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The Sabra Who Wants to Lead Restless Israel

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For Yitzhak Rabin, a soldier who has spent much of his life destroying Arab armies, the job of rebuilding the Israeli government may prove even more difficult. If he succeeds in pulling together a working coalition of the Knesset’s fragmented parties, the 52-year-old former chief of staff would be both the youngest and the first Sabra (native-born Israeli) to become premier in his country’s history. He has been given the mandate by the Labor Party, taking the baton from the aging hand of Premier Golda Meir. But although Labor is the biggest of the Knesset’s parties, it still lacks seven votes of being a majority. Thus Rabin faces the tightrope challenge of attracting support from splinter groups. He has about a month to do it or call national elections. The experts are skeptical and the smart money is already against him.

Rabin, however, has a couple of things going for him: he is smart, tough, and—best of all for an aspiring politician—lucky. He has been in the Knesset only four-and-a-half months, and thus bears no responsibility for the Yom Kippur war policies which have so upset the Israeli electorate. In addition, he is still the war hero supreme, a kind of Israeli Eisenhower, who is venerated as the architect of the triumphant Six Day War of 1967. “In all parts of the world,” Rabin observes, “war heroes are admired and sought after to serve in postwar situations. They bring with them an established confidence.” Paradoxically, it was on the eve of the 1967 war that Rabin suffered his own brief crisis of confidence—a one-day collapse which was attributed to the great stress of preparing the army for combat. Rabin’s enemies have tried to make much of the issue, but it seems to have produced considerable public sympathy for him.

Rabin’s dazzling military career began at 19 when he joined the Zionist underground Haganah. Soon he was a member of its elite strike force, the Palmach. “I was a schoolgirl in Tel Aviv,” recalls Rabin’s wife of 25 years, Leah, “and the men of the Palmach were romantic symbols to every schoolgirl.”

The dash and glamor may have impressed Leah, but the one quality that pushed Rabin to the top after three wars was his coldly rational intellect. “A very analytical mind,” says an old associate. “He puts his thoughts together much like a builder putting up a building—brick by brick.”

Riding high after the 1967 war, Rabin left the military to become Israel’s ambassador to Washington, handpicked by Golda Meir for political seasoning. At first diplomacy was difficult. Rabin is considered shy and relatively humorless by those who know him. He dislikes formal affairs and cocktails, has no real taste for small talk and does not show his best qualities unless there is a problem to be analyzed. “His personal interest in others’ affairs,” says a former embassy official, “was next to zero.”

Perfectly in character, Rabin worked doggedly on both his diplomatic graces and his English, which was poor when he arrived in 1968. As his English improved he was careful not to flaunt it. He checked speeches written for him by his embassy, deleting any phrases loftier than he would have used on his own. He would also tape-record his speeches, studying them later for errors. Assisted by his wife, who is more socially inclined, Rabin learned to make chitchat, and even acquired a mild sense of humor. He learned to mix drinks (in his first attempt he spilled whiskey all over a woman guest) and even to enjoy an occasional Scotch and soda himself. More important, his intellect and dedication won great respect along Washington’s supercritical Embassy Row.

Before he left in 1973, Rabin came to like the United States, especially American steaks (well done), Washington tennis games and professional football. Like Richard Nixon, whose reelection he vigorously endorsed, Rabin is an avid Washington Redskins fan. He went to the games often, followed the plays with professional military interest and was pleased, says a friend, “when the Redskins were able to advance nicely.”