As memorial ceremonies for slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin kicked off in Israel, the Tel Aviv square named in his honor was empty. A tropical rainstorm had chased away visitors. Just a few people walked through a photo exhibit at the plaza that marked 20 years since Rabin was assassinated by right-wing extremist Yigal Amir for his attempt to make peace with the Palestinians.
One of those people was Israel Oz. He knew Rabin personally, as a staff member to a Cabinet minister in the Rabin administration. An American-Israeli cousin who was visiting from California dragged Oz to the exhibit. He had not planned to come on his own.
“It’s not easy for me to walk here,” Oz said, wearing sunglasses despite the overcast weather. “Especially in these days, when hate and racism and violence [are] all over.”
The 20th anniversary of Rabin’s death comes at a time when the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is sinking ever lower. Since the beginning of October, Palestinian knife and gun attacks against Israelis have left nine dead, and at least 50 Palestinians have been killed after attacks or in clashes with the Israeli military. “Peace was murdered with Rabin,” a sign at a recent left-wing protest against the violence read. With Rabin’s vision so utterly distant from Israeli reality today, Israelis across the political spectrum are wondering what the prime minister’s life and death truly mean all these years later. Many are coming up empty-handed.
“Nobody learned anything” from the assassination, Oz said. According to a poll published in Maariv, a daily Israeli paper, a majority of Israelis agree with him. Sixty-four percent of Israelis do not believe that their country learned the “necessary lessons” from the Rabin assassination.
The assassination is “a terrible symbol of what has happened to us since then to today,” said a purple-haired 66-year-old who had paused in front of a photo of Rabin with King Hussein bin-Talal of Jordan at the Rabin Square exhibit. She declined to give her name, for privacy reasons. “It doesn’t mean everything was perfect back then,” she said. “There was hope, and now not so much. Now, there is no feeling that people are looking for peace. It is not only the government, but the people, too.”
If Rabin’s assassination revealed one thing to Israelis, it was the depths of divisions within their own society, and that those divisions could yield far more dangerous outcomes than any threat from Israel’s neighbors. Though there are many complex reasons for Israel’s rightward shift over the past 20 years — the bloody second intifada and Hamas rule in Gaza among them — the Rabin assassination also played a role. The Israeli left and center ceded the country to the right in order to keep the peace, said Yaron Ezrahi, a professor emeritus of political science at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Israelis chose permanent battle with the Palestinians over civil war.
“The Israeli public was shocked by the conflict between right and left,” he said. “The public was willing if not to reconcile, to not exacerbate the conflict by choosing a right-winger as a certain kind of appeasement to the aggressive right.”
Though Israel is still a famously fractious society, those internal divisions have abated to a degree in the past 20 years. Israel is “more relaxed” today in terms of the relationships between its four major groups: ultra-Orthodox, the nationalist Zionists, secular Jews and Israeli Arabs, said Yedidia Stern, head of the religion and state project at the Israel Democracy Institute. “The rifts are still there, but all sides are closer to each other than they used to be.” He pointed to an increased interest and respect for religion among secular Israelis, and an effort by nationalist Zionists to use the language of security to justify Israeli rule over the Palestinians and settlement growth.
Nevertheless, just last spring, Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, who serves as her government’s top foreign affairs official in the absence of a full minister, put the right’s religious rationale for retaining the occupied West Bank on more explicit and prominent display than ever.
“Ethics and justice will trump security arguments,” she said dismissively, addressing an assembly of Israel’s top foreign service diplomats. She instead cited the 11th-century Bible commentator Rashi’s claim that the Exodus story in the Torah shored up the Jewish claim to the land for subsequent generations. “We need to return to the basic truth of our rights to this country,” she urged the envoys. “This land is ours. All of it is ours. We did not come here to apologize for that.” For all that, Stern remained hopeful.
Rabin’s assassination “happened in the midst of a period of our national life when we were in adolescence,” he said. “Right now we are in the process of maturing, maybe even becoming an adult eventually. When you accept yourself you see the other not only as a threat, but also as a promise.”
Yet while Israelis may be inching closer together, their differences over Rabin remain. The Israeli left claims Rabin as a symbol of the peace he might have been able to achieve had he lived to implement it, even while glossing over his militaristic past. The former prime minister ordered his security forces to “break the bones” of Palestinian protesters in the First Intifada. The right, on the other hand, maintains that Rabin led Israel into dangerous territory with the Oslo peace accords, even as most bemoan his fate.
“There is a feeling that the whole Oslo process was a very, very bad mistake that cost Israel heavily in human lives and in political capital, in parts of the Land of Israel and gave wings to Arab nationalism and to Palestinian terror,” said Bobby Brown, a former Netanyahu speechwriter and a settler in Tekoa. “You know, I think you can very legitimately be against the act of the assassination of Rabin and still not be forced into agreeing that his political legacy was a good one.”
Further complicating the right’s relationship to Rabin is the fact that nationalist Israelis felt that their sector was blamed unfairly for the crime of a single man. Others note that in the months leading up to Rabin’s assassination, right-wing Zionists demonstrated against the peace process with posters of Rabin’s face in the crosshairs. Other placards depicted Rabin as a Nazi SS officer and decked out with a keffiyeh, or Palestinian scarf. Thousands at these protests screamed “Traitor!” at the sound of his name. Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, presided over some of these demonstrations.
Stern believes Israelis should transcend political differences when remembering Rabin. “We should make this day a symbol of our commitment to the rule of law and accepting each other in spite of disputes,” he said. “Any kind of usage of Rabin for any specific cause, even if it benefits for the moment any one of us, is against our national goals.”
For Palestinians, meanwhile, the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination is no reason for nostalgia. “You hear a lot of people who are revisionists who talk about how great Rabin is,” said Diana Buttu, a former Palestinian negotiator. But Rabin “squandered” his massive political capital when he claimed there are “no sacred dates” for withdrawing Israeli forces from West Bank cities, thus signaling that he “had no intention to end Israel’s rule,” she said. Palestinians grew even more skeptical after a Jewish extremist massacred 29 Palestinians in Hebron. Instead of evacuating Jewish settlers from the West Bank city, Rabin beefed up the city’s military presence.
“At the end of the day, he, like those who preceded him and those who succeeded him, did not view Palestinians as equals,” Buttu said.
Israelis and Palestinians will never know if Rabin would have been able to broker peace between them. What’s clear, however, is just how remote that possibility looks today.
A block away from Rabin Square, a basalt stone memorial marks the spot that Rabin was killed leaving a peace rally. Israel’s Army Radio had set up a table for a special broadcast there. A couple of eager photographers roamed around, waiting to take pictures of visitors in the rain. Finally, a white-haired man who looked to be about Rabin’s age when he was murdered arrived with a white candle. He placed it on the ground, lit it and walked away.
Contact Naomi Zeveloff at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @naomizeveloff
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.