The changing tide

As Israel prepares to mark 20 years to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, society is no longer willing to risk a Palestinian state.

Oslo Accords architect Yossi Beilin meets Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat in Jericho, in 1997 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Oslo Accords architect Yossi Beilin meets Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat in Jericho, in 1997
(photo credit: REUTERS)
THE MOOD of the religious Zionist community during the summer of 1995 reflected palpable, heart-stopping panic‒ and not only because of murderous Palestinian attacks.
More than 100 Israelis were killed between the day Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993, and the night Rabin was gunned down by a Jewish assassin two years and two months later. But the fear in the right-wing community was far deeper than immediate questions of life and death.
Rather, the right-wing sector was gripped by a nearly apocalyptic fury that the end of Israel as an independent, Jewish country was at hand. Then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu furiously denounced the Oslo process, mainly arguing that the Palestine Liberation Organization was an unrepentant terror group that would use any Israeli concessions to better its offensive capabilities.
The panic was even more tangible in Judea and Samaria. There, settlers’ fears that Rabin would evict them from their homes paled in comparison to their concern that Israeli concessions in Judea and Samaria would undermine any Jewish claim to the Land of Israel and that the Oslo process would undermine Israel’s role in the messianic process.
Although most early religious Zionist leaders rejected the notion that the return to the Land of Israel presaged the hope for the arrival of the messiah, in the years following the Six Day War that trend had given way to a sense that the “liberation” of Judea and Samaria and eastern Jerusalem was a clear harbinger of the ultimate redemption. For more than 20 years, the messianic Gush Emunim group had set the tone for the religious Zionist community, which responded with a determined, passionate focus to “complete the groundwork” for the messiah by settling the hilltops of Judea and Samaria.
On the left, too, the summer of 1995 was driven by messianic passion. The 100,000 Israelis who thronged to a Tel Aviv square for a pro-Oslo rally on the fateful night of November 4 could almost taste redemption ‒ peace would be achieved first with the Palestinians, then with Syria and the rest of the Arab world.
THAT PASSION left many Oslo supporters not only in disagreement with the right-wing opposition, but wholly dismissive of their concerns. To prime minister Rabin, foreign minister Shimon Peres, deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin and others, there was no possibility of reasoned, sober opposition to Oslo.
Skeptics like Netanyahu who questioned Rabin’s assertion that “the PLO… has ceased to engage in terrorism” were denounced easily as “fear mongers,” while religious opponents to the process were simply “extremists.”
By the second anniversary of the Oslo Accords, deep fissures began to wreak havoc on the delicate social fabric of a small nation of immigrants that boasted fewer than 5.5 million people at the time.
Those who remembered the fierce disagreements between David Ben-Gurion and his hard-line opponent Menachem Begin pointed out that Oslo was not the first issue over which left- and right-wing Israelis failed to listen to one another, but the low level of discourse was unique.
The right saw Oslo as little more than a cowardly capitulation to Palestinian terror and a betrayal of the Land of Israel; on the left, opponents of the process were seen as little more than blind messianists who preferred eternal war to a negotiated settlement.
For all Israelis, the assassination of the prime minister on November 4, 1995 was an earth-shattering moment, but the murder held a special dimension for the religious- Zionist world. To the Oslo faithful, and many previously silent Israelis, the bullets of the assassin Yigal Amir, an observant Jew, merely confirmed the feeling that religious Zionists were not merely political rivals, but rather virtual enemies of state.
Many leading religious Zionist rabbis ‒ including Gush Emunim founder Yoel Bin- Nun and Yehuda Amital, head of the Har Etzion Yeshiva ‒ called on their community to consider the attack a wake-up call and advocated communal soul-searching.
Others, however, including settler leader Hanan Porat went on the defensive, rejecting accusations that religious Zionism was responsible for the murder.
On a social level, however, demonization of the right quickly became a default position for left-wing groups, a stance that remained in place until after the explosion of the second intifada in 2000.
“I never felt I had a place at the annual Rabin memorial rally in Rabin Square because I was never willing to ‘pay the price of admission’ – admitting my ‘folly’ at taking a skeptical view of Oslo and acknowledging that Yasser Arafat was an honest peace partner,” says Yossi Klein Halevi, author and commentator on Israeli society (and former Jerusalem Report journalist).
“I could never do that, and so I never felt I was welcome at the memorial rally.”
