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A decade after Rabin's death, his legacy still divides

The Israeli leader was killed Nov. 4, 1995, by a young assassin bent on stopping his land deals with Palestinians.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 4, 2005


Ten years ago Friday, at a rally meant to buoy the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, an assassin's bullets succeeded in almost sinking it.

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Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a gruff, but grandfatherly former military leader stepped out of character and had just sung Israel's famous "Song of Peace."

Now, a decade after he was shot down by Yigal Amir - a young religious ultranationalist who said he killed the Nobel Peace Prize-winner to stop his land-for-peace deals with the Palestinians - Israelis are even more deeply riven over how to view Rabin's life and legacy.

One of the few things they agree on, according to a poll released Thursday, is that there could be another political murder, particularly in the wake of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement of the Gaza Strip.

On the left, Rabin's loss is viewed in terms of lessons learned about the need to define where democratic protest ends and incitement to violence begins. After the assassination, many here blamed the religious right for fostering an atmosphere in which Rabin was turned into public enemy No. 1.

On the right, the national soul -searching amounted to finger-pointing, which somehow laid guilt on everyone who opposed the Oslo Peace Accords, the agreements that Rabin and fellow Labor Party leader Shimon Peres began reaching with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993.

The divide is summarized by one former Rabin adviser as a culture war in the vein of "metro" vs. "retro." In a new book studying the decade after Rabin's assassination, Yoram Peri, head of the Chaim Herzog Institute for Media, Politics, and Society at Tel Aviv University, says that these two major sectors of Israeli society hold sharply different values - and have different narratives for telling the Rabin story.

The "metro" are metropolitan types who tend to be liberal and secular and who place high emphasis on Western, democratic values. "Retro," in Mr. Peri's parlance, are the religious Israelis who believe that Torah and traditional values should guide everyday life.

"The metro camp is trying very hard to commemorate Rabin and do as many things as possible to mention his name, call new places and streets by his name, and preach his legacy. The retro are trying to negate all that. They're saying it's a not a trauma at all," Peri says in an interview.

"They say the behavior of Rabin brought it on himself. They will say, 'OK, it's bad, but it's Rabin's fault,' " he adds. "Therefore the major battle every year is about the commemoration: Should we commemorate or not?"

Although it is mandatory for all Israeli schools to have some way of marking Rabin's assassination - which will be officially marked on Nov. 14th, the anniversary of his death this year according to the Jewish calendar - some schools, particularly those with right-wing or religious orientation, ignore the law.

Others take a different view. In the West Bank settlement of Elkana, the chairman of the educational council planned to use the day to tell students of how Rabin had armed Israel's enemies, according to a letter obtained and reprinted by Israel's major daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth.

Addressing the school district's teachers, the chairman writes: "First, we must not ignore the 'legacy' of Yitzhak Rabin, a legacy that left a long trail of blood and agony in Israel. The students must be told that Yitzhak Rabin is the man who acted to implement the vision of our enemies, in what is known as the 'Oslo Accords,' and allowed the Palestinian terrorists to enter the Land of Israel and establish communities of terror."

Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik and government minister turned author, says that Rabin's assassination had a "sobering effect" on Israelis because it made people more aware of red lines that shouldn't be crossed. The recent rhetoric against Mr. Sharon by disengagement opponents, as a result, was much more restrained than that against Rabin in the months before his murder.