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The Rabin Assassination as a Turning Point in Israel’s History

Israel Studies, vol. 23, no. 3 (Fall 2018), pp. 25-29. The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995, clearly was a major turning point in Israel’s history. During the previous decades, the Jewish community in Palestine and the State of Israel had witnessed several significant cases of domestic political violence but the assassination of an incumbent Prime Minister by a fellow Jew was the most severe case of such violence. Yet, the event’s significance lies well beyond this fact. It’s impact on Israel’s history lies in two different but interrelated domains. First is the Israeli-Arab peace process that had been unfolding in the 1990s. The process was launched by the Bush-Baker Administration in late 1991 at the Madrid peace conference and was the most ambitious international effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. After a lame start the process was rebooted by Yitzhak Rabin when he was elected as Israel’s Prime Minister in 1992. When given a rare chance to return to the prime minister’s seat after 15 years, Rabin was determined to introduce a profound change in Israel’s position, first and foremost by putting substance into the Madrid process. Characteristically, Rabin did not begin with an ambitious comprehensive effort but rather in a limited attempt to effect a breakthrough with either the Palestinians or Syria. It was only after his initial successes that Rabin’s policy became more ambitious. Rabin’s peace policy led to the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian agreement in Oslo and Washington in August / September 1993 and to the signing of a peace treaty with Jordan in October 1994. Rabin also conducted a significant negotiation with Syria in the course of which the contours of a prospective Israeli-Syrian peace were sketched. These breakthroughs led also to significant degree of normalization in Israel’s relationship with the larger Arab world. In 1994, a Middle East economic conference was held in Casablanca with participation of Arab and Israelis. Meetings of Arab-Israeli groups negotiating on the parallel multilateral track of the peace process were held in Arab countries and semi-diplomatic relations were established with Arab countries in the Gulf and in North Africa. These breakthroughs created a widespread sense that for the first time in decades, the Arab-Israeli conflict was possibly on the verge of resolution. In September 1995, the second phase of the Oslo peace process was launched by the signing of Oslo II. The timetable for the next phases of the peace process was quite clear: The five years transitional period which began in May 1994 was to end in May 1999 by which time Israel and the Palestinian Authority were to conclude the negotiation on a final status agreement between the parties. When Yigal Amir assassinated Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, it was precisely this course of events that he sought to abort. There is a school of thought which argues that Amir was indeed fully successful. This view was articulated most eloquently by the New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, in an article titled “Foreign Affairs; … and One Man Voted Twice.” Friedman published his article on June 2, 1996, after Amir was given by the Israeli Supreme Court the right to vote in the elections which ended in Netanyahu’s victory over Shimon Peres. Friedman argued that: In killing Mr. Rabin, Mr. Amir deprived the Labor Party of its only leader who embodied both a vision of reconciliation with the Palestinians and the hard-headed toughness to persuade a majority of Israelis to follow him. Try as he might, Shimon Peres just couldn't bring together those two attributes. But Mr. Amir did something else -- something more subtle and paralyzing. By pumping two bullets into Mr. Rabin's back, he raised the terrifying specter of civil war in Israel, if the peace process went any further. In the wake of the assassination, many Israelis, subconsciously, wanted to remove the divisive peace process from the public agenda, and that too worked against Mr. Peres. Said an Israeli political theorist, Yaron Ezrahi: "I was in a cab after the election and my driver was so happy that Likud won. I said, 'Why?' He said: 'Because peace divides us. I'm not afraid to quarrel with the Arabs. But I am afraid to quarrel with my son.' " The narrative articulated by Tom Friedman is mostly identified with the center-left in Israel and with liberal international opinion and assumes that had Rabin not been killed, he would have won the elections scheduled for October 1996 and would have reached an agreement with Arafat in the final status negotiations. A counter narrative held by the Israeli right, and articulated by Netanyahu himself among others, argues that the peace process was bound to fail in any event because Arafat was not a genuine peace partner and had his own red lines that he never intended to cross. At the moment of truth, the negotiations would founder. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to this view is a hopeless, endless national conflict. Thus in October 2015, Netanyahu, speaking to the Foreign and Defense Affairs Committee of the Knesset, said of Rabin and his assassination: “These days there is talk of what would have happened had this or that man remained … This is irrelevant. We will forever live by the sword.”