Halevi says he finally felt able to attend the annual rally in November, 2001, a year after the Oslo process had gone down in flames with the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada and the worst terror offensive Israel had ever faced. The Israeli public had turned sharply against continuing the process, and with the left in tatters, Halevi felt he could finally attend the Rabin memorial “I went for the first time, but I couldn’t believe it. It was like nothing had changed.
All the speakers – I can’t even remember who they were anymore – spoke about the ‘enemies of peace’ and ‘continuing Rabin’s path,’ as if nothing had changed over the previous year. Here our buses were blowing up all over the place, the left had lost all credibility, but they were talking as if nothing had changed,” Halevi tells The Jerusalem Report.
Politically, the assassination marked the beginning of a long period of decline for the left. Apart from a short stint in power from 1999-2001 under the leadership of Ehud Barak, left-wing parties have remained far from the seat of power since Rabin’s assassination. Current and former Labor and Meretz leaders appear not only to have moved little from the assumptions of the 1990s but have done little to present new ideas for relations with the Palestinians.
“On the left, I don’t think anyone has rethought the ultimate answer to our conflict with the Palestinians, but there is little faith about the chance to implement an agreement,” Beilin, one of the architects of the Oslo Accords, tells The Report.
BUT WHEN asked why the left has yet to recover politically from the Rabin assassination, he refuses to entertain the notion that the Oslo process was flawed, or that ongoing Palestinian violence led a majority of Israelis to conclude that the “peace” process was a recipe for death.
Rather, Beilin repeated his view that Orthodox Jews and radical Islamists teamed up in a “clear partnership” to prevent a permanent agreement, and that the right had waged an unfair campaign of fear and delegitimization.
Most of all, Beilin reserves withering criticism for former prime minister Barak, who he says “discredited” the Oslo process. “When Barak declared, following Camp David, that Arafat was not a partner for peace, he vindicated the claim the right had been making all along. That statement by a left-wing leader, by the leader of the Israeli peace camp – that was the biggest blow for the peace process since the Rabin assassination,” Beilin contends.
On economic issues, too, the Labor party has contributed little to the national debate in recent years, largely because the economic picture today is virtually unrecognizable compared to the pre-Netanyahu period. Israel’s per capita GDP in 1995 was $17,911; today it is $36,051.
When Rabin was murdered, the average monthly salary in Israel was NIS 4,174; today, it is NIS 10,078.
Labor Party economists, such as former MK Avishai Braverman and Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, have failed to offer a serious alternative to the Likud’s stewardship of the economy, despite a host of troubling economic indicators ‒ massive gaps between rich and poor, spiraling health care costs, widespread underemployment and continuing challenges incorporating the Haredi and Arab sectors into the work force.
If left-wing policies have changed little since 1995, the same cannot be said for the right. Netanyahu has led the country for nine of the 20 years since Rabin was murdered, but the party he leads today is quite different from the one he led from 1996- 99. Nearly all the Likud Party old guard is gone, having either retired from politics or changed political orientation.
In their stead, a new generation of MKs, such as Danny Danon, Yariv Levin, Miri Regev and others, has risen to set a new, aggressive tone and agenda for the party.
So far, Netanyahu has thwarted repeated challenges to his leadership of the party, but the “new Likud” has clearly taken a different approach to governance than previous generations.
On the other hand, some veteran Likud members feel that the current crop of Likud MKs and government ministers represent a consistent policy, dating back to the party’s stiff opposition to the Rabin government.
“Yes, there have been many changes in Israel since Rabin was assassinated,” former foreign and defense minister Moshe Arens tells The Report, “but I don’t think they were connected to that terrible event.
The major change is that the Israeli public has moved further to the right ‒ not because of the assassination, but because of the failures of movements directed toward peacemaking.”
Arens points out several events, including Israel’s unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and the Gaza settlements, to illustrate the shift in the electorate.
“In both of those cases, a majority of Israelis supported the moves. But now? They are largely acknowledged to have been mistakes. Same for the Oslo Accords – they had widespread support at the time, but many people now say they have changed their views.
“So that reality has driven the Likud further right, but also the Labor Party. Think about the last election – did you ever hear (Labor Party Chairman Yitzhak) Herzog say anything about a Palestinian state? He avoided it, because today it’s a political trap.
“Most Israelis today understand the security risk that a Palestinian state would bring about, and they aren’t willing to take the risk,” Arens concludes.