It’s that time of year, but this is not any year – anywhere. Amid the political polarization made worse by the repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic, Israel is gearing up to mark the 25th anniversary of the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Every Israeli over a certain age remembers exactly where they were when they heard that Rabin had been shot on November 4, 1995. When Eitan Haber, Rabin’s media adviser, died earlier this month, most of us instantly recalled his voice as he proclaimed “with shock” that Rabin had been “murdered by an assassin in Tel Aviv.”
Had Rabin died of natural causes, the media would have reviewed his achievements accompanied by a selection of archive photos and that would have been that. The photos would have shown Rabin as chief of staff in the Six Day War; the prime minister who helped the IDF recover after the Yom Kippur War; the leader who ordered Operation Entebbe and who signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians and the far more popular peace treaty with Jordan.
But Rabin did not die of natural causes. He died a terrible death – murdered by a Jew who fundamentally changed Israel.
The protesters gathered close to the Prime Minister’s Residence on the corner of Jerusalem’s Smolenskin and Balfour streets often decry that Benjamin Netanyahu has turned the site into a fortress. They’re right. It is probably in part to cut himself off from the noisy demonstrations, but it is also at the order of the security agencies who can’t afford to risk another attack of the type that once seemed unimaginable.
AS THE Jerusalem Post’s parliamentary reporter, I often saw Rabin in person. In those days, when we innocently believed that an Israeli prime minister could never be murdered, journalists could get very close, hence I often saw his peculiar half-smile and dismissive hand gesture and heard his dry wit.
I was present at the modest ceremony in his office on a Friday morning in September 1993 when he initialed the First Oslo Accord, recognizing the PLO. He used an ordinary Pilot pen and seemed reluctant and joyless.
I saw Rabin, the family man, when he took his wife and grandchildren with him on a tour of Petra in Jordan in 1995, stopping to take photos while Leah nagged him to drink more water. Later, I witnessed Rabin and Jordan’s King Hussein strolling together in the grounds of the Winter Palace in Akaba, looking like old friends.
My favorite memory was of a tour in 1993 of the Mandate-period Illegal Immigrants Camp at Atlit where Rabin recalled his experiences as the deputy commander of a Palmah nighttime operation that helped more than 200 immigrants break out.
The Palmahniks had to get the newcomers up Mount Carmel to the safety of Kibbutz Beit Oren and he placed a two-year-old on his shoulders and set off as fast as he could.
“Halfway up I thought, ‘I’m really sweating,’” Rabin recounted. “Then I realized the warm, wet trickle down my back was coming from the toddler. But this is just one of the things I had to do to serve my country,” he added, with that trademark half smile.
(This is obviously a better tale than recalling shooting at the Altalena – a ship carrying arms for the IZL in the early years of the state. But after Rabin’s death, the distraught Knesset speaker, Dov Shilansky, who arrived as an immigrant on the ship, told me he had forgiven Rabin after he had summonsed the courage to pay a shiva call to the Shilansky family when their son was killed while on military reserve duty.)
I have mentioned these memories before. They haven’t changed. But this year, more than ever, we need a reminder that Rabin was neither a saint nor the devil.
If he hadn’t died the way he did, we would probably still hear now and again his Knesset speech comparing Golan Heights residents opposed to withdrawal to “spinning propellers.” That would be the everlasting sound bite rather than Eitan Haber’s stark statement telling of the assassination.
It seems strange today to recall how Rabin’s last term as prime minister was marked by arguments over leaving the Golan. I even remember residents of Jewish communities in Gaza making a solidarity trip to the Golan Heights, where people seemed to be under the imminent threat of losing their homes.
Today, we can appreciate just how disastrous handing the Golan Heights over to the Assad regime in Syria would have been. The same way as even those who ardently supported Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza recognize the dangers of the ever-increasing rocket attacks and the terror attack tunnels like the one discovered just this week.
It’s tempting to play “What if?”: What would have happened had Rabin not been murdered? It’s impossible to know, but I don’t believe he would have remained in power. While the Left often claims that Rabin’s assassination killed the peace process, it was already literally blowing up before he was shot. The Left focuses on the incitement (some of it by Shin Bet agents provocateurs like Avishai Raviv) that preceded his murder, but the Palestinian suicide bombings that accompanied the Oslo process were just as much a part of the background.
Similarly, there’s no way of knowing whether Rabin would have continued along the path that Shimon Peres was pushing him down, or done a reverse. It was Rabin, after all, who took a tough stand during the First Intifada and deported hundreds of Hamas terrorists to Lebanon.
It was these actions that Democrat congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez decided to focus on recently, as the timing of the anniversary overlaps with the height of election fever in the US. AOC, as she is known, pulled out of a commemoration event organized by Americans for Peace Now following a social media storm by Palestinian supporters. She apparently did not want to be associated with the Israeli leader even though he won the Nobel Peace Prize – along with Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres – for his role in the Oslo Accords.
That Peace Now’s credentials are not liberal enough for AOC does not bode well for any of us.
Incidentally, this week the Israeli public was divided over the treatment at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem of PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat. A lung transplant recipient, the 65-year-old Erekat was particularly badly hit by COVID-19 and – like several PA and Hamas officials – decided to put the boycott and anti-normalization campaign on hold to receive medical care at an Israeli hospital.
Some said Israel took the only morally correct stand by agreeing to treat him, others said the Jewish state has no obligation to care for somebody who as recently as May told Russia Today TV: “The PLO was not born to improve the living conditions of the Palestinians. We – the PLO – were born to restore a sovereign Palestine, with east Jerusalem as its capital.” (Translation by MEMRI.)
After 25 years, the scars of Rabin’s assassination remain – evidence of deep wounds. And, in 2020, the polarization and rifts are evident not just around the anniversary of his death. But, at a time when the situation seemed desperate, a ray of hope appeared this week where it was most needed.
Knesset Deputy Speaker Moshe Arbel (Shas) initiated the “Mutual Respect Charter,” co-authored together with Minister Michael Biton (Blue and White) and signed so far by some 70 Knesset members.
This time of year we recall how words can kill. But words can also heal. The charter’s aim, according to Arbel, is “to protect mutual respect despite the weighty disagreements. Its objective is to allow us to fight for our principles in a way that does not create hatred or division.” Those are words worth taking to heart any time.