Snap Judgement: One lesson learned

Rabin's assassination helped ensure that the disengagement from Gaza passed without bloodshed.

rabin special 298 (photo credit: )
rabin special 298
(photo credit: )
Shortly after moving to Israel 20 years ago, I was invited to attend a dinner function at which then prime minister Shimon Peres was speaking. Assuming that security would be heavy, I asked how I would be able to enter the banquet hall. I was surprised to hear that all I needed to do was give the name of the organization that had invited me. Sure enough, that evening I walked in almost unimpeded to within a few feet of Peres, without any security check whatsoever. A couple of years after that, I found myself strolling down Jerusalem's Rehov Emek Refaim late one Friday afternoon, when a short, older, mustachioed gentleman walked by me at a rapid clip. Only when I noticed a security guard trailing him by a few feet did I realize I had literally just brushed by Peres's successor as PM, Yitzhak Shamir, out taking his constitutional. How remarkable, and even charming, I thought back then, that even in a country under such constant security threat, the leaders of Israel were so accessible to the ordinary citizen. When I mentioned this observation to veteran Israelis, they assured me that the situation had been even more open in the good old days of Ben-Gurion and Golda, and this seemed to me an emblematic characteristic of my newly adopted nation. THOSE WERE among the first thoughts that came to me that terrible night 10 years ago when Yitzhak Rabin was murdered. As was later proved, simple incompetence bore as much fault as a complacency born of false assumptions, in the security lapses that led to Rabin's assassination. But surely his own unwillingness to wear a bullet-proof vest against the recommendations of his security detail testifies that even a hardened military and political veteran like Rabin wasn't yet ready to give up the notion of Israel as one big extended family of sorts, an intimate society that may have violent disagreements, but shares consensually recognized boundaries regarding internal conflicts. And so the night Rabin died, so did a certain vision of this country that had probably long ceased to match reality. We know now that his assassination was not by itself a watershed mark in the internal political/religious conflict over Israel's future borders. That dispute continues no less fervently a decade later, more or less along the same confrontation lines. Nor did Rabin's death have the kind of immediate cultural impact some pundits wishfully predicted. Remember the "No'ar Hakikar" ("Youth of the Square"), the young people who spent weeks mourning Rabin in the Tel Aviv plaza where he was shot? Remember how they were supposedly the vanguard of a new generation of Israelis whose tragedy-fueled idealism would transform Israel in the years to come? Remember Yuval Rabin's Dor Shalom, the movement that was supposed to channel that energy into effecting concrete social and political change? How naive those brief phenomena now look only a decade later. These observations are not made out of cynicism, or to downplay in any way the significance of Rabin's death. This was indeed a milestone event - although not in the way that either his killer - or for that matter, the supporters of Rabin's policies - would have had hoped for. Internecine Jewish violence, even political assassination, was not new to the Zionist enterprise before that terrible night of November 4, 1995. But none of it had been remotely comparable to the killing of a national leader, committed against the backdrop of a nation bitterly divided. When such acts occur in democracies they may not directly influence the outcome, or even the terms of the political debate at hand, but they shake the very foundations, the core beliefs, of those societies. On an individual level, the psychic scars can range from rage, despair, cynicism, sorrow, guilt, denial, indifference, all depending on the personal context in which one views Rabin's assassination. FOR MYSELF, with the Rabin assassination currently falling neatly at the half-way point in my two decades as an Israeli citizen, I can regard it as a turning-point between the end of some of the idealistic but illusory assumptions that motivated me to move here, and the beginning of a more mature understanding and acceptance of the complexities, contradictions and conflicts that are perhaps inevitable in the development of such a nation - or more to the point, perhaps any nation. What of the collective consciousness of the Israeli people? Can we confidently say, a decade later, that Rabin's assassination left any kind of consensual lasting mark on this society, other than a clear recognition of the obvious need for increased security around the prime minister? You wouldn't think so if you've been reading the papers, or watching the news shows the last few weeks. There's no cliche the local media likes better than asserting that "Israel has learned nothing from the Rabin assassination." On every anniversary since his death, this theme has been trumpeted in headlines and newscasts, usually through the use of articles revolving either around his unrepentant assassin - as in Yediot Aharonot's recent alarmist poll asserting that 20% of the country believes he should be pardoned - or by citing current acts of violence sparked by the same territorial debate that led to Rabin's killing. Given this tendency, it's hardly surprising that many believed the evacuation from Gaza would lead to widespread violence, if not outright civil war. Especially since some of the extremist incitement and anti-Sharon rhetoric did hark back to the dark days preceding the Rabin assassination, as did the two acts of horrific anti-Arab terrorism prior to disengagement. But Israeli society, especially the large segment of it most fervently against the disengagement, did not go to the brink, or even anywhere near it. In fact, surely the single most surprising fact about the Gaza pullout was the manner in which for the most part it passed with relative restraint on both sides. How much of this was due to the traumatic impact of the Rabin assassination, the "lesson learned" about the dangers of conducting a debate over a nation's future when the debate itself threatens the future of that nation? Much more than was given credit for, I tend to think. The territorial disagreement is no less pitched, the divide no less wide, but the conduct and resolution of the debate over the Gaza pullout provided compelling proof that Israel has matured over the past decade as a democracy ultimately committed to the rule of law. I don't pass prime ministers in the street any more, and my one close encounter with Ariel Sharon in recent years involved a security check that lasted half an hour. Extremists exist in every society, and the Zionist dream of Jewish normalcy now includes political assassination at the highest level. But something was undeniably gained on that night we lost Yitzhak Rabin; now we must all hope, and pray, we eventually don't lose that too. The writer, a former managing editor of The Jerusalem Post, is director of The Israel Project's Jerusalem media resource center.