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Rabin's Courage Led Israel Toward Peace--and Tragedy

October 15, 1994|MICHAEL PARKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — This was the day of the Nobel Peace Prize, a day that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been looking forward to for months, a day in which his courageous decision to make peace with the Palestinians would, he knew, be recognized by the world.

But before it ended, Friday had become a day of tragedy--a day like so many others that Rabin had seen in his 53 years as a soldier and political leader.

Faced with the abduction of a 19-year-old army corporal by Islamic militants, a threat to kill the youth unless the radicals' demands were met and negotiations that were dragging on, Rabin gave the order Friday evening to an elite commando unit to storm the house where the soldier was held.

Everything rested, it seemed, on Rabin's decision--to proceed with the negotiations but run the risk that the soldier would be killed as the deadline passed, or to mount a rescue operation, accepting the risk that the youth, barely out of high school, would be murdered when the first shot was fired.

Rabin chose the military option--a gamble, but a gamble that Israel's commandos had won so often and so brilliantly in the past.

"Wherever there is the possibility of military action, especially when we are dealing with areas under our control," Rabin explained later, "a clear preference is given to it and not to negotiations and the release of terrorists. . . . Therefore I made the decision to take military action to free him."

But the raid failed.

The soldier, Nachshon Waxman, was killed, apparently by his captors, as was the Israeli captain leading the charge into the house. Three of the Palestinian radicals were also killed. Nine more Israeli commandos were wounded. "I bear responsibility for the results," Rabin later told a shocked nation in a late-night news conference.

Over and over, Rabin justified his order as part of Israel's policy of combatting terrorism even as it sought peace.

Rabin's lifetime has been full of such decisions, and his closest associates say he never flinches from them.

"The courage he showed in recognizing the PLO is the same courage that he had in ordering that rescue attempt," a senior government official said. "He does it by brain, and he does it by gut. . . . The responsibility is frightening."

Throughout the day Friday, negotiations with Hamas and military preparations proceeded simultaneously.

As nightfall came, Rabin was forced to choose his path. Time was running out.

"I faced the question: What if I don't act tonight?" he recounted. "Would I be able to say that I did, that we did, all that we could? No. I therefore authorized the action, I gave the order."

Anguished and saddened on what was to have been his day of glory, Rabin said: "I would have been very happy to give up the Nobel Prize to bring these two soldiers back."

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