Jewish Journal

Remembering Rabin

Five years after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, the legacy of Oslo gets new scrutiny.

by Peter Hirschberg

Posted on Nov. 2, 2000 at 7:00 pm

Five years after his death, the legacy of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, architect of the Oslo accords with Yasser Arafat, is being reexamined as the peace process is engulfed in new fighting between Israelis and Palestinians.

Five years after his death, the legacy of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, architect of the Oslo accords with Yasser Arafat, is being reexamined as the peace process is engulfed in new fighting between Israelis and Palestinians.

Sharon was always inspired by Yitzhak Rabin. Twenty-three when she moved to Israel from the United States in 1980, she went to peace rallies and rejoiced when Rabin won in 1992. A year later she exulted over the Oslo peace breakthrough.

After Rabin was shot to death by a Jewish assassin on Nov. 4, 1995 - she was at that peace rally also - she did not lose hope. She kept it alive through three years of foot-dragging on the peace front by hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and it burned brighter for her when Ehud Barak triumphed in 1999 on a pledge to continue the Oslo process.

But now, on the eve of the fifth anniversary of Rabin's assassination, Sharon, who asked that her last name not be used, says her confidence has been shaken by the violent, bloody showdown between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers over the last month, in which 21 Israelis (13 of them Arab Israelis) and more than 140 Palestinians have been killed.

Oslo, she says bleakly, "was supposed to build a framework for peace in future generations. But now 13-year-old Palestinians - the future generation - are out on the streets throwing stones. Our partner seems to have chosen a path of violence. That's not Oslo."

Like most of the left, she still believes there is no military solution to the Mideast conflict and that Israel cannot continue to rule over another people. But for someone who has so long resided in the peace camp, she has started to think the unthinkable - that for the near future, peace may not be attainable.

Since the bloody "al-Aqsa intifada" began Sept. 28, much of Israel - and much of the Western world - has also begun to reappraise the legacy of the prime minister who staked his reputation and ultimately his life on the premise that Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian people would be a reliable partner in peace, worth trusting with land, with economic ties, with arms.

In past years the anniversary of Rabin's assassination was focused on the impact the murder had had on the fabric of Israeli society or whether the religious right had sufficiently grappled with the fact that the assassin had emerged from its midst. But now, with the anniversary falling during the worst crisis ever in the peace process, it is likely to be viewed almost solely in term of the bitter left-right argument over what to do with the fruits of Israel's victory in the Six-Day War - the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with their 2.5 million Palestinians.

'He Was The Worst'

For many it is a saddening and surprising change, but not for the Israeli right. They say the violence of the past month proves the Palestinians cannot be trusted and that the Oslo process threatens the very existence of the state of Israel. They say the fact that Palestinian policemen and militia gunmen have been firing on Israeli soldiers, on Jewish settlements and even at Gilo, a neighborhood on Jerusalem's outskirts, is incontrovertible proof that Rabin's legacy is fatally flawed.

"We helped Arafat set up a militia in the territories, and now he is using it against us," says Yuval Steinitz, once a strong supporter of Rabin, who became disillusioned with the Oslo process, moved over to the right and is now a Likud Knesset Member.

"I worked to get Rabin elected in 1992," he recalls, "and I celebrated his election. But the truth is that he was the worst prime minister we have had in decades, and he is to blame, first and foremost, for the present crisis. It's a direct result of Oslo.

"What's happening today is not so much Barak's fault," he continued. "Both Netanyahu and Barak have had to contend with an impossible situation, which they inherited from Rabin."

Not everyone agrees that the core logic driving the peace accords has actually imploded. The basic tenets of Oslo - that if Israel is to remain a Jewish and democratic country it cannot continue to rule over another people - remain relevant. Part of that logic, says Zehev Tadmor, chairman of the Tel Aviv-based Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies, is that Oslo itself is part of a process, starting with the Begin-Sadat Camp David summit in 1978, "of the Arab world coming to terms with Israel's existence."

Oslo, he adds, "has brought us to the heart of the conflict. There are ups and downs. And we do have difficult neighbors. At the moment we are in a trough. But anyone who thinks that we can live in perpetual war for another 100 years, in a global world which does not want local conflicts, is taking a big risk."But the perception of Rabin's legacy, on the left and the right, is hardly monolithic.

Yisrael Harel, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Ofra and is a former head of the Yesha Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, has a much more charitable view even these days of the Rabin inheritance than many of his fellow settlers.

He says Rabin was skeptical of the Oslo process and adopted it only after becoming convinced "that the nation was weak. Look at the Gulf War," says Harel. "People fled Tel Aviv during the Scuds. They couldn't take it. So Rabin agreed to the process almost unwillingly. But he was very realistic and never fully trusted Arafat. Psychologically, he never allowed the Palestinians to feel that they could achieve all of their goals."

