Israelis have been debating whether the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, 20 years ago this month, has irrevocably altered the course of Israeli (and Mideast) history.
My answer is yes. To understand the profound consequences of Rabin’s murder, one need only contrast this military hero and his era with the life and times of Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, who has held the prime ministership for nearly 10 of the 20 years since Rabin’s murder, and will visit the White House this week.
“1995 was a reset moment in Israel’s history, a shift from secular pragmatists to ideologues,” says Dan Ephron, author of Killing a King: the Assassination of Rabin and the Remaking of Israel. That gap was on full display in Israel in recent days.
Back on Nov. 4, 1995, when a 25-year-old religious student named Yigal Amir assassinated their leader, Israelis were shocked at the idea that such fanaticism existed in their society. Amir killed Rabin because he had signed the Oslo peace accords with Yasir Arafat, which aimed to create a Palestinian state on land that Amir believed God had earmarked for Israel. (Rabin had also signed a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994 and came achingly close to achieving a peace pact with Syria.)
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At the time, there was much criticism of Netanyahu, then an opposition leader, who had presided over rallies where participants waved banners depicting Rabin in a Nazi uniform.
But today, such ideas have gone mainstream. “The people who wanted to stop Oslo at any price are now in government,” says Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, referring to members of Netanyahu’s hard-right cabinet who call for annexing most or all of the West Bank. Some senior government officials even demand the building of a third Jewish temple on the Temple Mount – holy to both Jews and Muslims – which would turn the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over land into a religious war.
Netanyahu opposed the Oslo accords and never believed two states were possible. His government has promoted settlement growth on the West Bank, which rules out any coherent Palestinian entity.
Let me be clear: We will never know whether Rabin could have made the Oslo process work or persuaded Arafat to make the necessary compromises. Arafat balked at finalizing a peace deal in subsequent negotiations, while Palestinian terror attacks in 2000 squelched the best chance at pursuing two states.
Yet I believe there was a serious chance that the pragmatic Rabin could have made headway in the mid-1990s. At that time, as I learned from extensive interviews on the West Bank and in Gaza, large segments of Arafat’s Fatah movement were committed to the two-state idea. Having spent decades in Israeli jails, many were convinced that the Israeli state was invincible, and they were exerting pressure on Arafat to act accordingly. Meantime, Israelis still believed in a possible peace.
Those days are long over. Settlement growth has convinced most Palestinians that Israel wants to keep the West Bank, while terror and missile attacks have convinced most Israelis that peace is a mirage. The younger generations on both sides have given up on the idea of two states. And a chaotic Mideast makes it harder to envision a new, weak Palestinian state.
But the most striking difference between the pragmatic Rabin and Netanyahu is that the former believed the status quo was dangerous for Israel in the long term. Rabin argued that Israel had to separate from the Palestinians in order to keep its democracy intact, and its security tight.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, seems convinced that the status quo is manageable and that settlement growth has no downside. He has offered no viable alternatives to the two-state solution; he seems oblivious to the possibility that the aging PLO leadership may give way to youths attracted by jihadi ideas.
Twenty years after Rabin was murdered, we are entering an era when Israeli and Palestinian ideologues who embrace the untenable idea of one state are on the rise, a guarantee of endless conflict.
Equally disturbing, we have entered an era when the notion of assassinating Israeli leaders has become a joking matter for members of the prime minister’s entourage.
Just before setting out for the United States, Netanyahu chose as his new public diplomacy chief Ran Baratz, who had attacked Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, on his Facebook page, calling him a “marginal figure” unworthy of assassination. “We view this gravely,” the presidential office of Rivlin messaged the prime minister’s office. No wonder: Rivlin has received death threats on social media on account of his support for tolerance between Palestinians and Jews.
Netanyahu’s new diplomacy chief also suggested on social media that President Obama was anti-Semitic and that Secretary of State John Kerry had the intellect of a preteen, at a time when the Israeli leader will be discussing billions of dollars’ worth of new U.S. military aid with Obama. That gives new definition to chutzpah.
At this writing, the Israeli prime minister has yet to rescind Baratz’s appointment. In the meantime, taking his cue from the top, the brother of Rabin’s assassin, Hagai Amir, a man who conspired in the murder, has threatened Rivlin more direly on Facebook.
Twenty years on, ideology has clearly replaced pragmatism in Jerusalem politics, with all the danger that portends.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.