Tel Aviv Diary: The Hope That Died With Rabin

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Israeli soldiers stand near a statue that depicts the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv, Israel October 26. Israel on Monday marked the 20th anniversary of Rabin's killing by an ultra-nationalist Jewish assassin. Baz Ratner/Reuters

Earlier this week in Tel Aviv, Rabin Square was filled with people. Many of those same people were there 20 years ago, younger versions of themselves—some were children attending with their parents; others were just young parents. In contrast, all who gathered here 20 years ago were more optimistic. Two decades ago everyone had more hope that the future might develop differently from our war torn past.

As the people gathered, the words of Israel's current prime minister, who stated recently in a Knesset committee that “Israel will forever need to live by the sword,” contrasted greatly with what Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin courageously declared on that awful day one score years ago: ”I was a military man for 27 years. I fought as long as there were no prospects for peace. Today I believe that there are prospects for peace, great prospects.”

After all these years, the major questions remain: What legacies have General Rabin, Ambassador Rabin and Prime Minister Rabin bequeathed the people of Israel? And what impact has Rabin’s assassination had on this country?

The first legacy is easy to discern. General Rabin was a young officer in the pre-state army (in his case, originally part of the Palmach, the best trained of the soldiers of the nascent state.) The Palmach was the one group in Israel’s pre-state years that was fully mobilized.

Throughout the War of Independence Rabin distinguished himself as a young officer. After the war, Rabin rapidly advanced in the ranks of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), being appointed chief of staff in 1964. Rabin was the commander of the IDF during its historic victory during in the Six-Day War, emerging from that war as a hero of Israel.

After the war and his retirement from the IDF, Rabin was thrust into the world of diplomacy as Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Suddenly, Rabin the war hero found himself with better access to the Nixon administration than most of the rest of the diplomatic corps. Ambassador Rabin played a key role in deepening the military ties between Israel and America.

After the Yom Kippur War, when the Agranot Commission (tasked with investigating the war) found the political leadership culpable, and tens of thousands demonstrated against the government, Prime Minister Golda Meir was forced to resign.

Rabin, who had been out of the country during the war, seemed like the natural choice for her replacement. Rabin served as prime minister of Israel from 1974 to 1977, when he was forced to resign because his wife had failed to close their bank account in the U.S. at the conclusion of Rabin’s tenure as ambassador. A lifelong member of the governing Labor Party, Rabin became part of the opposition, after Labor lost control of the government in 1977.  

Rabin later served as defense minister in several coalition governments with the Likud and held that position during the first Intifada (when he was reported as saying, “We will break their bones”—though reports failed to quote the second half of Rabin’s statement, “...so we do not have to kill them.”  

The first Intifada convinced Rabin that the status quo was unsustainable, though he did not have a clear vision of how to proceed. In 1993, Israelis were clearly ready for some sort of change, and when Rabin ran to become Israel’s prime minister on a clear platform of change he easily won.

That change ended up being the Olso process, which led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and the arrival of Yasser Arafat to Gaza as its head (at the time, Arafat was considered to be a terrorist by Israelis).

Rabin was at first skeptical about the Oslo Accords (which were initially negotiated without his direct involvement), but even though he had to be prodded by President Clinton to shake Arafat’s hand at the signing, it is clear that at the end of his life Rabin embraced the peace process.

With Rabin’s assassination began the fight over his narrative. During the first days of shock in Israel there were two conflicting impulses: 1) to blame those responsible and 2) to unite the nation.

The blame was directed at the National Religious—especially the settlers, from whose community the assassin had come. Those who had directly helped Yigal Amir (the murderer) and who had been caught on the spot were dutifully arrested. However, there was no attempt at the time to look deeper into the tragedy. There was no attempt to investigate those who were responsible for the incitement—be they rabbis or politicians.

To this day, vigorous controversy remains as to what role Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played in the incitement leading to Rabin’s murder. Days before the assassination, Netanyahu spoke at a rally in Jerusalem’s Zion Square, during which Rabin was vehemently attacked and posters appeared displaying Rabin dressed in a Nazis SS uniform, and in an arab kafiyah.

