Politics: Back to the bad old days?

Tense times in Israeli society, before and after the Rabin assassination and now.

A MAN holds up a flag during a peace rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MAN holds up a flag during a peace rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The 30th anniversary of the first Back to the Future movie’s release was marked in the US by special showings of the trilogy, media appearances by cast members, and examinations of how predictions for October 2015 made in 1985 have panned out.
But with all due respect to incorrect expectations for hoverboards and the Chicago Cubs making the World Series, here, Israelis were too busy going back to the past to deal with Back to the Future.
While Americans were looking back to 1985, Israelis were focused on 1995, due to the events marking the 20th anniversary of the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin on the Hebrew calendar. There were the usual profiles of Rabin’s life and questions of whether a political assassination could happen again.
But what really brought Israelis back were reminders of how intense Israeli society was before and after the assassination, during times when the empowered Israeli Left and the protesting Right clashed over the Oslo diplomatic accords Rabin had signed with the Palestinian Authority.
Back then, the Right warned that the accords would lead to mass bloodshed, and the Left accused the Right of inciting too intensely against Rabin’s government’s policies in its protests. In retrospect, both sides’ warnings were proven painfully correct, the Left’s by the assassination and the Right’s by repeated waves of deadly Palestinian terrorism.
The current leaders of the Israeli Right and Left reclaimed their roles from back then in a stormy week at the Knesset that could have fit well back in 1995 ahead of the assassination, or in the months after, when Right-Left tensions were heightened.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was opposition leader at the time of the assassination, told leftist MKs on the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that, despite their hopes for Middle East peace, Israel would forever have to live by the sword.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog appeared to blame Netanyahu for Rabin’s murder, by reminding the Knesset at the Rabin memorial ceremony that Netanyahu addressed a rally in Jerusalem’s Zion Square ahead of the assassination in which an activist who ended up being a Shin Bet agent carried a picture of Rabin in an SS uniform.
Since the picture was revealed, that rally has been portrayed as the ultimate example of the right-wing incitement leading up to the murder.
But officials who were on the porch overlooking the rally with Netanyahu said this week that there was no way he could have seen anything below but masses of people.
Those who worked for the Likud at the time recalled that Netanyahu put out an official statement ahead of the left-wing demonstration in which Rabin was murdered calling for the Right to behave with restraint, obey the law, and protest the Left’s policies responsibly.
While this week left-wing politicians said Netanyahu had called Rabin a traitor ahead of his assassination, those who worked with him at the time remembered that he would repeatedly say the mantra: “He is not a traitor; he is mistaken.”
The former Likud officials recalled how Netanyahu was blamed and shunned immediately after the election.
But a spate of terrorist attacks and partisanship by interim prime minister Shimon Peres led Netanyahu to a narrow victory over him in the highly charged 1996 election.
Especially because assassin Yigal Amir was a crocheted kippa-wearing religious Zionist, those wearing such kippot back then were attacked by the Left as contributing to the assassination, in what the former Likud officials called the closest Israel has gotten to McCarthyism.
The officials said that every year, such tensions come back on the anniversary of the assassination, amid left-wing calls for Netanyahu to apologize for what the Left saw as his contribution to the atmosphere of incitement. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s spokeswoman got in trouble this week for calling it the annual “Rabin festival” in a post on Facebook.
This year’s Rabin anniversary tensions appeared more pronounced, in part because of the round-number anniversary. The 20th year was especially significant because Amir had predicted that within two decades he would be pardoned by a president who would understand the necessity of his crime.
But the main reason Rabin memorial ceremonies have been more intense this year is that the country already has its share of infighting, amid the current wave of Palestinian terrorism.
The Right has blamed the terrorism on the Left’s concessions going back to Rabin, while the Left has said Netanyahu has no one to blame but himself, after being in power for nearly 10 years, the last six consecutively.
In one week, there were enough incidents of civil divide in Israel to fill a decade’s worth of newspapers in a less exciting country.
Bayit Yehudi MK Moti Yogev caused a storm by writing that Supreme Court Justice Uzi Vogelman “put himself on the side of the enemy” when he ruled that Israel had to hold off on demolition of terrorists’ homes.
Former Labor leader Amir Peretz made headlines when he said that any leader of the Left in Israel had to take into account that he could be assassinated. Likud MK Miki Zohar complained that the Right is often accused of incitement but the word is never used to describe inflammatory rhetoric of the Left.
MK Moshe Gafni complained that religious-Zionist MKs caused two intifadas by ascending the Temple Mount. A haredi journalist wrote in Arabic that Arabs should not attack haredim, because they do not go up on the Mount. An Arab MK annoyed Netanyahu by going up on the Mount to spite him.
Netanyahu complained that pictures of him in an SS uniform were downplayed by the media, even after being posted on the personal Facebook page of an editor of a news website he considers hostile to him.
And to add insult to injury, Amir’s brother Hagai got detained again for posting a statement on Facebook that was seen as threatening President Reuven Rivlin.
Seeing such headlines, one can think they inadvertently went back to the past to 1995. The current atmosphere is similar, because of its intensity and the bitter and vocal divides between the different sectors of the population.
But it is also different. First of all, social media has magnified every harsh statement made by politicians and given a public forum to extremist views of ordinary citizens who would have otherwise remained anonymous. Secondly, the Right is in power, so the tables are turned on who makes the decisions and who is left demonstrating.
The final reason the current situation is different is that most of the people making headlines nowadays were around in 1995, and they all are aware of what happened back then.
The former Likud official said that before it happened, they did not even entertain the thought that a prime minister in Israel could be assassinated.
Now, no one can say that.
In 1995, there was also a wave of Palestinian violence that could have united the people of Israel but did not. Just like now, the tension inside Israeli society was so powerful back then, it could push external threats to Israel off the front pages.
There are still no hoverboards, and the Cubs did not make the World Series. But perhaps they will in the near future. That could be the ultimate sign that when we look back from the future, we will see that real peace – at least internally among Israelis – was achieved.