Mourning Yitzhak Rabin - legacy in constant redefinition

Analysis: This year’s 15th anniversary shows Israelis continuing to redefine legacy of former prime minister in variety of conflicting tones.

guy cleaning Rabin's grave (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
guy cleaning Rabin's grave
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Had Yitzhak Rabin been able to witness the many ceremonies held in his honor nationwide on Tuesday night and Wednesday – the 15th anniversary of his assassination on the Jewish calendar – chances are he would be rather confused.
He would see many people speaking in his name, justifying a variety of causes, and elaborating on something that has come to be called the Rabin legacy.
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A legacy is intended to be bequeathed, but it can always be reinterpreted by those left behind, especially when it is the legacy of a leader whose life was cut short.
For many years, Rabin’s legacy was defined, by a consensus of Israelis, as the peace process that he was engaged in with the Palestinians at the time of his murder. Whether this was what he would have wanted has been debated by his relatives and confidants, some of whom were aware of his doubts about the intentions of Yasser Arafat, who was already sabotaging the diplomatic process by ordering terrorist attacks at the time of Rabin’s assassination.
A more disturbing staple in speeches at Rabin memorials for many years was disparagement of his political opponents and anyone who opposed the Oslo process, especially religious Zionists. This has been toned down recently, especially after the floundering of Rabin’s Labor Party and the weakening of what during the Rabin years came to be called the peace camp.
One political cartoon this week depicted a peace rally being held in Rabin’s memory in the tiny sentry’s booth at the entrance to a military base named after him, due to decreasing turnout.
Another paper’s political satire page suggested retroactively declaring last week’s Tel Aviv Marathon the Rabin rally, because at least then the streets were full.
Nowadays, Rabin’s legacy is less easily defined. A variety of politicians and organizations have assigned Rabin an altogether different legacy than was initially hoisted on him. Haaretz’s depiction of assassinated rightwing minister Rehavam Ze’evi as an advocate for a Palestinian state last weekend might be seen as fair revenge for what some have done in appointing Rabin as a posthumous spokesman against purportedly over-generous territorial compromise.
It started with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs highlighting Rabin’s last Knesset address, in which he made clear that Israel “will not return to the 4 June 1967 lines.”
The Jerusalem think tank, led by former ambassador to the UN Dore Gold, first pointed out seven years ago that Rabin had insisted on a map of what he called “defensible borders,” which included a united Jerusalem, the settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley.
This week it was the right-wing organization Matot Arim that sent Labor MKs a letter reminding them that Rabin had opposed the creation of a Palestinian state. The letter was accompanied by links to an old copy of Labor’s platform and a September 1993 Time magazine interview with Rabin.
When asked if Labor was softening its opposition to a Palestinian state, Rabin said: “No, I am against this. I oppose the creation of a Palestinian state between Israel and Jordan, and I don’t believe that at this stage it would be a good idea.”
Even key figures on the Left have begun to rethink Rabin’s legacy. The best case in point is Labor MK Einat Wilf, who wrote an opinion piece for The Jerusalem Post to mark Wednesday’s anniversary (see Page 15) and whose sentiments in the piece were highlighted by Ma’ariv on its Tuesday front page, sparking some frenzied debate.
In the Post article, Wilf suggests that Rabin “has come to be defined by what he could have done” – and that this has left her Labor Party wallowing and “mourning the disappearance of a bright future,” when it needs to remind itself of its potential to shape that future.
The implication that Rabin had become a symbol of missed opportunity rather than a symbol of achievement and boldness earned Wilf condemnation by colleagues in her faction, who also protested her complaint in the piece that Rabin’s portrait dominates the Labor faction’s Knesset conference room, dwarfing a portrait of David Ben-Gurion, the symbol of Israel’s and Labor’s “can-do spirit.”
MK Daniel Ben-Simon said her sentiments were shameful and “harm the memory and legacy of the former prime minister.”
He added: “This particularly hurts because it comes from here, from within the party.”
But some figures on the Left said privately that Wilf was right and that they could not argue with the facts.
Israel Democracy Institute vice president Yedidya Stern, who is a religious Zionist, suggested on Tuesday that the anniversary of the Rabin assassination be marked as a Democracy Day, in which the diversity of Israel would be celebrated.
Some on the Right mocked the idea, noting that Rabin had pushed forward a peace process that polls indicated had come to be opposed by a majority of the nation and that purchasing the votes of MKs on the Right to pass the Oslo II agreement in 1995 did not make Rabin a model democrat.
Others argued, however, that dedicating Rabin memorial day as a date to celebrate democracy could be fitting, because the smooth transfer of power after the assassination proved that Israel is a functioning and enduring democracy.
Whatever the eventual outcome of that discussion, this year’s 15th anniversary certainly shows Israelis continuing to democratically express their views, and continuing to redefine the legacy of the former prime minister in a variety of widely conflicting tones.