Some 85,000 people, according to police estimates, poured into Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Saturday night to mark the 22nd anniversary of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination there.
The organizers of this year’s rally – centrist groups Darkenu and Commanders for Israel’s Security – sought to avoid politics, focusing on “national unity” and omitting mentions of “peace” in advertisements, a stark contrast to previous years when left-wing politicians have called on the crowd to support the peace process with the Palestinians.
However, the vast majority of Saturday night’s attendees identified with the Left, lending the rally its traditional political orientation.
The square was filled with posters and balloons emblazoned with the left-wing Meretz party and the center-left Zionist Union. There were also many signs for Peace Now, Breaking the Silence, Darkenu, the Hadash party and Standing Together.
In keeping with the nonpartisan theme of the organizers, three settlers were scheduled to address the center-left crowd – Oded Revivi, head of the Efrat Municipal Council in the Etzion Bloc, Esther Brot, a resident of Ofra settlement who was evicted from her home after the High Court of Justice ruled that it was built on Palestinian property, and Micah Goodman, the author of best-selling Catch 67 – a book that describes the Left-Right stalemate over what to do with the territories won in the Six Day War – and the director of the Ein Prat Midrasha in Alon settlement.
Brot canceled her attendance before the event.
No politicians were invited to speak by the organizers, Darkenu and Commanders for Israel’s Security – which both oppose settlements in the West Bank outside the major blocs. The two groups sought a nonpartisan rally in order to create dialogue with other sectors in Israeli society and advance their political agenda. They had invited the six living former chiefs of staff of the Israel Defense Forces to speak, but all declined. According to Channel 10, some were wary of the rally’s historically left-wing nature.
“If there’ll be a diplomatic solution [with the Palestinians] in the future, I want to know that Orthodox people will respect it... If we [on the Left] want to have any kind of change in this country, we need to come to those decisions through respect and dialogue,” Darkenu co-founder Nimrod Dweck told The Jerusalem Post last week.
Goodman, who is also a fellow and researcher at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, was one of the rally’s keynote speakers. Goodman lamented the divide in society, saying that “if we want Israel to be groundbreaking, not just technologically but also politically, we better not try to win the argument but rather to rehabilitate the dispute... this rehabilitation begins with the understanding that Zionism doesn’t belong to the Right, and morality doesn’t belong to the Left. In general, values don’t belong to specific sectors. We are one people and they [the values] belong to all of us.”
Amnon Reshef, a retired major-general and the head of Commanders for Israel’s Security, gave a particularly emotional address. “I want to salute you, with longing, my commander, Yitzhak Rabin. We followed you through fire and water, we will keep on your path tomorrow as well. May your memory be for a blessing.”
He said the NGO wants to separate from the Palestinians and create two states in order to obtain peace. “Hundreds of members of the movement Commanders for Israel’s Security, senior members of the Israeli security establishment who served the country in the army, in the Shin Bet, in the Mossad and in the Israel Police, unanimously determine: We can separate from the Palestinians without compromising on security. We must separate from the Palestinians, in order to preserve the State of Israel as the political home of the Jewish people. The path that was delineated by Yitzhak – and at the height of which he was murdered – is nearing a decision point: Separation [from the Palestinians] in order to preserve our identity and secure the Zionist vision for posterity; or annexation – creeping or declared – and with it the end of a dream.”
Advertising for the rally hit a raw nerve as the initial posters omitted mention of the “assassination,” which the organizers said was a mistake. The event was held under the motto of “We Remember: We Are One People,” with a photo of Rabin and the Israeli flag in the background. Most years, the Yitzhak Rabin Center picked up the tab, but in 2016, the left-leaning Zionist Union/Labor party funded the event.
Ahead of the rally, left-wing politicians such as MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) blasted the organizers for downplaying the political nature of the assassination, since Rabin was shot dead by a right-wing extremist after leaving a rally supporting the Oslo Accords.
Former prime minister of IDF chief of staff Ehud Barak (Labor) also critiqued the “nonpartisan” nature of the rally, on social media. “The prime minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] and his [Likud] party are talking about reconciliation under the auspices of a culture of lies and deceit... A hollow unity would be another gunshot in the back to Rabin,” he wrote.
MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) told the Post at the beginning of the rally that it was “trying falsely to be apolitical.”
“We’re committed to reaching a political solution and that is the main theme [of tonight’s rally],” Avi Gabbay, the chairman of the Labor Party, said outside the rally moments before it started, addressing the arguments that took place in the weeks leading up to it regarding the importance of the event and the identity of its organizers.
“In recent weeks there has been this attempt to dim out the fact that Rabin was assassinated. He was assassinated on the road to peace. This leads us to a conclusion: Ever year, if the State of Israel wants to take responsibility over the ceremony and over the rally, we would gladly let it assume the responsibility – but we won’t allow for it to be unclear every year, we won’t allow for this ambiguity regarding whether or not a rally should take place. There will be a rally, we will hold a rally every year that the Labor Party will organize. And we will allow different voices to come and speak out,” Gabbay said.
MK Tzipi Livni, chairwoman of Hatnua, which together with Labor makes up the Zionist Union, also reiterated messages of peace while speaking, before the rally, at the monument in memory of Rabin in square, located where he was murdered.
“The message of reconciliation rising from the square this evening is immensely important, but no less important is the understanding that the disputes that we had then [in 1995] have remained with us. We shouldn’t hide them. We should talk about them among ourselves. Argue, convince, but with everything coming from an understanding that each of us in our own way wants what is best for the State of Israel. There are no traitors among us – there weren’t then and there aren’t now.”
Livni went on to add that while she did not attend the rally at which Rabin was murdered in 1995, and didn’t vote for him, “I would sign on the words [that framed the rally] – ‘Yes to peace, no to violence.’”
As in previous years, activists from left-wing NGOs such as Breaking the Silence – which publishes anonymous testimonies about Israel’s military control over the West Bank – and Peace Now, an anti-settlement watchdog group – were permitted to set up stands at the rally, after organizers initially turned them down.
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correspondent Max Schindler here: Joy Bernard contributed to this report.