[1] This is a classic case of counter factual history, and there is no way of settling the debate. Clearly the peace process did not end with Rabin’s assassination. Netanyahu himself promised in the election campaign to respect the Oslo Accord. He did evacuate the city of Hebron in compliance with the Oslo II accord, and in 1998 signed the Wye Plantation Accord that was to hand to the Palestinians another 13 percent of the West Bank. Netanyahu also negotiated indirectly with Hafez al-Asad, the Syrian president, and sent him through an intermediary his own version of Rabin’s “deposit”: A hypothetical willingness to withdraw from the Golan Heights in return for a package of peace and security. In later years, two prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, were willing to go well beyond Yitzhak Rabin in trying to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians. Ariel Sharon, in many respects the architect of the “settlements project”, withdrew from the Gaza Strip and the Northern West Bank and destroyed the Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip. During the tenure of President Barack Obama, a massive effort was invested by Secretary of State, John Kerry, to reach a final status agreement, in which he had at least the nominal support of Netanyahu. Netanyahu himself, in response to President Obama’s pressure, delivered the Bar-Ilan speech in the course of which he endorsed (at least nominally) the notion of “a two-state solution”. During the same period, an indirect Israeli-Syrian negotiation continued as American diplomats try to mediate between Netanyahu and Bashar al-Asad, an effort that continued until the eve of Syrian civil war in 2011. But these efforts were to no avail and for a variety of reasons, progress was made neither with the Palestinians nor with Syria. In this context, the damage inflicted on the peace process by Netanyahu during his first term was significant. Netanyahu did pay lip service to the Oslo accord, and as we saw withdrew from Hebron and signed the Wye Plantation Agreement, but the substance of his policy and rhetoric was directed against the very spirit of the Oslo agreement. When the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were resumed under Ehud Barak, the circumstances had changed and the ambitious effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Camp David summit in July 2000 famously failed and was followed by the outbreak of the Second Intifada. Important as these developments were, Rabin’s assassination had an even greater impact on Israel’s domestic politics. In this context, it is important to look not just at the act of assassination but at the whole period which began with the violent incitement against Rabin in the summer of 1995 and ended with Netanyahu’s electoral victory in May 1996. Shimon Peres was chosen as Rabin’s successor in the immediate aftermath of the assassination and made several critical choices. Most important was his decision not to call an immediate election which he probably would have won easily. Peres did not want to be elected as Rabin’s avenger nor did he want to deepen the cleavages in Israeli body politic. In the same spirit the Shamgar Commission, that was tasked with investigating the assassination, was specifically directed to focus on the security failures rather than on the incitement that preceded it. Rabbi Amital, a moderate leader of religious Zionism, was invited by Peres to join his cabinet in an effort to close ranks. This trend was reinforced by religious Zionism’s failure to go through genuine soul searching. The rabbis who issued religious opinions sanctioning Rabin’s assassination were not punished and they and other radical rabbis and other leaders of the settlers community and other components or Israel’s right wing continue to agitate against notions of peace and those who support them. Rabin’s assassination clearly opened the floodgates for extremist rhetoric and action. Nearly twenty two years after Rabin’s assassination, when President Rivlin refused to commute the sentence of an Israeli soldier who killed a captured would be Palestinian terrorist, the country’s media and social media were filled with hateful incitement against the president reminiscent of the anti-Rabin incitement of 1995.Most striking was the caricature showing the president wearing an Arab headgear, the same image used at the time against Rabin. Prime Minister Netanyahu came out against this particular form of incitement, but his support of the president was rather meek. A series of events in the following months eroded the large majority that Peres had in Israeli polls and ended with his defeat to Netanyahu in the parliamentary elections, which he ended up moving from October to May 1996. Nothing could undo the tragic fact of Rabin’s assassination, but his replacement by Netanyahu was not inevitable. As long as Peres expected to hold the elections in the original date of October 1996 and to be elected on his own record, he sought a swift agreement with Syria. That negotiations failed, Syria gave Hezbollah free hand to fire katyusha rockets to Israel, which led to the Grapes of Wrath Operations, to the accidental killing of civilians in Kufr Kana by a stray artillery shell, and to a large scale abstention by Israeli Arab in the May elections. A wave of terrorism launched by Hamas in the winter of 1996 inflicted a heavy damage on Peres’s standing in the Israeli public, and to boot, Peres ran a weak campaign. The result was a Netanyahu victory that brought to power the opposition leader who while avoiding direct incitement against Rabin participated in some of the events in which ugly and violent incitement against Rabin personally could be seen and heard. Twenty years later, Israel is governed under Netanyahu by the most right wing government it ever had. The settlers party is an important coalition partner. The electronic and social media are full of violent right wing rhetoric directed against Arabs, Palestinians, Israeli supporters of peace and the idea of a two state solution. Israel’s shift to the right during this period is not purely the result of Rabin’s assassination and derives from several developments in Israel itself and in the regional and international arenas. But there is no doubt that a direct line can be drawn from November 4, 1995, to the current directions of Israeli politics. [1] Itamar Rabinovich, Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman (Yale University Press, 2015), pp. 236-244.

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