When my son Yehonatan was six years old, in the summer of 1995, I took him to hear Yitzhak Rabin. The prime minister was speaking to a small, closed audience. I had entry passes for two people, my wife couldn’t come, and I wanted to give my son the experience of having seen one of the great men of the age. When my older sister was a child, my mother had taken her to see John F. Kennedy at a campaign stop, and she has spoken of that glimpse of history ever since. On that evening when I took my son and rode the bus downtown, I couldn’t know that a memory of Rabin would be framed by the same pain as a memory of Kennedy.

Rabin had the pale skin of a man who’d once had red hair. He stepped up to the dais with his shoulders back. At the lectern, he held his head a slight angle, and spoke in the gruff staccato of a company commander laying out the route of a forced march – not charismatic, but certain of himself, confident of his line of attack. Within a few minutes, my son’s head dropped onto my knees and he slept. I rested my hand on his back.

The audience was a group of Orthodox Jewish peace activists. But Rabin, the old general, had not become a late-life Isaiah, prophesying tanks refitted as tractors. As I remember, he spoke dryly of strategic choices. Israel had to make peace with the Syria and the Palestinians because it faced more distant and deadly dangers, especially from Iran. A country should devote its resources to preparing for the greatest threats. To confront the outer ring, we needed peace and even alliances with the closer ring. He was not promising that my son would grow up without the need to wear a uniform or carry a gun.

Outside that welcoming crowd, a wave of political fury was rising against the prime minister who would give up sacred land. Four months later, he was murdered.

History can never be run as a controlled experiment. We can’t know what would have happened had Rabin lived. His heir that grim winter, Shimon Peres, rejected the Beilin-Abu Mazen Document, a framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace crafted with Rabin’s views in mind. But there’s no reason to think that Yasser Arafat would have accepted the accord if Rabin had. As the Oslo process jerked onward, Arafat showed his own uncanny ability to miss opportunities for Palestinian independence.

Peres, a perpetual failure as candidate, lost the 1996 election. Rabin would have faced a tough race, but inspired much more trust. Had he won, there is no assurance he would have reached peace with Syria. He certainly appeared determined to try, and was willing to cede land to do so. We can’t know if Hafez al-Assad, then the ruler in Damascus, was capable of reinventing himself as peace would have required. Israelis sometimes appear divided between those who blame only the Arabs for the failure to achieve peace, and those who blame only the Jews. Each group would write too simple a story about what Rabin would have done in the years that he never had.

This summer, though, I can’t help thinking of his cold far-sightedness in recognizing peace as a strategic asset. We are still fighting in the quagmire of Gaza, a battle nearly forgotten most days because we are now, once again, fighting in Lebanon against Hezbollah, our cities under bombardment by missiles shipped from Iran via Syria.

If we had peace with the Palestinians, both we and they would be building our countries. At the least, our army would not have wasted years on manning roadblocks and reinvading Palestinian cities.

At the most, if we had reached accommodation with Syria as well, Hezbollah would be only a fundamentalist faction in Lebanon, proclaiming the praises of Islamic revolution but not equipped for war on this scale. Militarily and diplomatically we would be much stronger. Iran, on the other side of countries friendly to us, would be a more distant and isolated enemy.

My son is 17 now. The smooth face has sprouted a beard. Already, he has begun the physicals and interviews that lead to his draft date and placement in a military unit. I did not expect nation to have stopped lifting up missiles against nation by now. Perhaps, though, the enemy could have been further from our door.

Gershom Gorenberg

Gershom Gorenberg, an American-born Israeli journalist and historian, is the author of "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977" and "The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount." He is the Jerusalem bureau chief for the Forward and a senior correspondent for The American Prospect.