Commentary Magazine


Israel & the Assassination: A Reckoning

As a voter for the Labor party and Yitzhak Rabin in the 1992 elections and a politically angry man for the past two years, I found myself growing angrier and angrier the week after his assassination on November 4. The angrier I grew, the more I argued with everyone around me, and the more I argued, the angrier it made me. Not, like everyone else, at the assassin and those said to have incited him, but at the Labor party, and at the Israeli Left, and even at the murdered man himself, who was certainly not responsible for the thick sludge of sentimentality, so far from his own personal style (though not from that of his speechwriters), in which he was being quickly shrouded. I must have seemed a very unpleasant person. I may seem one to you now.

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A large part of the sentimentalization in the days after the Rabin assassination lay in the event’s being treated as, above all, a violation of the Sixth Commandment. “How could such a murderer have come from our midst?” and “What Jew would kill a Jew over land?” were the two questions most often asked in Israel, while, when Ted Koppel brought his Nightline to Jerusalem the week after the assassination, he billed the special broadcast as “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”

This is sentimental because, though murder is a frightful crime, large numbers of men and women whose right to live is as great as that of the Prime Minister of Israel are the barely noticed victims of murder every day. In Israel alone, the police blotters show that dozens of Jews are killed annually by Jews without Nightline‘s paying attention. And what, if not land, has been the single greatest motive for killing in human history? What, if not the struggle for land, has caused tens of thousands of Jews and Arabs to be killed in the Middle East?

Was it not a struggle for land that made Yitzhak Rabin join the Palmah, the elite fighting force of Jewish Palestine, as a young man, and thus begin the military career that led to his becoming Prime Minister of Israel? Was it not for the control of land that, as Prime Minister, he continued a military presence in Lebanon which in 1995 alone resulted in the deaths of over twenty Israeli soldiers? If land is never a legitimate reason for killing, every soldier who fights for the defense of his country is a murderer.

What made Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination exceptionally atrocious was not its being a murder but its being a cataclysmic political blunder.

It was so, firstly, because—as Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu put it—democratically chosen governments are changed by elections, not by assassinations. Break that rule once and democracy is imperiled—and an undemocratic Israel cannot prosper, no matter how much or how little land it commands.

And it was so, secondly, because what it most damaged was the public standing of the critics of the Oslo peace process, to whose extreme wing Yigal Amir belonged. Had Amir wished to deliver a crushing blow to these critics, he could not have found a better way. That is why a friend of mine in America, a far more unequivocal opponent of the peace process than I, faxed me the week of the killing: “I would gladly see the bastard hang who prevented the people of Israel from voting against Rabin.”

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Equally sentimental was the instant mythologization of Yitzhak Rabin as a knight of peace in shining armor.

The day after the assassination I talked with a different friend, an Israeli Arab. “I’m sorry it happened,” he said, “but you can’t expect me to feel sad for Rabin.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because,” he said, “I happened to be in Tulkarm [a city on the West Bank] one day at the beginning of the intifada, when Rabin, who was then Minister of Defense, gave his famous order to the army to ‘break the arms and legs’ of Palestinians. And what I saw in Tulkarm were broken arms and legs. Children’s too. That order was not meant metaphorically.”

Indeed it was not, as many Israelis who carried it out can testify.

It has been said that Yitzhak Rabin had a change of heart and came out of the intifada a different man, convinced of the need for a reconciliation with the Palestinians. That may be. But in the summer of 1993, after his conversion supposedly took place and Israeli and PLO negotiators were meeting secretly in Oslo, Rabin, now Prime Minister, launched Operation Accountability, a massive retaliatory artillery bombardment that caused great civilian destruction in dozens of Lebanese villages accused of harboring Hezbollah guerrillas. He was then what he had always been and remained until his death, several days before which he almost certainly ordered the murder of Islamic Jihad leader Fat’hi Shiqaqi in Malta—namely, a highly pragmatic soldier and politician who had no special liking for violence but no compunctions about using it when it served tactical or strategic ends.

