My Word: The rifts after Rabin

If tears were shed during the Knesset ceremony or the memorial at his graveside at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl cemetery, they were likely to be tears of frustration. 

 YITZHAK RABIN’S grandson, Yonatan Ben Artzi, speaks at a graveside memorial service at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem this week. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
YITZHAK RABIN’S grandson, Yonatan Ben Artzi, speaks at a graveside memorial service at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem this week.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

I would like to write that the country honored the memory of Yitzhak Rabin this week, on the 26th anniversary of his assassination, but the use of the word “honor” would be misleading. 

More than a quarter of a century has passed since that terrible night when the prime minister was killed by a Jewish assassin at the end of a rally in Tel Aviv, and whatever legacy Rabin left behind, it was not one of togetherness.

If tears were shed during the Knesset ceremony or the memorial at his graveside at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl cemetery, they were likely to be tears of frustration. 

And there’s more to come. Rabin’s murder took place on the Hebrew date of the 12th of Heshvan (hence the official ceremonies this week) but for most people the date forever etched in our collective memory is November 4, 1995, and it is the November date that receives the most attention.

Every year, there are debates, discussions and myriad articles about Rabin ahead of the Gregorian anniversary of his death. Sadly, no matter how many years pass, many will preach about the need to avoid incitement while doing just that. 

 Candles set up at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv in memoriam for assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, October 18, 2021. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV) Candles set up at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv in memoriam for assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, October 18, 2021. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

Any Israeli above a certain age remembers where they were the moment they heard that Rabin had been shot and killed by Yigal Amir. It was Israel’s Kennedy moment. What has faded is the memory of who Rabin was and what he did, both for better and for worse. Indeed, a generation has grown up who did not know Rabin in real time but only through the slogans and clichés that do not reflect the real-life man. As The Jerusalem Post’s parliamentary reporter during those critical years of the Oslo process, I saw Rabin and other leaders close up. Yitzhak Rabin was a human being, neither a saint nor the devil.

Rabin’s legacy includes his time as IDF chief of staff in the Six Day War; the defense minister who helped the IDF recover after the Yom Kippur War and the premier who ordered Operation Entebbe. 

In the pre-state Yishuv, Rabin took part in bold actions as a Palmah commander, but under David Ben-Gurion’s orders he participated in the lethal operation against the Altalena, carrying new immigrants and also arms intended for paramilitary groups unwilling to be part of the nascent IDF.

Pushed by his nemesis within the Labor Party, Shimon Peres, Rabin was the prime minister who signed on the Oslo Accords with PLO leader Yasser Arafat – but he also signed the more popular peace treaty with Jordan. He underwent a dramatic transformation from the hardliner who expelled hundreds of Hamas members to Lebanon into a Nobel Peace Prize-winning dove, standing alongside Peres, and (arch-terrorist) Arafat.

This year, I listened to speeches describing Rabin as a social leader intent on bringing the country together. This is the version of Rabin treasured by people who either did not know him or who still hold the same dismissive attitude he had when it came to “settlers.” I often think that had he not died the way he did, his Knesset speech comparing Golan Heights residents opposed to withdrawal to “spinning propellers” would continue to haunt him. Had the Golan Heights been handed over to the Assad regime in Syria, as Rabin favored, it’s hard to imagine the result would have been peace in the Middle East. 

The Rabin commemoration period every year is marked by unanswerable questions of “what if?”: What would have happened to Oslo had Rabin not been murdered? While the Left often claims that Rabin’s assassination killed the peace process, it was already literally blowing up before he was shot. The Left focuses on the incitement that preceded his murder (some of it by Shin Bet agents provocateurs like Avishai Raviv), but the Palestinian suicide bombings that accompanied the Oslo process also played a role.

There’s no way of knowing whether Rabin would have continued along the path that Peres was taking or done a U-turn. I think it is unlikely that he would have been reelected prime minister as the numbers of “victims of the peace process” continued to rise. Real peace is meant to prevent deaths, not cause them.

For years, the Left has held a monopoly on the grief over the assassination, pointing accusative fingers in the direction of anyone Right of Center and the entire religious community. 

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett this week described how he resumed wearing a kippah as an IDF officer following Rabin’s murder as a message to the soldiers under his command against the demonization of the religious sector.

At the Knesset ceremony, Bennett said: “I hope that since the assassination we have learned how dangerous violence is and how much it is a clear red line. I hope we also learned that we cannot silence entire populations in our society, we cannot defame an entire population if an individual within that public commits a crime or sins. It wasn’t the Right or the religious who murdered Rabin. Yigal Amir murdered Rabin.” 

Bennett warned that revenge and hatred could lead to “losing everything we hold dear, including, heaven forbid, the state.”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who is set to replace Bennett as prime minister in a rotation agreement, could not resist exploiting special commemorative plenum session for political shots, saying: “There is a clear line stretching between the assassination of Rabin and the past year. Both are part of the great Israeli struggle. Not between Right and Left, but between those who believe in democracy and those trying to destroy it....

“Prime ministers are changed in the ballot box, so we changed [him]. Despite all the difficulties of the past year, it’s better to have three rounds of elections than three rounds of bullets from a gun.”

AS ALWAYS in the “who’s to blame?” game when it comes to the Rabin assassination, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the brunt.

Netanyahu, as leader of the opposition, decided to skip the graveside ceremony and the event at the President’s Residence, in the close presence of the Rabin family, and attend only the Knesset memorial. As he explained from the plenum, “speaking from the depths of my heart. For 26 years, year after year, there are those who use the remembrance days for Yitzhak Rabin to attack a huge part of the people and [the person] who represents them. Throughout all these years I heard hurtful lies about the camp I represent and about me personally but I have gritted my teeth and restrained myself. I fulfilled my duty as prime minister according to state protocol. Of course, when I came, they asked why I was there, and now that I didn’t go… they say ‘Why did he not come?’...”

Netanyahu recalled how, even in the Knesset before the murder, he had condemned the incitement against Rabin (something I also remember on at least one occasion).

Both at the grave and at the President’s Residence, Rabin’s grandson, Yonatan Ben Artzi, attacked Netanyahu without mentioning his name, saying: “After many years of fear and paralysis, Israelis stood tall... in the face of a culture of tyranny and lies, the Israeli spirit won. The rule of the people prevailed over the rule of the individual.” 

President Isaac Herzog, in keeping with his new position, attempted to act as a unifier. “We, the elected officials and servants of the public, bear the primary duty for moderation, caution, and tranquility,” he said. “Our words, and the words of those near us, are the most combustible material in the hands of keyboard warriors and thugs in the street. Leadership means responsibility... Responsibility for sensitivity and inclusion, for the viewpoint of the other – including those whose opinions we oppose.”

Politics everywhere have become more polarized, particularly in an age of social media and a global pandemic. But every Israeli can decide whether to use the anniversary of Rabin’s assassination to truly try to heal societal rifts or to continue to try to make narrow political gains. After 26 years, as a society we should have the maturity to work out how to move forward, together. That requires keeping state events and memorial services non-political.

May Rabin’s memory be for a blessing, not used as a curse.

[email protected]