Twice a year at about this time, Israelis hear about the murder 18 years ago of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It happens twice, like some other occasions, due to the the country''s juggling of two calendars, secular and Hebrew.
Like JFK, Yitzhak Rabin has grown in stature with an improved personality since his assassination. One can quarrel about the true Rabin, like the true Kennedy. In both cases, however, it is important to remember their deaths to remind ourselves about the fragility of democracy in the face of political assassination.
Labor party politicians do their utmost to link themselves with Yitzhak Rabin. Large photos of him appear at key party events. On the most recent anniversary of his death, party leader Shelly Yacimovich spoke about what she described as "Israeli democracy threatened by incitement, extremist Knesset bills."
Yachimovich''s comments were as self-serving and political as anything else. This anniversary of Rabin''s murder occurs in the midst of a tough party election for leadership. Her comments were not only meant to gain traction with respect to party rivals, but to do what she could to re-establish the Labor Party as a major player in Israeli national politics.
A lot has changed in 18 years. Israeli politics from the beginning until the election of 1996 (the first after Rabin''s death) were mostly left vs right or Labor vs Likud (each changing somewhat from time to time due to leadership maneuvers and alliances). Since then, Labor has declined from the range of 26-34 seats in the Knesset to the range of 13 to 19 seats, with 15 seats in the current Knesset. Likud dropped to 12 seats in the election of 2006 when Ariel Sharon took a large faction to Kadima, but has come back to 31 seats in this Knesset as Likud-Beiteinu.
Most prominent has been the rise of parties claiming to be non-ideological and centrist. The phenomenon occurred as early as the 1977 election with something called DASH (Democratic Movement for Change), and continued with several other claimants of the center rising and then disappearing. Currently there are three centrist parties in the Knesset. There is a Future, led by Yair Lapid, the Movement led by Tzipi Livni, and a remnant of Kadima have a total of 28 seats. .
The rise of parties seeking to distant themselves from right and left reflects changes in Israel''s economy and society. Gone is the image of a socialist country led by the representatives of organized workers and the kibbutzim, and opposed by right-wing and nationalist Israelis along with anti-socialist owners of small businesses. Now there are Israeli Yuppies, educated in technology and business schools, and more concerned with a better life than with the ideologies of their parents and grandparents. With a spurt of success among the newly rich, Israel has moved from being one of the western countries with the greatest equality between income groups to being one of the most unequal.
The Kibbutzim have gone high-tech in their industrial units. Most have "privatized." They provide differential salaries to members according to their jobs, rather than avoiding money and providing all with similar housing, sharing clothes and cars. No longer do kibbutz members vote uniformly Labor.
Israel is not--or not yet--a Yuppie-governed country. Also more prominent since the death of Yitzhak Rabin are a million Russian-speaking immigrants, and a party supported by religious settlers calling itself Jewish Home that grew out of the National Religious Party. Jewish Home has 11 seats in the Knesset and patronage heavy ministries dealing with industry and housing.. The ultra-Orthodox make more babies per family than other Israeli Jews or Israeli Arabs. Their two political parties (SHAS for the Sephardim and United Torah Judaism for the Ashkenazim) are outside the current government, but have 18 seats in the Knesset.
Israeli politics may be especially fluid at the present time. Russian parties may have peaked, with their most prominent figure Avigdor Lieberman tarnished by years of being investigated for alleged scandals, despite escaping one charge when the prosecutors disagreed with the police about an indictment, and in another found not guilty by the court. He has has lost some supporters due to an alliance with SHAS in municipal elections, that also failed to achieve most of its electoral goals. Neither Lieberman nor any other Russian speaker may be attracting the majority of the immigrants'' younger generation, who have joined the Israeli mainstream.
SHAS is at a turning point after the death of its founder and iconic leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and an uptick in the friction between politicians competing party leadership.
There are also changes within Likud. The right wing gained strength in the party primary that preceded the most recent national election, resulting in Benyamin Netanyahu having to defend his leadership by maneuvering within a coalition that includes to his left centrist parties (There is a Future and the Movement), and to his right Likud''s ascendant younger MKs, and the religious settlers'' party Jewish Home.
Among the unknowns are all the newcomers to the Knesset and national electoral politics resulting from There is a Future growing from nothing to 19 seats, the Movement growing from nothing to seven seats, and Jewish Home increasing the religious settler representation from seven to 11 seats. Also among the unknowns are the aspirations and staying power of their party leaders Lapid, Benet, and Livni, each with prominent ministries and frequent indications of tensions among them, and an American administration less clearly in Israel''s camp than its predecessor.
Although many--including American Jews and some ranking individuals in the American administration--view Bibi as an extreme rightist, he is in the center of Israeli politics. He finds himself managing restive coalition partners to his right and left on settlement expansion, overtures to Palestinians, civil unions instead of marriages for anti-religious Jews or Jews not considered as such by the Rabbinate, and for homosexual couples, as well as proposals to change how Israel deals with its ultra-Orthodox..
Two important foreign issues--Iran and Palestine--are prominent on the agenda, with delicate relationships involving the United States attached to both.
Negotiations with the Palestinians are at their first major crisis. Palestinians are claiming that an expansion of construction beyond the 1967 border violates the terms of discussion, and will end the process if they continue. The Israeli position is that a continuation of construction was understood by Americans and Palestinians prior to the talks, as part of a package with the freeing of Palestinian prisoners. John Kerry may be the only major figure surprised by the crisis, and the possibility that talks will end badly.
When Israel is examined comparatively, Shelly Yachimovich appears to be exaggerating when she emphasizes that Israeli democracy is under threat from extremism.
Israel''s democracy appears to be as stable and as healthy as any throughout the West, including some not so western countries like Japan, plus South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore that have become more democratic in recent years. Israel is arguably as well or better tested a democracy as Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and former Soviet satellites of eastern Europe.
The United States, Britain and France each claim to be among the mothers of democracy. Yet they have worrisome ethnic and racial issues. Britain and more so France have not done well in absorbing Third World Muslims. The United States has yet to accommodate many descendants of former slaves, or the poor whites who now suffer under the label of "trailer trash," The United States is outstanding among western democracies for the incidence of its residents in prison.
The appeals of democratic politics and their societies come partly from mobility. Those not at the top can move up, but individuals as well as whole societies can fall. Israel is led by a formerly right wing Prime Minister now located in the fluid center of a society that has moved to the right, having to deal with a trouble-making American administration, as well as government partners whose lack of experience make it hard to predict which of their several demands they will push with intensity.
Pity the observer who is certain about our near or distant future.