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I voted for Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 because, like many Israelis, I felt that the situation in the West Bank and Gaza had reached an intolerable point and that the Likud government was incapable of changing it. In terms of change, I was prepared to go farther than most Rabin voters. In an article published in this magazine over twenty years ago1 I had advocated, subject to certain conditions, the establishment of a Palestinian state along Israel’s 1967 borders, and in 1992 I still held to this opinion. I still hold to it today.

Why, then, did I react with such anger to the Israeli-PLO agreement when it was announced in September 1993? Because it was obvious to me immediately that the Labor party had lied to the Israeli public; that it was either continuing to lie to it, or lying to itself, or both; and that all these lies were highly dangerous.

In its official 1992 campaign platform Labor had declared:

Israel will continue and complete negotiations with authorized and agreed-on Palestinians from the territories occupied by Israel since 1967 [emphasis added]. . . . There is a need for an agreement in a Jordanian-Palestinian framework . . . and not a separate Palestinian state west of the Jordan. . . . Jerusalem will remain united and undivided under Israeli sovereignty. . . . The Jordan Valley and the western shore of the Dead Sea will be under Israeli sovereignty. . . . In any peace agreement with Syria, Israel’s presence and control, both military and in terms of settlements, will continue [on the Golan Heights].

Let us set aside the question of the Golan Heights, even though Yitzhak Rabin’s violation of his campaign promises in the course of his negotiations with President Hafez Assad was only partially compensated for by his announced commitment to holding a national referendum before signing a peace treaty with Syria. Let us speak instead of Oslo and the Palestinians.

The Labor party lied to the Israeli public because its 1992 platform clearly ruled out negotiations, let alone a comprehensive political settlement, between Israel and the PLO, which in 1992 was based not in the territories but in Tunis and which had been considered by all previous Israeli governments a terrorist organization not to be treated with. And since the PLO had stated repeatedly before Oslo, and continued to state after it, that its immediate goal was the creation of an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and the entire West Bank with East Jerusalem as its capital, there were only two explanations of Israeli thinking at Oslo. One was that Yitzhak Rabin and his government had secretly decided to acquiesce in the establishment of such a state, thereby reneging on the rest of their campaign pledges regarding the future of the occupied territories. The other was that they believed the peace process could be brought to a successful conclusion without yielding to the PLO’s main territorial and political demands.

Let us first consider the second of these possibilities. In its final-stage negotiations with the Palestinians, set to begin next May, can Israel simply declare: “Gentlemen, you are not getting a state and you are not getting Jerusalem and other areas, and you can either take or leave what we are giving you”?

In theory, of course, it can. In practice, the Palestinians, under the terms of the Oslo agreement, will by then have nearly 30,000 armed policemen in the West Bank and Gaza, close to the number of combat soldiers in Israel’s standing army. Will Israel be prepared to risk engaging this force in armed conflict if a political impasse is reached?

This question, when put to supporters of the peace process, is met by a snort. It is absurd to think, one is told, that 30,000 policemen with rifles could offer serious resistance to a well-trained army with tanks and aircraft.

It is the snorters, however, who are being disingenuous if they imagine three divisions of Palestinian policemen will march on Jerusalem while the Israeli air force pounds them from above. These policemen can be divided into thousands of small cells of guerrilla fighters comprising five or ten members each. At the peak of the intifada there were probably never more than ten or twenty armed units of this size operating at any given moment in the occupied territories. Dozens of Israelis were killed by them. It took months to hunt down some of these bands; tanks and aircraft had little to do with the matter.

Would Yitzhak Rabin—who, we are told, was psychologically shaken to the core by the intifada—have been ready to expose Israel to a prolonged period of armed violence, possibly hundreds of times greater than that of the intifada, in order to keep his campaign promises regarding Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, when he had already violated other key pledges in the same paragraph? Will his successor, Shimon Peres, be ready to do so if it should prove necessary?

