Tel Aviv Diary: Israelis Are Asking, Where Is Today's Yitzhak Rabin?

Yitzhak Rabin
PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, as U.S. President Bill Clinton watches in 1993. Gary Hershorn/Reuters

Today is the 19th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The heinous murder took place a few blocks from where I live, at a place I pass daily. This is a strange anniversary in Israel. The official ceremony barely made the news today, as violence at a soccer game last night and subsequent violence outside a court this morning took top billing.

As an historian, I can think of very few assassinations whose effect was so great. In American history, the two most significant assassinations were those of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. However, in both those cases, their successors carried out their goals and policies (albeit, maybe not as well).

In some ways, Rabin's assassination might be more akin to the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Many historians believe Robert Kennedy most likely would have beat Richard Nixon in 1968. Who knows what might have happened as a result? Of course, in the case of RFK there were many more imponderables. Yitzhak Rabin's assassination changed Israel's direction for a generation.

Leadership of the country has been in the hands of the Likud for almost 14 of the 19 years since Rabin's death. For only for a very short period (from 1999 to 2001) has a member of Rabin's Party (i.e. the Labor Party) held office as prime minister.

Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir, accomplished his goal of effectively stopping the peace process with the Palestinians by killing the one of the few people in the country who had the gravitas and trust of the people to make the sacrifices that might have brought about an agreement. The assassination of Rabin ended a period of hope in Israeli politics. Rabin sought to answer the question, what can we accomplish? His successors have spend their time stoking our fears instead of our boosting our hopes.

Today, those trying to preserve his memory cannot even agree on the message. Last Saturday night there was a rally in Rabin Square honoring his memory. The theme was the need to bring about a peace agreement. The main speaker at the rally was former President Shimon Peres.

Next Saturday night there will be another memorial rally. This second rally will highlight the theme of tolerance, with as its main speaker the current president, Ruby Rivlin, a man of the right who has always supported Israeli holding on to all of the Land of Israel. Commendably, since assuming the presidency, Rivlin has made it his mission to fight what he sees as growing racism and intolerance in the country. Sadly, as a result, he has received many death threats from right wingers.

It is 19 years since the assassination of an Israeli prime minister. 19 years on, the hopes of that period (and some false hopes) have faded. Today it is hard to find an Israeli who is hopeful that a peace agreement can be achieved. Some blame our government, some blame the Palestinians. However, we all know that neither on our side nor on the other side is there a man like Rabin who is capable of bringing about peace.

Political historian Marc Schulman is the editor of historycentral.com. Anarchive of his recent daily reports from Tel-Aviv can be found here. He is also a columnist for the Times of Israel. You can follow him on Twitter at @Multied.