November 5, 2010
A tangle of memories
Israelis remain in tug-of-war over Rabin legacy.
DAVID ROSENBERG AND KALINDI O’BRIEN THE MEDIA LINE
Fifteen years after Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down at a Tel Aviv rally, the tug-of-war has yet to let up over the former leader’s legacy as the architect of a troubled peace process and a symbol of the dangers to democracy from extremism.
Officially, Rabin is mourned by all of Israel. His name appears on city squares and streets, as well as schools and hospitals. As in years past, he was memorialized at official government ceremonies earlier this month on the date of his assassination on the Hebrew calendar. But Rabin’s signal initiative, the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians, remains a source of controversy. The political left has sought to link Rabin’s memory to Israel’s current efforts at forging an agreement with the Palestinians, while Israelis on the right remain suspicious of the peace process and Palestinian intentions, and shy away from Rabin commemorations.
“After Rabin was assassinated and the left turned [the] commemoration into a show of political force, I felt that I had no place there,” said Yossi Klein Halevy, an author, journalist and researcher on Israeli society and culture. “They gave Israelis like me an untenable choice – either swallow your politics and participate in the commemoration or not honor the memory of Rabin.”
This year’s ceremony, held at the plaza where Rabin was assassinated Nov. 4, 1995, may be the last of its kind, as Yitzhak Rabin Centre, set up to commemorate the life and work of the former leader, mulls new ways to preserve the nation’s memory.
Rabin was killed just a short time after shaking hands with Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat, marking the onset of peace talks, and he never had the chance to see that process through. Repeated attempts to reach a final agreement have failed, while the Palestinian intifada that broke out in 2000 cost 1,050 Israeli and 4,700 Palestinian lives. And, the Gaza Strip has been controlled by Hamas, a Palestinian faction that opposes talks entirely, since 2007.
A 2009 survey conducted for the Walla! website illustrated the division of opinion about Rabin in Israeli society. Among those identifying with Rabin’s political party, Labor, 63 percent said they missed his presence more than that of any other deceased leader. Among those who vote for Likud, Labor’s traditional opponent and the party of Israel’s current prime minster, Binyamin Netanyahu, only nine percent said they missed Rabin most.
The annual public memorial in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square has grown smaller as the years go by, with just 25,000 people attending last year’s event, with live broadcasts of the rally garnering low audience ratings. Israel’s state-controlled Channel 1 television network only agreed to broadcast the memorial this year under public pressure.
Zvi Friedman, who has helped stage the annual ceremony, said organizers haven’t decided how Rabin’s death will be marked from next year on, but said there would be less emphasis on speeches. He declined to say whether the public memorial would continue.
On Israel’s left, many want Rabin’s memory to be rooted in the aspirations for peace and put the onus for his death on right-wing extremism. On the Israeli right, some leaders have sought to identify themselves with Rabin and his policies, arguing that the left has misrepresented Rabin’s views. At this year’s memorial, Netanyahu pointed out that Rabin never agreed to freeze construction of Israeli settlements or to divide Jerusalem.
Ruby Rivlin, speaker of Israel’s parliament and Likud Party leader, said the political right shouldn’t be held responsible for the assassination. “In the past, there have been attempts to connect [Rabin’s] murder to Oslo’s opponents, but just as the memory of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination doesn’t belong to the northern states, Rabin’s memory belongs to all,” Rivlin said at a Knesset ceremony for the fallen leader.
But for many on the right, the Oslo process was a failure and they hold the former prime minister accountable for it, said Abraham Diskin, professor of politics at Hebrew University. If Israelis can share anything about the Rabin legacy, said Diskin, it is an appreciation for Rabin as a personality. “Because of the way his life ended, he will be remembered,” Diskin said. “A general, an honest person who wanted peace [who] was murdered because he wanted peace – that is how he will be remembered.”