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But, we are told, it will not prove necessary—because already at Oslo the Rabin government knew it was agreeing to the establishment of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the entire West Bank ruled from Jerusalem, and all its protestations to the contrary, at the time and subsequently, were not to be taken seriously.

“Honestly,” said an Israeli to me during the week after the assassination, “you are being hopelessly naive. You yourself say that, ‘subject to certain conditions,’ you believe a Palestinian state is the solution. Do you really think that Labor could have been elected in 1992 had it openly said as much to a public that had been brainwashed against such an idea for years? And with whom could one negotiate such a solution except the PLO, an organization that Israeli voters feared and abhorred? No serious person expects politicians always to tell the truth. It is a leader’s duty to get elected and lead, not to get permission for every step he takes.”

Despite my own reputation among my friends as a cynic, such a view, which is almost universally held today on the Israeli Left, strikes me as cynical beyond bounds. Of course politicians frequently lie to the public, although those who lie least and with the uneasiest conscience are the ones who look best in the history books. But it is one thing to lie about ordinary matters of political expediency, another to lie about a momentous decision that will profoundly affect the future of one’s country for as long as it continues to exist. If the question of Israel’s borders; of their location and defensibility; of who lives and rules on either side of them; and of their relationship to the claims of thousands of years of Jewish history is not something about which to consult the Israeli public within the framework of democratic politics, what is democracy for?

Nor is it the case that Labor had to fool the voters in order to carry out its present policies. There were other alternatives. Having won the elections on the platform it ran on, Labor could have begun to prepare public opinion for the new direction it wished to take. It could have asked the PLO to help change the climate in Israel by declaring a moratorium on terror, or by repealing the provisions of the Palestinian Charter which call for Israel’s destruction, or some other dramatic act. It could have begun tentative, noncommittal talks with the PLO and then revealed their content to the public. And having done any or all of these things, it could then have said:

Citizens of Israel: now that you have seen how the PLO has changed and is ready to recognize the state of Israel and live peacefully alongside it, we are calling new elections in order to ask you for a mandate to commence negotiations with it that may lead to a Palestinian state.

Would that mandate have been given? It is impossible to say. But whether or not, the people would have spoken. And perhaps if the people had been allowed to speak, Yitzhak Rabin would be alive today.

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Or perhaps not? His murderer was a true believer in the Land of Israel, not in democratic procedures. Still, as has been frequently pointed out in the wake of the assassination, true believers tend to reach for their guns when they feel the rage of a wider public behind them—and die rage of many Israelis against Yitzhak Rabin dated to the day when, without asking or warning them, he signed an agreement with Yasir Arafat, a man regarded by them with revulsion, and shook hands with him on the White House lawn. Although those who in the next two years accused Rabin of betraying his country were speaking overheatedly, he did betray many of the voters whose ballots helped elect him Prime Minister by a narrow margin.

Rabin’s turnabout has been compared by his defenders to that of Likud’s Menachem Begin, who was elected in 1977 on a platform that never hinted he would return all of Sinai to Egypt. But there is a huge difference. When Begin submitted die accord with Egypt to the Knesset, it won overwhelming bipartisan approval, with an even higher percentage of Labor members than Likud members voting for it; had he called for new elections, he would have won them handily. By contrast, the Rabin-Arafat rapprochement split Israel in half, both in the Knesset and in the opinion polls. The Knesset’s bitterly debated ratification of Stage 2 of the Oslo agreement, a month before the assassination, passed by a vote of 61 to 59. Minus the five votes of two anti-Zionist Arab parties that object to the definition of Israel as a Jewish state, the results were 59 to 56 against.

Granted, a parliamentary majority of two is as binding as one of 200. The question in Israel was never the Rabin government’s formal legitimacy; it was its political and moral wisdom in pursuing a course that turned Israel ferociously against itself on a matter of the utmost historical gravity. But as Rabin followed this course, and was applauded by the same Left that in 1982 had denounced Begin’s invasion of Lebanon for violating the principle that no Israeli government should go to war without a national consensus, he and his supporters scoffed at the proposition that a radically conceived peace demanded a measure of national unity, too.

