Rabin’s Lost Legacy

At the memorial rally for Yitzhak Rabin that was held last week at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv I stood among the throng with my family and waited to hear a good word, some kind of assurance that things would at last take a turn for the better. But twenty years after that tragic assassination, the only message I got was that those fateful three gunshots also blew out the torch Rabin had held to light our path to national deliverance.

Standing on the site of his murder with some 100,000 Israelis, it seemed that everyone had come for different reasons, some to honor Rabin the visionary statesman, others to canonize Rabin the military leader. I listened to the apolitical speeches, highlighted by President Ruby Rivlin’s sincere calls for national solidarity and vows to preserve our democracy. But I don’t think I was the only one who left the rally disappointed. My lasting impression was that every two Israelis who came to Rabin Square or just stayed home and lit a candle for him had varying interpretations of Rabin’s life’s work, and that the true legacy he left to this small nation under constant attack is now getting lost with the passage of time: Rabin had sought to end the cycle of violence and build normal relations with our neighbors, and now there is no one left to finish what he started.

That sinking feeling took hold of me as we started walking away from the mass rally and I couldn’t recall if any of the speakers had even mentioned the disparaged and wasted Oslo Agreement. Former US President Clinton had spoken stirringly of the need to take risks to reach a political settlement with the Palestinians, and President Obama had delivered a televised message in the same vein. But when our American patrons talk sense, some Israelis aren’t even listening. The crowd at the rally was by no means exclusively Left, and many Right-wing Israelis who were there would probably say that restarting a political process at this time is out of the question. The rally’s organizers were so careful not to rile up the crowd or offend anyone that they didn’t even let Shimon Peres speak.

As we passed the south end of Rabin Square I sighted a large circle of people sitting on Ibn Gvirol Street and told my wife and kids to take a look: We saw a spirited kumsitz absorbing Israeli youth who played guitars and sang Israeli songs into the night. Many of the participants sported Bnei Akiva T-shirts. I had known the Bnei Akiva movement as a teenager, when I went to one of their summer camps in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. More recently I wrote about their vibrant yeshivas in Judea and Samaria, aka the occupied territories. I strongly suspect that some Bnei Akiva members were among the many inciters behind the Rabin assassination, and just as strongly believe that those bad apples were a small minority. But as I watched them play music and sing in their separate mini-rally, I understood that their take on Rabin’s legacy, and reasons for coming to Rabin Square, were not remotely the same as mine.

So much for our show of national healing in an assembly of mass mourning which, if nothing else, brought everyone together.

Now another week has passed and former President and Education Minister Yitzhak Navon, one of Israel’s founding fathers, has passed on. Navon’s contemporaries remember him as an expert linguist who, aside from his native Hebrew, was fluent in English, French, Ladino and Arabic, a lifelong advocate of dialogue with the Palestinians and a strong supporter of Rabin. Yes, in spite of the hatred that killed him, there were many good Israelis who, like Navon, understood what he was doing and wanted more than anything for him to succeed.

But now everyone’s getting tired of all the talk about Rabin, and the uneasiness that seems to settle over our divided little country this time of year has transitioned back to its normal state of open belligerence. What this means, in our dark overcast national reality, is that anytime a spokesperson for the Left opens his or her mouth with even a suggestion of a political horizon the Right screams “incitement!”

A case in point: At the memorial ceremony for Rabin that was held in the Knesset, Yitzhak Herzog rose to the podium with the gentle reminder (lacking the advantage of a baritone voice) that, except for a short interlude, since the Rabin assassination the Right has been in power and we still haven’t beaten terrorism, so maybe it’s time to reconsider the political option, i.e. get back on the path of Rabin. Judging by the hysterical talkback responses on ynet, the reaction of many supporters of the status quo, i.e., settlement activity in the occupied territories coupled with diplomatic inaction on the Palestinian front, was to accuse Herzog of nothing less than collusion with the enemy and incitement against our elected government.

If a large segment of the Israeli electorate can misinterpret Herzog’s call for diplomacy as incitement against Bibi, whose non-policy of political stagnation delivered by his rich baritone voice in perfect English sounds to Herzog and his Zionist Camp like a broken record, then Rabin’s legacy is indeed getting lost in our hateful national dialogue.

Let’s set the record straight: When someone suggests that our best chance to combat terrorism is to open a diplomatic channel with our enemies, that doesn’t constitute incitement, not by definition or by any stretch of the imagination. When an angry crowd brandishes placards showing Rabin wearing an SS uniform, that’s incitement. And when a self-serving politician lets the haters ride on his coattails, waves to them from a balcony on Jerusalem’s Zion Square and then gets elected Prime Minister, that’s cashing in on incitement. These are some of the lessons that around half the country can’t seem to grasp after twenty years, along with Rabin’s lost legacy.

And for those who still miscomprehend the significance of that legacy: Rabin helped lead this country to stunning military victories in our War of Independence and the Six Day War, but the same can be said for Arik Sharon. The difference between them was Rabin’s true life’s work: the bold diplomatic initiative which set in motion a process that enabled a political settlement with Jordan and, in defiance of terrorism, was leading to an accord with the Palestinians, a challenging and painstaking process that for all intents and purposes was doomed the moment a nationalist extremist shot Rabin in the back.

Still, there are those among the Right who to this day claim that the Left somehow stole Rabin’s legacy from them, citing an obscure quote by Rabin that implied, one year after his handshake with Arafat, that he was against Palestinian statehood. In truth, Rabin never stated that Oslo was leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state. He didn’t have to. Rabin was a leader, and he was also a politician who understood the need to prepare public opinion for sweeping concessions. But those who were close to Rabin knew where it was all leading: to the two-state solution. Shimon Peres knew it all along. So did Eitan Haber, Rabin’s cabinet ministers, the military establishment, ordinary Israelis from both sides of the political spectrum and, sadly, so did the rabble-rousers on the radical Right. What they saw as a dangerous threat meant salvation and hope to others. And for the hope he gave to so many Israelis Yitzhak Rabin paid with his life.

About the Author
Avi Shamir is a freelance writer, editor, translator and the author of "Saving the Game," a novel about baseball. A Brooklyn College graduate with a BA in English, Avi has contributed to the Jerusalem Post, The Nation, Israel Scene, In English and The World Zionist Press Service.