It is hard to escape the fact that had Yitzhak Rabin not been assassinated in cold blood by a rightwing extremist, he would be remembered no more, and no less, than all previous Israeli prime ministers, with the obvious exception of David Ben-Gurion.
Rabin had many fine qualities and many faults, and was present at some of the most critical junctures of Israeli history – from being a young commander in the Palmach, to being the chief of staff during the Six Day War, ambassador to the United States and, during his first period of office, the youngest (and first Israeli-born) prime minister of the State of Israel – all of which can never be taken away from him.
He was, also, the prime minister that signed the Oslo Accords, signaling a structural change in the way that Israel related to the Palestinians and, as many biographers and historians have argued, a major change in the way that he, a career soldier and military man for most of his life, finally came to an understanding that the Israel-Palestine conflict would only ever be resolved – if it ever is to be resolved, which today looks more questionable than ever – through diplomatic rather than military means.
Whether or not the post-Oslo peace process broke down because of his assassination is one of those “if” questions of history which will never be fully answered. His approach to peace was more realistic and pragmatic (precisely because of his military background) than that of the Messianic peacemakers who came after him. Some argue that his approach had a better chance of succeeding than did that of Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin, while there are others who argue the opposite – namely that the process had to be taken over by those who were fully committed to the concept of peace and reconciliation if it were to ever succeed, and that the Rabin position was a start, but not sufficient.
But the Oslo peace process broke down because of the many peace spoilers, on both sides of the political fence. The terrorism, violence and bus bombings by extremist Palestinian elements, along with settlement building and expansion among the religious-nationalist settler community – events which have continued almost unabated for the entire 20-year period since the signing of the Oslo Agreements and the Rabin assassination which took place shortly afterwards.
There is no direct comparison between these two types of peace spoiling, over and beyond the important fact that each represents for the other side what must cease taking place if conflict resolution and something labeled as “peace” is ever to have a chance of succeeding.
For Israelis it is obvious that without physical safety and security – from bus bombings, from knife attacks in the streets of Jerusalem and from the deadly throwing of stones onto passing traffic – there can never be any form of renewed dialogue.
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For Palestinians it is equally obvious that for dialogue to take place, all forms of settlement expansion, which for them signifies the very worst dimensions of occupation and the lack of sovereignty or self-rule, has to occur.
Had Rabin not been assassinated, would these events not have taken place? Peres was even more committed to the peace process than Rabin was, but he didn’t manage, despite the best intentions, to move things forward.
Can we really blame the Rabin assassination for an increase in violence and terrorism on the one side, and settlement expansion and land expropriation on the other? During Rabin’s period as prime minister the construction of settlements continued at a rapid pace, even more rapidly than some subsequent governments, and it was clear that despite the important and daring steps taken by him in signing the Oslo Accords, he was skeptical as to where this would lead the country in the long term.
The fact that he was assassinated at a peace rally, and not at any other event, has also made it almost impossible for the events commemorating this awful event from being separated from the wider peace process. The annual Saturday evening rally at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, along with the many commemoration ceremonies which take place throughout the country and at all public institutions, is one of the last remaining gatherings of the pro-peace camp which takes place in Israel, when all other hope for any meaningful reconciliation seems lost and distant. It is an annual gathering of the clan, the shevet (tribe) who retain the traditional left-of-center, largely secular, reins of the “peace” camp, a label which has been as much hijacked by the Left as the “national” camp has been hijacked by the Right, in a country which is even more polarized than it was at the time of Rabin’s assassination.
It is for this reason that so many citizens of the country who equally abhor political violence and assassination but are not part of what is euphemistically known as the “peace” camp do not take part in these events.
For the Rabin assassination to be an event which is commemorated throughout Israeli society, it has to be precisely that – an event which rejects all forms of political violence. It needs to be an event in which celebrates the supremacy of democracy as the only way through which political decisions can be legitimized and implemented. It needs to be an event where leaders of the Right equally and categorically condemn the many acts of political violence which have taken place over the years, even when almost all of such events have come from within their own camp.
This is the point where readers will start to complain that an entire sector of the population (the right wing, the religious-nationalist) is being labeled as anti-democratic, and that the acts of violence that have taken place, both prior to and since the Rabin assassination, have been the acts of a few wild weeds.
It is not fair, they will argue, to label entire sectors of the population with this stain.
But neither can we escape the fact that from the murder of Emil Greenzweig, to the underground terrorist organization of the late 1980s, to the assassination of Rabin, the murderous activities of Ami Propper, the attacks on Professor Sternhell of the Hebrew University and, most recently, on members of the human rights group Rabbis for Human Rights, as well as the vandalization of some churches and mosques throughout Israel, all acts of political violence have emerged from one side of the political spectrum.
This is an empirical fact, and if the Right does not wish to be collectively accused of promoting political violence whenever democracy and freedom of speech does not deliver what they want, then they must be much more categoric in their condemnation and total ostracization of violent and radical groups that emerge from their own education system and are clearly not sufficiently socialized into utterly rejecting violence as an alternative to democracy.
But by turning the commemoration of the Rabin assassination into a peace camp rally, right-wing leaders who have something different to say have little opportunity of having their voices heard. The fact that President Reuven Rivlin, who makes no apologies about his own political views concerning the Palestinian issue, makes it clear that he is opposed to all forms of discrimination and political violence, has gone a small, albeit important, way to readdressing this imbalance. But even here, we hear the voices of the extreme Right attacking Rivlin for “betraying” his values and for turning into a “traitor,” much the same way that we heard the voices directed against Rabin prior to his assassination and against Peres and other left-wing public figures and politicians in the 20 years which have passed since then.
Had Rabin not been assassinated, but simply stepped down eventually from politics and passed away in old age and retirement, he would not have been remembered or commemorated in the way that he is. His important contribution to Israeli history and security would have been recognized and memorialized but probably no more than a host of other prime ministers, such as Menachem Begin, Golda Meir and, when the day eventually comes, Peres.
His contribution as a statesman who turned from military man to peacemaker would surely have been recognized, as too Menachem Begin, the first rightwing prime minister, in making the even more important leap forward by signing the historical peace agreement with Egypt. This was probably even more of a structural change for Israel than anything that happened at Oslo. It was a peace agreement with the single most significant security threat to Israel, it was implemented on the ground and, with difficulties, it has held until today.
Rabin would not have left us with a “special legacy” different in nature and different in degree to those of most other prime ministers and presidents.
The events taking place this week and culminating in Saturday evening’s rally in Tel Aviv are happening because he was a democratically elected prime minister who was assassinated for his views – and this is the key lesson that the whole of Israeli society must internalize and take on, if it is to remember this date for future generations.
The writer is dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.
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