Moreover, it was clear to many thinking Israelis that, even if die Rabin government had received the nation’s backing to sign the accord reached at Oslo; and even if this accord led in a few years’ time to a “final” peace settlement with the Palestinians, there was no certainty that its finality would be final. A Palestinian state, even one based on a complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, would comprise only 23 percent of the area of British Mandate Palestine. It is no secret that many and probably most Palestinians, including the leaders of the PLO, hoped such a state would be the first stage in reclaiming more Palestinian land, possibly up to the 1947 partition borders and beyond.

Indeed, while it seemed obviously in Israel’s interest that any Palestinian state be an economic and political success, the more successful this state was, the more Israel’s own Arab citizens, of whom there are at present nearly a million largely concentrated in the Galilee, would be encouraged to want to join it. Given the current mood of disaffection toward Israeli society felt by most Israeli Arabs, whose sense of Palestinian identity has been greatly strengthened by the installation of the PLO next-door to them, a movement for Anschluss with the state of Palestine would be likely to develop among them in the future, plunging Israel back into a period of bitter internal Arab-Jewish strife that would probably draw into it not only an irredentist Palestine but still other Arab countries. The better the peace process went in the short run, therefore, the riskier it might turn out in the end.

Thus it was that, from the autumn of 1993 to the autumn of 1995, as the Oslo agreement was implemented and thousands of armed Palestinian policemen arrived in Gaza and Jericho and began moving into the West Bank; and as some 150 Israelis died in Palestinian terror attacks which the PLO, while procrastinating about the Palestinian Charter, was not particularly vigilant in preventing; and as the Rabin government continued to keep secret from its own people what its aims were in the peace process, including the borders it planned to insist on and its conception of the fate of the tens of thousands of Jewish settlers living beyond them, much of Israel felt like passengers on a ship that had been hijacked by its own captain and crew, who were now piloting it through a dense fog and mined waters, with the consent of half of those aboard, toward an unrevealed and perhaps calamitous destination.

The emotions aroused by this were fear, helplessness, bitterness, frustration, and, as I have said, rage. All of them were channeled into the anti-government invective that mounted in volume and vituperation throughout this period and that was, so the Israeli Left now tells us, the finger that pressed the trigger that was Yigal Amir.

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I would not dispute this. Although Amir was apparently unaided on the night of the shooting, he was what is known in Hebrew as a sh’liah avera, a messenger of sin, for a large body of Israelis who would not have dreamed of doing what he did. This public, heavily represented in what is known as the “national-religious camp” and in the settlements of Judea and Samaria that are the most threatened by the Oslo pact, owes itself and the nation a reckoning for having allowed elements in its midst to be swept away by inflammatory rhetoric and bizarre rabbinical rulings that could have encouraged a Yigal Amir to think he was acting on its behalf.

Such a reckoning, at least part of the Israeli Right is now making. The reckoning that is not being made, and of the need for which there seems to be no awareness among those who should make it, concerns the rhetoric and deeds of the Left, hardly any less inflammatory during the period in question.

Before me is the pro-government newspaper Ha’aretz, Israel’s most respected daily, from March 26, 1995. Its front-page headline: “Rabin: Likud Is Collaborator With Hamas.” The text of the lead article reports that “Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sharply attacked Likud yesterday [saying], ‘The terror organizations are succeeding because Likud has become a collaborator with Islamic Jihad and Hamas.’” It goes on:

In inner consultations recently held at high levels of the Labor party, it was decided to step up attacks against the Right, especially against Likud and its leader. There is concern in Labor over polls, taken in the last several months, showing Netanyahu with a large lead over Rabin. . . . Ranking members of Labor welcomed this changed line. One cabinet minister said he was nappy that “The Prime Minister has decided to take off the gloves with Likud.” A second minister, on the other hand, expressed concern that extreme language might cause the political arena to degenerate into verbal violence a year before the elections. . . .