Netanyahu denied he had any idea what was going on in the square below him. However, as a participant of that rally said to me 20 year later, “there is no way he [Netanyahu] could not have seen the signs and posters.”

Rabin’s successor as prime minister, Shimon Peres, who was not a military man, did not enjoy the people’s trust as Rabin had. Nonetheless, Peres was certain the public would still support him, so he called for new elections. During the ensuing election campaign, Hamas (the radical Palestinian organization that had opposed the Oslo Agreement) launched a series of bombings that persuaded enough Israelis to vote for the hawkish opposition led by Netanyahu.

From that fateful election in 1995, with the exception of the two-year duration of the Barak premiership, Israel’s Labor party has been out of power.  

With the right-wing firmly in power, efforts over most of the last 20 years have been directed to molding the remembrance of Rabin into a day of reflection on political violence, in general. The deep-rooted political ramifications of the event continue to be largely ignored.

Moreover, in some communities—especially among the National Religious—there have been somewhat successful attempts to convert the anniversary of Rabin’s assassination into a general day of mourning, without any reference to Rabin, or to the man who murdered him.

This year a number of right-wing intellectuals have added a new twist to the national dialogue regarding Rabin’s legacy, claiming that Rabin’s murder was actually bad for the right wing.

They contend that at the end of his life, Rabin was considering terminating the Oslo Accords. This allegation has been repeated frequently over the course of the past few weeks—totally contradicting Rabin’s own words on the night he was killed. In his final speech, Rabin steadfastly stated in the square, “Today I believe that there are prospects for peace, great prospects.”  

Others set forth a less pernicious view, writing that even if Rabin had lived, the outcome would have been the same.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton does not believe that to be true. In an interview shown for the first time this week on Israeli television, Clinton said had Rabin lived he would have been able to reach a peace deal within three years, “because the Palestinians trusted him.”

It is not just the former president who believes Rabin’s stewardship over the peace process would have made all the difference. Many residents of Israel share that belief. As one 38-year-old, who in his youth had considered himself right-wing, said it was Rabin’s assassination that “changed our direction completely. I believe that if the Oslo process had continued, we would have been transformed into a normal country.”

Stav Shafir, Israel’s youngest Knesset member and number two on the Labor Party list, was only 10 years old when Rabin was killed. When I asked her about Rabin, she said:

Yitzhak Rabin's memory means a great deal to any Israeli who truly loves Israel. The man who murdered Yitzhak Rabin tried to murder his vision for the country—his vision of a healthy society in which every child has a horizon; his vision for an egalitarian society where resources are distributed equally; and most importantly, his vision for future security.

We will continue to love Israel as Rabin did. A few days ago Prime Minister Netanyahu said that “Israel will always have to live on its sword.” This is the very opposite from Rabin's legacy of hope and pragmatism. A prime minister who promises his people only fear and fatalism should not call himself a leader. We deserve so much better.

Twenty year ago, Rabin’s assassination shed a light on the schisms in Israeli society everyone privately knew existed, finally making them too clear to ignore. Now, 20 years later, those societal divides are deeper and even more apparent.

Today, in addition to Arab-Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Israelis, there are three very separate groups in Israel.

First, there are the National Religious (who make up most of the settlers), many of whom believe they are responsible for holding on to “all of the ‘Land of Israel.’”

Second, there are the Netanyahu faithful, who accept his view that Israel will forever “live by the sword,” and thus believe that making substantive concessions is useless, since it will make no difference.  

Finally, there's everyone else (which includes most of the residents of Tel Aviv), who agree with Stav Shafir’s view, i.e.m that a nation needs hope, and needs a leader who—while he or she dare not make any guarantees, s/he is able to at least give people hope that their children and grandchildren will not forever be forced to live by the sword. Yitzhak Rabin was that sort of leader. Many in Israel continue to wonder if there will ever be another.

Marc Schulman is the editor of historycentral.com.