Analysis: Rabin memorial exposes deep divisions in Israeli society

An event ostensibly meant to bridge divisions ends up exposing just how deep they run.

November 5, 2018 09:50
4 minute read.
Thousands gather in Rabin square to honor Yitzhak Rabin 23 years after he was killed.

Thousands gather in Rabin square to honor Yitzhak Rabin 23 years after he was killed.. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SHOSHANI)


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Tens of thousands of Israelis descended on central Tel Aviv Saturday night to mark the 23rd anniversary of the murder of then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, a signatory of the 1993 Oslo Accords forged with former Palestinian boss Yassir Arafat.

The deal, in which Israel recognized the legitimacy of the Palestine Liberation Organization and agreed to create semi-autonomous territories under its control in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, bitterly divided the nation along ideological lines. The ensuing public debate became frenzied, culminating with the gunning down of Rabin by far-right radical Yigal Amir on November 4, 1995.

While the event was arranged by the non-partisan Darkenu organization, whose aim was to "take down the partitions between us," many construed the proceedings as confirmation that the acrimony of the past has seeped into the present.

The head of the far-left Meretz, Tamar Zandberg, used her pulpit to accuse Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu—who many on the Left blame for Rabin's assassination due to his fierce opposition at the time to the Oslo process—of turning "incitement into his chief tool to leave the peace camp defeated, controlled, crushed."

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni warned of "evil winds" blowing within Israeli society and that "history is repeating itself," even as her comrades denounced the government's "fearmongering."

The term "politics of hate" repeatedly was invoked throughout the night.

When invitee Tzachi Hanegbi, a minister in the ruling right-wing Likud party, took to the podium he was greeted with jeers that rendered his speech inaudible. For his part, the Israeli premier described the memorial as "a political conference" attended by "those who exalt freedom of expression [but] try to silence anyone who disagrees with them."
Participants boo Tzachi Hanegbi's speech at the Rabin Memorial rally in Tel Aviv pm November 3, 2018 (Tamara Zieve)

The peace process is "still the main dividing line in Israel, as was made perfectly clear again at the rally," Dr. Yossi Beilin, a primary architect of the Oslo Accords, asserted to The Media Line. "However, I am more concerned not about the differences in our society—including whether one thinks it is correct to divide the land [with the Palestinians] or not—but regarding the question marks surrounding our democratic procedures.

"Today, there are polls suggesting that democracy is not viewed as an important factor by segments of the population," he elaborated, "and this is [intricately connected] to respecting the decisions of the majority, which was not the situation when Rabin was killed and, increasingly, is not the case presently."

In the quarter century since Rabin's iconic handshake with Arafat in the White House Rose Garden, the Israeli Left has progressively been marginalized as the political pendulum continues to swing in the opposite direction. Many attribute this to a combination of changing demographics and, perhaps more significantly, to waves of Palestinian terrorism coupled with Ramallah's rejection of three comprehensive peace offers. Taken together, analysts argue, this has contributed to a diminishing belief among Israelis that ending the conflict currently is possible.

"There is a big difference in the [Oslo] period and today because now the split is even deeper—between Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, in addition to Left and Right," Dr. Zipi Israeli, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and a researcher specializing in public opinion at Israel's INSS think-tank, conveyed to The Media Line. "This is especially true with respect to issues relating to national security, including the peace process.

"The arguments are therefore likely to endure," she expounded, "although I differ from some others because I do not believe this will lead to civil war. There remains a lot of solidarity in Israel and this is why we are still here."

Indeed, despite the apparent acuteness of the discord Israelis have, historically, overcome their fair share of disunity.

"For the first 45 years of the state's existence it was as a 'consensual democracy,' meaning people woke up every morning and, irrespective of their differences, felt as though they were part of the same narrative because the external threats were so pronounced that internal disputes were [secondary]," Professor Yedidia Stern, Vice President of the Israel Democracy Institute, explained to The Media Line.

"All of this changed by the early 1980s, largely a product of the basic understanding that Israel was here to stay. The next stage in the development of the country was not about survival but, rather, about identity and what kind of nation we want to build. There are multiple competing visions and what we saw last night at the rally was a manifestation of this reality.

"Ultimately, this can pose a problem and we need strong leadership to navigate the challenges," he concluded, "but this also needs to be viewed within the context of the Jewish experience throughout time. There is a well-known phrase, 'United we stand,' but for us it may as well be 'Divided we stand'—but we still stand."

The nation's cohesiveness is liable again to be put to the test soon, with United States President Donald Trump reportedly readying to release his much-anticipated peace plan, perhaps following this week's mid-term elections.

It is somewhat ironic, though, that some observers believe the will of the people in this regard might be rendered altogether inconsequential, as jump-starting a negotiating process will prove no easy feat given the Palestinian Authority's ongoing boycott of the Trump administration.

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