(photo credit: ITZIK EDRI/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Debates over the legacy of Rehavam “Gandhi” Ze’evi took a different tone at Tuesday’s Knesset memorial ceremony on the 15th anniversary of the tourism minister’s assassination by a Palestinian terrorist, with sexual assault allegations that came to light earlier this year overshadowing them.
Even speakers who thought the allegations should not change the way Ze’evi is memorialized took time to acknowledge the charges.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that it was unfair to debate alleged criminal actions when the accused cannot defend himself.
“The accusations recently leveled at Gandhi hurt us all, but foremost, hurt his family...because Gandhi is not with us to respond, answer and defend his name,” Netanyahu said.
“We all have the right to a good name, dead or alive. Therefore, we should not condemn Gandhi when hearing only one side, because he cannot give his version of events.”
However, Netanyahu said, “there is no dispute over what Gandhi did at a national, military and political level. We cannot erase his merits.”
Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, who replaced Ze’evi as a National Union MK after his assassination, gave a blunt assessment of the allegations, expressing “disgust and contempt for those who brought things up when Gandhi could not respond.”
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) were more circumspect and offered less praise for the deceased or criticism of his accusers.
Edelstein pointed out in a brief address that Ze’evi was considered to be on the extreme Right, and many of his views were always controversial.
“On top of that were different revelations... about his lifestyle and behavior, allegedly appropriate as they were, which cannot be proven years after he is no longer with us. All that can be said is, if they were confirmed, even partially, it could be that they would cast a heavy shadow on him, and there is no doubt that this already happened in the public and the press,” Edelstein stated.
The decision to continue to hold the annual memorial in the Knesset was “complex,” he added, because Ze’evi still contributed much to Israel and its security, and because of the circumstances of his murder.
Herzog said he was taking part in the meeting despite a raucous debate in his faction.
“Although Ze’evi is no longer alive and cannot respond to the claims, we cannot ignore this significant matter of values in connection to relations between men and women in our society. We cannot ignore them and move on. This is a cloud overshadowing his image,” Herzog stated.
The rest of the opposition leader’s speech was dedicated to the fact of Ze’evi’s assassination and the need to fight terrorism, as opposed to the man himself.
“The murder of a minister in the Israeli government, a commander and major-general in the IDF by terrorists is an event that must be marked and learned from. That is indisputable,” he stated.
Only eight opposition MKs remained in the plenum for the event, with all of Meretz and some in the Zionist Union saying they were boycotting it because of an investigative report on Channel 2’s Uvda in April alleging that Ze’evi sexually assaulted several women.
The report, which included testimony from some of his accusers, also asserted that Ze’evi, who was a major general in the army, committed war crimes, including shooting at civilians and defiling enemy bodies.
Opposition MKs in the Joint List and MK Shelly Yacimovich (Zionist Union) said they skip the special meeting in the Knesset every year because of Ze’evi’s views, specifically his support for “transfer,” the idea that Palestinians can be made to move to Arab countries.
Less than half of the coalition – 31 MKs – were present for the proceedings, though none announced a reason for the absence.
Later this month, the government and Knesset will mark the anniversary of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in the same way it did for Ze’evi, with a ceremony at his grave on Mount Herzl and speeches in the legislature.
The annual ceremony at the site of Rabin’s assassination in Tel Aviv, whose cancellation due to lack of funding came as a shock for many last week, is not a government-sponsored event; rather, it is organized by the Rabin family and his memorial foundation.