Avi Meyerstein
Avi Meyerstein
Founder of ALLMEP

Jeers or cheers? Where the process failed Rabin

Memorial to Yitzhak Rabin. Photo credit: Dr. Avishai Teicher.

This year’s commemoration of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in Israel reminded me of an event I attended in Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem while visiting Israel in 1995, just a few months before Rabin’s death. 

I don’t even remember what the event was. What I do remember is that Rabin was there. As his name was announced on the stadium sound system and he walked up to the podium, the crowd of thousands erupted in jeers and boos, which rolled through the arena. 

I was shocked. Rabin was a founding father, a general among generals, and most importantly to me, a guy who had the guts to use his singular credibility to build a bridge from war to peace. 

What I encountered that night may have surprised me as a young visitor from America, but it was no secret in Israel. At political rallies that year, he had been depicted in a Nazi uniform, shown in the crosshairs of a gun, and called a murderer and traitor.

Rabin’s killer wanted to end the peace process. He, and the bus bombers who followed his lead, succeeded. They managed to turn just enough Israeli public opinion to tip the 1996 election by less than a percentage point. Though the margins were razor-thin, peace never recovered.

This story is not mostly about extremists, however. It’s actually about everyone else. There will always be rejectionists, including violent ones. The question is how the majority is prepared, organizes, and responds.

Rabin’s murder underscores that leaders — even trusted ones — can’t do it alone. The fact that two bullets could take down the hopes and dreams of millions shows just how precarious and fragile the entire endeavor was. For all the visionary thinking and courage of Oslo’s architects, the process had a critical design flaw: It was an entirely top-down effort, developed in secret. 

Public support was never grounded in a true sense of partnership or trust between the average Palestinian and Israeli. The trust ran no deeper than the hesitant handshakes on the White House lawn. The lack of trust has haunted every negotiation since.

Support for peace talks (or alternatively, violence) rises and falls with events, but one near-constant often remains: Israelis and Palestinians continue to doubt that the other is a ready and willing partner. The increasing violence and separation of the last two decades have only made the problem worse, as the events of this past May made all too clear.

The current status quo, which only 13-14% of either people supports, is the worst form of minority rule. Of the 13 million souls trying to live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, most want the same things in life — democracy, self-determination, security, prosperity, and dignity to live in the lands of their ancestors. Those committed to a violent winner-takes-all outcome are loud but few. But as in Rabin’s day, all it takes is relatively few spoilers to disrupt progress if the majorities are siloed, scared, and silent. 

Many assume the conflict is between Israelis and Palestinians. But that’s a distortion favored by partisans and pundits, which prevents people from seeing their true allies and opponents. We need to realign the players and the teams, so future leaders face a different crowd in the stadium. If only the sane people in both communities would join forces, they could be unstoppable. 

Critically, neither Israelis nor Palestinians can get there alone. And without trust, they won’t get there together, either. Without a trusted partner there are no lasting solutions, but with a partner any number of arrangements are possible. Whenever the diplomats try peacemaking again, the options on the table will depend heavily on what peacebuilding we do now. 

For all the tragedy, horrors, and despair of the last three decades, for the first time since Rabin and Oslo were mortally wounded these lessons might finally be resonating. After a 12-year campaign by ALLMEP, the U.S. Congress recently passed MEPPA with $250 million for peacebuilding and partnerships, and the global effort continues to gain steam to further establish an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. Bringing these efforts to scale will touch millions of people and create a new public conversation and dynamic.

Rabin’s own remarks on the night he was killed say it all and tell us what we need to do. Despite all the boos of the election campaign, that night in November was a peace rally. Tens of thousands came to support him. 

“[T]he majority of the people want peace and are ready to take risks” for it, he said. “In coming here today, you demonstrate, together with many others who did not come, that the people truly desire peace and oppose violence . . . we have found a partner for peace among the Palestinians . . . . Without partners for peace, there can be no peace.”

About the Author
Avi Meyerstein is the founder and president of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), the coalition of 150 NGOs building people-to-people cooperation and partnerships between Israelis and Palestinians, Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. The views expressed are his own.
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