel bloc.

At the same time, Rabin says he didn't know of any infractions while they were being committed.

The scandal points up the need to clarify campaign-funding laws, he suggests, pausing longer than usual. The question is put to him: Were his friends in Dor Shalom guilty of oversight, or was it something worse?

"I think people did what they did because they thought it was in a good cause — to change the leadership of Israel."

Were they mistaken, or were they morally wrong?

"I think mistakes were made," he concludes.

After nearly two years in the United States, Rabin, vice president for technology development at Emultek, a high-tech start-up, says he doesn't have a precise date of return to Israel in mind.

"You can say I'm taking it year by year," he says.

He notes that working in the United States has given him a greater appreciation for Israel. "Not everything is better here; in some areas we're better," he says. "Even in some things that are American trademarks, like the work ethic and providing service, and certainly in the employee's commitment to his place of work, I don't think America is better than us. We have a lot to be proud of."

When speaking of Israel and Israelis, he uses the word "we." Is Israel, then, his final destination?

"Definitely," Rabin replies.

His ambiguous approach to Israeli politics hasn't left him, either. Asked whether he'll re-enter the political arena here, this still raw, unpolished public figure, who inherited an awesome legacy and couldn't decide whether to embrace or reject it, answers, "You know the saying — in politics you never say never.

"Let's just leave it at that."