It would be interesting to know who the prescient second minister was. And it would be interesting to ask the first minister whether, if a left-wing assassin had killed Benjamin Netanyahu, he would now be saying that Yitzhak Rabin had “blood on his hands,” as Labor has been saying of Netanyahu.

As it happens, Netanyahu and Likud have been specifically charged by the Left not so much with direct incitement as with failing to disown incendiary language and symbolism coming from extra-parliamentary right-wing groups—the prime example, repeatedly cited since the assassination, being the blind eye turned by them to a poster of Rabin in an SS uniform displayed by demonstrators at a Likud rally in October. This poster, it now appears, was commissioned and disseminated by Avishai Raviv, a right-wing extremist who was, however, acting as an agent for the Israeli General Security Service: i.e., the Rabin government itself.

This does not exonerate the failure of the Right to react more strongly—but it is worth recalling that throughout the 1980’s, long before it was employed by the right wing as a term of abuse, the word “Nazi” was often used by the far Left to describe the settlers and the Likud government that backed them. Perhaps the most egregious case was that of the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a well-known theologian and political polemicist, who invented the term “Judeo-Nazi” and who in 1993 was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for intellectual achievement by Yitzhak Rabin’s Minister of Culture, Shulamit Aloni. There was nothing wrong in calling Jews Nazis, it would seem, as long they were the right Jews.

Indeed, there was nothing wrong with calling the settlers many other names, too, which were routinely hurled at them by the Left in a systematic attempt to delegitimize them after they began organizing against the Oslo agreement: “enemies of peace,” “religious fanatics,” “dancers on the blood [of terror victims],” “Arab-haters,” and “Hamasniks” were some of the more common epithets. It made no difference that these same settlers, who for years had braved the daily dangers of the intifada, had been, in the name of the national security of Israel, assisted and encouraged to take up residence in their homes by previous Israeli governments, including the earlier 1974-77 regime of Yitzhak Rabin. Asked about one of their demonstrations, the same Rabin declared that, for his part, “They can spin around like propellers for as long as they like.”

Another example of right-wing incitement said to have provoked the assassination were the placards and shouts of “Rabin Is a Murderer” at many anti-government demonstrations, especially after Palestinian terror attacks. These were reprehensible—but the copyright on them, too, belonged to the Left. Such slogans first surfaced in Israel in 1982, at the huge Labor-party and Peace Now rally held in Tel Aviv’s Kings of Israel Square (now Yitzhak Rabin Square) to protest the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. There, signs proclaiming “Begin Is a Murderer” and “Sharon Is a Murderer” were held high by many demonstrators. I can vouch that no one asked for their removal because I was there holding a sign myself (although differently worded, as I recall).

But, protests the Left, there is no comparison: although we too may have sinned with words, nearly all the threats and incidents of political violence that Israel has witnessed in recent years have come from the Right. This is true. Right-wing extremism in Israel has been more violent; one reason for this is that, ideologically, the far Right tends to view conflict, rather than the resolution of it, as an inescapable existential imperative of Israeli Jews. And yet the Machiavellian use, by a secret service controlled by the Rabin government, of agents provocateurs like Raviv to foment and aggravate such violence as a means of discrediting the opposition to the peace process is no less frightening than the violence itself. Political thuggery is a grave threat to a democracy; employing a secret service to manipulate a country’s political life in favor of its ruling party, let alone by paying hoodlums to threaten and assault people and destroy property, is far graver, reminiscent of some of the most unsavory regimes of our century.

In the end, perhaps, it is pointless to try to keep score in such a game of tit-before-tat. Indeed, although both the Right and the Left contributed generously to the acrimonious atmosphere that was created in the period after Oslo, it is on the whole remarkable, given the passions aroused by one of the most agonizingly fateful moments the Jewish people has ever lived through, that democratic forms have been so well observed in Israel up to the assassination. (Since the assassination there have been signs that the Labor government has embarked on a worrisome policy of using rarely invoked anti-“incitement-to-rebellion” laws in order to intimidate forms of protest and criticism that would be permitted, or at least considered less severe legal offenses, in most democratic countries.) In terms of the tone of the political debate, Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards in France, pro- and anti-Vietnam-war demonstrators in the United States, were no more polite when arguing about much less. They, after all, were fighting only for the soul of their country; here the struggle is over the limbs of the body as well.

