The New Republic
02 November 09
This coming Wednesday will be the 14th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin at a Tel Aviv rally for the Oslo peace accords. Like the initial rally itself, the memorial--scheduled for Saturday, October 31, but postponed due to what turned out to be only light rains--was to be a highly charged political event. Except that in 1995, Israel was still stirred by hopes of bringing the decades of war with the Arabs to an end. Yet, at the same time, foreboding grew that these hopes themselves constituted a trap, a mortal trap. (I admit that, already in September 1993 during the ceremonial handshakes on the White House lawn from which Oslo emerged, I felt like a mourner at the wedding feast. And the fact is that I did not go, Al Gore's imprecations to the contrary. The New Republic editorial roughly reflected this disposition.) From the edges but mostly from the edges of the Israeli right this discord turned into hatred and vengeance. When Rabin was getting into his car to go home a young man, a self-designated emissary, calmly stepped from the crowd and shot two bullets from his Beretta semi-automatic pistol into the prime minister's body. Rabin was dead within 40 minutes.
I was in Israel, having dinner with friends at a Jerusalem restaurant, the night the assassination occurred. I remained for the funeral and stayed on for a few days thereafter to experience the aftermath. Israel went into spectral mourning, and even among the Zionist ultra-right there was some self-reproach. The left, although traumatized by the shooting of someone who was for them a very new and remote hero, did its utmost to get what it could politically from the murder. It is his killing that made him their lion.
Every year, when the yahrzeit of the killing comes around, the remaining faithful of Oslo, an ever-declining cohort, by now a pathetic cohort, tries to stir up the memories and the hopes. It is a forlorn venture. Almost nobody believes in "peace now" or, for that matter, in "peace soon." There may be a few handfuls who can still see "peace in our time." But that is not a politics; it is a disposition. Now this cosmic and concrete pessimism can change on a dime or on 10 agurot. Still, this is the public temper now and it has been the public temper for a long time.
Hard as you may have to swallow to believe this, it is Bibi Netanyahu who is keeping Israeli policy flexible enough to move when Palestinian politics opens up. In fact, he is ready to ban all new settlement construction permits which Hillary Clinton herself has dubbed "unprecedented" in the history of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But, just in the last few weeks, while Bibi has been more and more accommodating, Mahmoud Abbas has been more and more negative and abrasive. (Will someone at the New York Timesrecognize this incontrovertible fact?) The Palestinians have fabricated a crisis over the Temple Mount during this time, threatening a new intifada in the West Bank which would, of course, abort the eased security regulations in the territory, retard the fast-growing prosperity in its cities and towns and encumber the American-trained Palestinian soldiery from doing what a domestic soldiery needs to do. Now, that would be progress, wouldn't it?
The fact is that Yitzhak Rabin, a hero from 1948 to 1967, is no longer a hero in Israel. He is a memory, a gauzy memory, to be sure; and sometimes the mention of his name brings tears to the hearer. Ariel Sharon is also no longer a hero but a memory, still breathing but not really alive. He is tended to by his sons, faithful past the end. And, by the time Moshe Dayan died, he with the one eye-patch, this daring fighter had also been passing before the critical scrutiny of historians and history. Not one of these knights matched his own legend.
Rabin was a very special case. He was not an especially gracious man, not that heroes need be gracious: he was stand-offish, remote, even impatient. But he conveyed a sense of intellectual solidity and responsibility. Alas, his last great act turned out not to be so great after all. It required of his followers that they relinquish territories that he had sworn them not to forsake at peril to the survival of the state: the Golan Heights, for example and specific parts of the West Bank where Jewish patrimony and Israeli safety are coterminous. He did not have to face fully the historical urgency of the future of Jerusalem. Still, as the years passed since his murder, his moral authority simply eroded. And it eroded due to what the Palestinians did to his trust. One post-script to the narrative: "Oslo" began as a conspiracy without but against Rabin, a conspiracy initiated by his long-time adversary, Shimon Peres, whom he despised...despised...and by the deceitful Yossi Beilin, whom Rabin called "Peres' poodle."
Who knows whether, had he lived, he would have been able to sustain the optimism that peace was on its way? Perhaps he would have somehow convinced the Palestinian polity, about which he was without illusion, to alter both its thinking and behavior. Just writing this now, however, makes me feel, well, more than a bit silly.