Politics and Diplomacy: Lost Legacy

Instead of the peace process that Yitzhak Rabin led, 20 years after his death Israelis and Palestinians are enmeshed in a process of rejectionism.

A boy touches the bust of Yitzhak Rabin before a rally commemorating the 20th anniversary of his assassination in Tel Aviv, October 31 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A boy touches the bust of Yitzhak Rabin before a rally commemorating the 20th anniversary of his assassination in Tel Aviv, October 31
(photo credit: REUTERS)
TWENTY YEARS after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination little remains of his legacy. The peace process he oversaw is moribund; the simmering internal incitement the assassination briefly interrupted is rife; his reaching out to Israeli Arabs has been undone and the national credibility earned though his blunt leadership style has been squandered.
Before Rabin was assassinated in the late autumn of 1995, the success of the two-state dynamic set in motion by the Oslo agreements seemed inevitable. After almost a century of conflict, the two rival national movements, Zionism and Palestinian nationalism, seemed reconciled to the fact that the best future for both lay in sharing the land. The same conclusion had been reached by the Peel Commission in 1937, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) a decade later, and enshrined in UN General Assembly Resolution 181, the legal basis for the establishment of Israel in 1948.
Until the early 1990s, Arab rejectionism prevented any progress in this direction.
Then, recognition by the Arab side that it could not defeat Israel by force and Israeli recognition that the 1967 occupation of Gaza and the West Bank could not continue indefinitely created conditions for a grand, conflict-ending bargain. In September 1993, after exchanging letters of mutual recognition, Rabin and then PLO leader Yasser Arafat sealed the framework deal.
Because it seemed so rational and so deeply in tune with the march of history, politicians and pundits the world over believed it could not fail.
Now, as Israel marks the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, the two-state solution seems further off than ever. Over the past several years, both sides have taken a step back and both seem ready to withdraw recognition of the other’s national rights.
Israelis and Palestinians find themselves on the edge of the abyss, looking into a black hole of no recognition, no negotiations and no peace, a pre-Oslo all or nothing zero-sum game.
The air of historic inevitability enveloping the two-state solution is gone.
Initially, even after Rabin’s death and the rise to power of Oslo’s fiercest critic, Benjamin Netanyahu, the process seemed irreversible.
Once installed in the Prime Minister’s Office, the right-wing Likud leader reluctantly seemed to accept the inevitable.
He officially endorsed Oslo and, despite heavy right-wing pressure, concluded an agreement for redeployment in Hebron, committed to further withdrawals from the West Bank and at one point even called Yasser Arafat “my friend.”
But because he moved forward grudgingly, seemingly intent on buying time rather than making peace, Netanyahu lost credibility and public support.
Labor’s Ehud Barak was elected to pick up where Rabin left off. But ironically, it was Barak who created the first big dent in the belief in the inevitability of Oslo when he failed to cut a deal at Camp David in July 2000. The dent became a gaping hole when Camp David was followed by the armed uprising known as the “second intifada,” and by Barak’s insistence that there was “no partner” for peace on the Palestinian side.
Nevertheless, Ariel Sharon, the Likud hawk who succeeded Barak, recognized the two-state imperative. It was, in his view, essential for Israel’s international standing and, even more importantly, for retaining its Jewish majority and democratic character. The genuine acceptance of the two-state model by the leader of the Israeli right was a historic watershed.
Now with such across-the-board support, the implicit Oslo goal, two states for two peoples, regained its aura of inevitability.
But with a difference. Sharon accepted Barak’s no partner argument; Israel would create two states but would do so unilaterally, starting with Gaza.
Initially Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, intended to follow up the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza with a similar unilateral pullback from the West Bank. But after a tumbling loss of authority in the wake of the ineptly handled Second Lebanon War, he shelved his unilateral plans. And although he came close to negotiating a territorial agreement with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the effort collapsed in the wake of corruption charges against Olmert, Abbas’s failure to respond to a map outlined by Olmert and Israel’s invasion of Gaza in late 2008.
On succeeding Olmert in March 2009, Netanyahu again seemed to recognize the two-state imperative, insisting in a speech at Bar-Ilan University in June that he was committed to it. But in the six and a half years of his premiership since then, despite robust American efforts at mediation, little progress was made. And it was in the breakdown of these indirect, ill-spirited negotiations that the two-state solution finally lost its aura of inevitability, with each side accusing the other of inherent rejectionism.
