Yitzhak Rabin's legacy 20 years later: A pliable history

By Ed Adamczyk  |  Nov. 4, 2015 at 3:00 AM
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BUFFALO, N.Y., Nov. 4 (UPI) -- Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister of Israel and "warrior of peace," died by an assassin's bullet 20 years ago. His legacy, in which peace between Israelis and Palestinians was imminent and then lost, is a pliable one.

On Nov. 4, 1994, Rabin had just finished a speech at a Tel Aviv rally supporting the Oslo Accords, the agreements signed in 1993 and 1995 establishing the start of Palestinian self-government and a peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, when he was shot. The assassin was a right-wing ultranationalist Israeli, one of many furious at the concessions offered the Palestinians and at Rabin's peace initiative.

Yigal Amir, a Yeminite Israeli, a law student who was 25 at the time, opened fire with a handgun as Rabin walked down the steps of Tel Aviv's city hall after the address. Three shots were fired: Two struck Rabin, and one hit his bodyguard. Rabin died within 40 minutes.

Amir is serving a life sentence for murder, plus six years for injuring Rabin's bodyguard, Yoram Rubin. Amir was later sentenced to an additional eight years for conspiracy to murder.

World leaders gathered for Rabin's funeral and again 10 years later for a memorial service that drew hundreds of thousands over the weekend -- former U.S. President Bill Clinton spoke -- but subsequent remembrances at what is now Rabin Square have seen dwindling attendance. The tragedy is now subject to revisionist history, a long and tenuous string of what-ifs had he lived to help enforce the various elements of the Oslo Accords.

World leaders and other dignitaries attend a memorial service for the tenth anniversary of the assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem Monday November 14, 2005. BOTTOM L-R: Rabin's daughter Dalia, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Rabin's son Yuval. TOP L-R: Israeli Foreign Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. (UPI Photo/Israel Hdari/HO)

Picture this, if it never happened: Rabin, 73, a heavy smoker and noted drinker, survives, his party wins re-election in 1996 and Benjamin Netanyahu's party does not come to power. Rabin furthers the accords through comprehensive agreements with Palestine's Yasser Arafat and Syria's Hafez Assad.

Palestine is born and peace comes to the Middle East.

Thus does the assassination of Rabin give him, for some, the mantle of a martyr of peace, overlooking several points. Netanyahu led Rabin in pre-election polls.

Dividing Jerusalem was never part of Rabin's plan, and Rabin's successors as prime minister -- Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert -- worked diligently to find agreement.

To many conservatives in Israel, giving away West Bank territory for permanent Palestinian settlement, and recognizing the Palestinian Liberation Organization as a partner in peace, were preposterous ideas. Rabin was shot at a pro-Oslo Accords rally; Netanyahu spoke at rallies where posters depicted Rabin as a Nazi SS officer, and was accused by Rabin as provoking violence. Netanyahu has long denied it.

In agreeing to the Oslo Accords, Rabin was accused of collaborating with an enemy, then assassinated by an ultranationalist Jew who claimed in court his action supported Jewish "biblical heritage they had reclaimed by establishing settlements." Amir, who had planned the shooting for two years, believed he had, in killing Rabin, acted as a spontaneous rodef, an avenger, justifiable in traditional Jewish law when Jewish lives are to be saved.

Again, the lens of revisionist history notes there was never any indication Israeli Jews would be harmed by Israeli withdrawal from territories provided Palestinians. Rabin, much of parliament and half the opinion polls in Israel suggested the opposite.

The assassination of Rabin has been described as Israel's JFK moment, complete with conspiracy theories, but 20 years on, the meaning remains unclear. Israel has a number of remembrance days to invoke its heritage, but Nov. 4 is not yet one of them. We remain too close to events which either irreparably wrecked the peace process or were simply steps in the peace process. The killing of Yitzhak Rabin accomplished its goal: It brought the opposition party, hardliners, to power and demolished Rabin's vision for peace.

Mahmoud Abbas (with President Bill Clinton right behind him), then-member of the PLO executive committee, shakes hands with Isreali Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after signing peace accord at the White House. At far right is PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and at far left is Isreali Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. The ceremony was held on the South Lawn of the White House, Sept. 13, 1993. File photo by Leighton Mark/UPI

It also reinforced Rabin's legacy, forged over a lifetime of commitment to the cause of nationalism; the first homegrown Israeli prime minister, he was committed, throughout his life, to Israeli security, to democratic government and to the belief the Palestine of the Bible needed to be portioned into Jewish and Arab states.

The Oslo Accords, though flawed, started with a framework in which Israel and the Palestinian authority recognized each other's rights and recognized an agreement to negotiate. Flash forward to the October 2015 United Nations General Assembly, wherein world leaders each take a turn at the rostrum for a brief explanation of their respective world outlooks: U.S. President Barack Obama never mentioned what was once, 20 years ago, the dominant crisis in the world. Neither did Russian President Vladimir Putin. Netanyahu set his sights on Iran, but when he got to Palestine, called for a two-state solution involving "a demilitarized Palestinian state (which) recognizes the Jewish state."

In a way, Rabin's assassination was less like that of John F. Kennedy's and more like Abraham Lincoln's. What could have been, had Rabin lived, will remain the source of debate, or irrelevance, for generations.

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