When Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, I was sitting with friends in a café at the Jerusalem Cinemateque, enjoying some rare time off from my job. It had been a hectic summer for all of us who worked for the prime minister, and such a break was indeed welcome.
People at the café who knew I was Rabin’s spokesman wondered why I wasn’t with my boss at the peace rally taking place the same night in a central Tel Aviv square. As a civil servant, I told them, I didn’t go to political events.
A few minutes before 10 p.m. that night of November 4, 1995, my beeper and mobile phone rang with the terrible message of death. Rabin, only moments after warning the crowd in Tel Aviv that “violence undermines the very core of democracy,” was shot and killed by a Jewish assassin.
From that night forward, I was sure, Israel would never be the same. It hasn’t been — and that is arguably for the better.
Many people believe that Israeli society has become more polarized since the assassination, and that Israeli democracy, fragile even before 1995, has since weakened. I, sworn optimist that I am, believe the opposite is true: Today, Israel is stronger than it was a decade ago.
In 1995, the Rabin government pursued the Oslo process, which was based on the formula of sovereignty for Palestinians in return for security for Israelis. The settlers and their right-wing supporters, fearing that the process might lead to giving away parts of the Land of Israel, fought fiercely to stop it.
The struggle against Oslo was legitimate, but sometimes it was expressed in ways that crossed all lines. There was, in that fatal summer, incitement far beyond the limits of free speech, with rabbis issuing halachic rulings labeling Rabin “ rodef ” — one who pursues another with the intention of killing him, and who may therefore be killed by anyone. It took only one Jew, Yigal Amir, to translate those rabbis’ words into action.
Was this, as many people think, a serious blow to Israeli democracy? In the short run, maybe. The basic trust of Israelis in the system was indeed shattered. Moreover, immediately after the assassination the law enforcement agencies, repenting for their previous leniency, lost all perspective and began curbing civil rights by over-aggressively prosecuting people for alleged incitement (a scenario that must sound familiar in post-September 11 America).
Yet with time, things have gotten back to normal. Democracy has run its course, with power shifting between Labor to Likud several times before Ariel Sharon firmly established himself as leader of the country in 2001. Anyone wondering whether Israeli society has landed on its feet need only look at what has transpired since Sharon dropped a bombshell and announced his unilateral plan to pull out of Gaza.
Disengagement certainly caught the settlers by surprise. Sharon, once their biggest ally, overnight turned out to be their worst enemy.
Even Rabin hadn’t seriously talked about uprooting settlements. After Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994, I remember ministers rushing to Rabin’s office, urging him to seize the opportunity and evacuate the 400 or so Jews living in the city among roughly 120,000 Palestinians. Rabin categorically refused — yet he nevertheless paid with his life for daring to even put territorial compromise on the table. So what price would Sharon pay, many wondered, for signing the eviction notice for the Gaza settlements?
Not all that much, it turned out. Simply put, a decade after the trauma of Rabin’s assassination, Israeli society has grown up.
The general public, while showing empathy to the plight of the settlers and upholding their right to protest, firmly stood by the government’s decision to pull out of Gaza. At the same time, the collective memory of Rabin’s assassination translated into adamant opposition — by all segments of society — to any form of illegal or violent struggle by the settlers.
When the dust settled after the Gaza withdrawal, many were surprised and relieved to find out that none of the doomsday prophecies had come to pass: no bloodshed, no civil war, not even mass disobedience by religious soldiers. Israeli democracy had triumphed.
The settlers, of course, strongly disagree. What democracy, they bitterly ask? They argue that prior to the disengagement, Sharon ignored a referendum held by his own Likud Party, fired two Cabinet ministers who disagreed with him and had police prevent protesters from making their way to an anti-disengagement rally on the Gaza border.
They might have a point. In all fairness, Sharon’s conduct could very well be labeled “kosher but stinking.”
Their complaint, however, pales in comparison to the much greater threat to Israeli democracy that has emanated from their midst: that of a duly elected government having its arm twisted by violence. Between “kosher but stinking” and the total collapse of our political system, I, for one, choose the lesser evil.
What the settlers and their supporters have yet to learn is that democracy is not a toy you play with when you feel like, and throw away when you don’t. Several years ago I visited my son in a West Bank settlement, which he was guarding as part of his regular military service. The mere thought that he might be hurt while protecting an enterprise to which I was wholeheartedly opposed made me furious beyond belief. Yet I was adamantly against the idea of my son or any other soldier refusing orders, because I strongly believed in keeping the rules of the game.
If the settlers and their right-wing supporters learn to accept the rules of the game, they will find the vast majority of Israeli society ready and willing to embrace them. Democracy here might still be imperfect, but the grave trials we have undergone have made Israel more self-assured and tolerant than we were a decade ago — a tribute indeed to my fallen hero, Yitzhak Rabin.