On the left, there is also criticism of Rabin, by those who believe he was overcautious and could have forged ahead much quicker with the peace process, exploiting the feelings of hope and reconciliation radiated by both Israelis and Palestinians in the wake of the signing of the Oslo accords.

In fact, the very structure of Oslo - a five-year interim agreement before the fundamental issues, like the future of Jerusalem, were to be discussed - gave extremists on both sides ample time to waylay the process. They took full advantage both the Hamas suicide bombers and Yigal Amir.

"Rabin was very cautious, but he could have gone faster," says renowned Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua. "He was very worried about the reaction of the right, about dismantling settlements. Yes, he did have only a narrow majority in the Knesset. But his fear of the security dangers overcame his diplomatic daring."He argues that the many delays in the process during the past seven years created the bitterness that fuels the current violence. "It's not Rabin's legacy that's to blame for the present situation," Yehoshua said, "but the way in which his vision has been implemented."

Inflated Hopes

Some of the disenchantment with Oslo among Israelis might stem from Rabin having inflated the immediate prospects held out by the agreement. By presenting Oslo as a "peace process" to his people, he raised expectations almost messianic in their magnitude for a final end to all conflict with the Palestinians.But Rabin, ever the pragmatist, must have viewed Oslo as an instrument for reducing the level of conflict - in essence, an armistice that would one day lead to the two peoples being able to really hear each other. But Rabin had to sell the idea to the public, and "peace" was always going to be a more compelling political message than "conflict reduction."

Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, says Rabin oversold the process for political reasons. "Perhaps that was a mistake. This isn't peace based on love, but the gradual process of moving away from the dangers of war."

Nevertheless, for Israelis, the hope of a conflict-free future held out by the Oslo process has been compelling. By signing the accord, Rabin fundamentally shifted the balance in the Israeli polity, extinguishing the right-wing dream of a Greater Israel and shoving the political goalposts significantly to the left.

Only eight years ago, when Rabin came to power, it was still illegal for an Israeli to talk to a member of the PLO. Now, Arafat controls large swathes of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. And opinion polls consistently show that a sizable majority of Israelis believe that an independent Palestinian state is inevitable.

Consequently, there has been a narrowing of the ideological chasm between Labor and Likud. The right, when it returned to power in 1996, was not able to beat back the Oslo tide. Netanyahu presided over the transfer of most of Hebron, the city of the Patriarchs, to Arafat. And, along with the ex-general and then-Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, he negotiated the Wye Plantation agreement in October 1998, in which he agreed, however unenthusiastically, to hand over a further 13.1 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians. Even today, while Israelis may be thoroughly disenchanted with the Palestinians, opinion polls still show over 60 percent supporting a peace process.

One enduring impact of the assassination has been a greater sensitivity among large sections of the public - at times an oversensitivity - to what is considered harsh, insightful rhetoric. In the months leading up to Rabin's assassination, those tones, on the right, became poisonous. Rabin was labeled a "traitor" and likened to the Nazis. Placards bearing pictures of him in a keffiyeh were paraded at rightist anti-Oslo rallies.

Today, the right-left public discourse has moderated by Israeli standards. Despite the far-reaching compromises Barak was prepared to make at Camp David, there have been few right-wing demonstrations, and the prime minister has not been subjected to the same vitriol as Rabin.

Dozens of right-left, religious-secular dialogue groups have sprung up, notes Harel. "People shout less and talk more."

Enduring Shift

It is unclear whether Rabin ever did have a clear, distilled picture of a final deal with the Palestinians. A document drawn up by Oslo architect Yossi Beilin and chief Palestinian negotiator Mahmud Abbas (Abu Maazen) in 1995 was said to be tailored to Rabin's general vision of a final settlement: It called for clear borders between Israel and the Palestinians and as few Palestinians as possible under Israeli rule. But Amir got to Rabin before Beilin could.

"Rabin had some ideas in his head," says Tadmor, "but no clear outline. When you go into negotiations, you can never tell at the outset where you are going to end up. It's too dynamic. It's impossible to know what he would have decided. I don't think even he knew."

It may well be that the Oslo format, with its myriad of security and economic arrangements, is no longer workable and that an alternative framework needs to be sought. But that framework will ultimately be hammered out at the negotiating table, by Palestinians and Israelis.

If anything, this is the cornerstone of Rabin's legacy - that violence in the Middle East has proved highly costly and inconclusive. And it is Rabin, a military hero whose worldview was forged on the battlefield, who most represents the dramatic shift in the Israeli psyche away from a military solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and toward a negotiated one.

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