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One can point to the exact historical moment when the center dropped out of Israeli politics, leaving an overwhelmingly secular Left and a heavily religious Right facing each other across a discourseless chasm. But although this happened politically in September 1993 with the signing of the Oslo agreement, culturally it was a long while in the making.

In a deep sense, the processes leading up to this moment reflect the failure of the grand cultural project of Zionism, whose root assumption, once shared by secular and religious Zionists alike, was that it was possible to build a society that would combine a commitment to the modern world and its highest ideals with an allegiance, if not to the ritual forms, at least to the great texts and memories of Jewish tradition and their resonance in the physical landscape of Israel.

For most of this century, as reflected in literature, arts, popular culture, and politics, this project had every appearance of success. As late as the 1960’s, the same Bible which, shortly before his death, Yitzhak Rabin referred to as “an antiquated land registry” was still a living book in secular Israel. Here is Moshe Dayan, a product of the Labor movement and only seven years older than Rabin, speaking a month after the Six-Day War of 1967 placed in Jewish hands the portion of central Palestine that had been lost to Jordan in the unavoidable partition of 1948:

We have returned to the mountainland, to the cradle of our people and the legacy of our fathers, to the land of the Judges and to the bastion of the kingdom of the House of David. We have returned to Hebron, to Shechem [Nablus], to Bethlehem, to Anatot, to Jericho, and to the fords of the Jordan.

Today, when such language in the mouth of a Labor-party politician would sound hopelessly archaic, it is possible to see that Dayan’s generation derived its own romantic attachment to the Bible and Jewish history less (as Zionist myth had it) from the vaunted contact of the native-born sabra with the soil of the land of Israel than from its East-European-born parents, themselves the products of religious homes; and that the apparent link binding Hebrew secularism to Jewish tradition was I perhaps less a viable carrying forward of tradition than tradition’s last gasp. What has happened with the final expiration of that gasp is well illustrated by the case of Dayan’s daughter Ya’el, a left-wing Labor politician whose only known public reference to the Bible, made in defense of gay rights, has been to assert that David and Jonathan were homosexual lovers, and who has declared that she will be happy to visit Hebron on a Palestinian visa.

It was the Palestinians in the occupied territories, certainly, who hastened a polarization in Israeli life that would have taken place far more slowly and less painfully without them. For as the Israeli occupation of the territories lengthened, and the Jewish settlement movement grew, and with it the increasingly organized and violent resistance of the local Palestinian population, culminating in the intifada, the choice became a seemingly stark one. Either Israel relinquished its title to Judea and Samaria, the geographical core of the historical Jewish homeland, and so, by freeing the people living there from its yoke, took its stand (said the Left) with enlightened humanity; or else it pressed its claim to the areas and kept faith (said the Right) with Jewish memory.

This was a cruel dilemma. And it represented a great irony, for it meant that the Jewish state, which according to Zionism had come to heal the inner split between the human being in the Jew and the Jew in the human being, had now driven a new and terrible wedge into the breach.

Like a man in great torment who breaks psychologically in two, Israel thus went, or was dragged, to Oslo as two nations, each willing to risk what the other was not and unwilling to risk what the other was; neither able to communicate with or to understand the other but only to blame the other rancorously; thesis and antithesis, each half of the now-fractured personality of the Jewish people in its homeland.

I am not a believer in the view that tormented nations need psychiatrists rather than politicians. Only a wise politics can help to join again what a foolish politics has helped to sunder. But can one, in today’s circumstances, imagine a politics wise enough?


Footnotes

1 “Driving Toward Jerusalem,” January 1975.

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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