TODAY, AS Palestinian terror rages in the streets, Israelis and Palestinians, unless they find new creative energy, look destined to share a bleak and endemically violent one-state future. Acknowledging that he sees no political solution, Netanyahu has already warned fellow Israelis that they will probably have to “live by the sword forever.”
Unless reversed, the current eclipse of the two-state model could prove to be the most dramatic historical change in Israeli- Palestinian relations in the two decades since Rabin’s death.
The potential alternative one-state anarchy has grave implications for Israel’s future.
Young people are beginning to question whether it is the kind of future they want to share. There were already inklings of this in Rabin’s day. One of the reasons he was so determined to explore the chances of peace was a string of conversations with his paratrooper grandson Yonatan Ben-Artzi, who warned of the younger generation’s reluctance to face a future of incessant violence.
Despite its failure so far to end the conflict, Oslo did have some weighty achievements for Israeli governments of all stripes.
For one, it allowed another 20 plus years of occupation with relatively little international pressure on Israel to end it. It also led to wide acceptance of Israel by the international community with huge economic benefits. It paved the way for peace with Jordan in 1994 and for the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. It also regulated relations between Israel and the Palestinians with the establishment of a Palestinian Authority, Palestinian institutions, bilateral economic arrangements and security cooperation.
Without a credible Oslo-style peace process, Israel could find itself facing mounting international pressure and growing Palestinian violence.
Given Israel’s complex diplomatic and security challenges, Rabin recognized the paramount importance of ties with the US. He developed a special relationship with US President Bill Clinton, who in his eulogy at Rabin’s funeral bid farewell to his friend, “shalom haver.”
This part of Rabin’s legacy, the careful nurturing of ties with the US, has also been eroded, leaving Israel more exposed to international pressure. And although the strategic relationship between the two countries remains intact, it is despite relations between the leaders, not because of them.
Rabin’s potentially game-changing outreach to Israeli Arabs, seen as an essential part of his overall peace vision, has also crumbled. Soon after his election in 1992, Rabin set up a forum for cooperation with Arab Knesset members and followed it up with unprecedented investment in the Arab sector.
Successive Israeli governments failed to follow through, most notably that of Labor’s Barak. Barak, who received over 90 percent of the Arab vote in the 1999 election largely because of Rabin’s policies, pointedly turned his back on the Arab Knesset members, and did little to alleviate tensions after police, in October 2000, opened fire on Israeli Arab demonstrators killing 13.
Further undermining Rabin’s inclusive approach, Netanyahu brought already strained relations with the Israeli-Arab community to a new low with his false and ostensibly racist claim on election day last March that right-wing rule in Israel was in danger because “Arabs were being bused to the polls in droves by left-wing NGOs.”
The unraveling of Rabin’s legacy has led to the empowerment of radically opposed, more nationalistic and less democratic forces. The failure of Oslo has its objective correlative in the composition of the current right-wing-religious government.
The same right-wing and settler forces that fought tooth and nail against Rabin’s Oslo and Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza are now the country’s rulers. Only a small minority in the current right-wingreligious coalition even claims to support the two-state solution.
Twenty years of failed peace attempts coupled with severe bouts of Palestinian terror eroded belief among large segments of Israeli society in the possibility of peace, creating conditions for the election and reelection of rightist-led governments.
Although not as virulent, the same kind of illiberal incitement that led up to Rabin’s assassination is now being turned against some of the country’s democratic institutions and its peace camp. Some of it is coming from inside the government, creating a climate in which extreme language seemingly has a green light.
The targets include the Supreme Court, President Reuven Rivlin, who has spoken out forcefully against intolerance and racism, and the Israeli left as a whole. Some of the more violent manifestations come from radical right-wing groups on the margins; many of the more inflammatory comments go unchecked on the Internet.
In the final scene of Amos Gitai’s recently released film, “Rabin, the Last Day,” Meir Shamgar, the former chief justice who headed the panel investigating the assassination, leaves the room where the hearings are being held and walks out into the blustery night air, seemingly leaping across two decades into the Israel of today.
With papers swirling about, cars passing, Netanyahu’s dominant image on a billboard, Shamgar adjusts his scarf, aware that his commission has not even come close to coming to grips with the big questions.
The message is clear: Two decades have elapsed and nothing has been resolved.