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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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.

Sharansky, now a fellow at the Shalem Institute in Jerusalem, says that the environment after Rabin's death contributed the feeling that the entire right was being indicted. "There were clear attempts from some political circles to connect this assassination to one camp who are thinking politically one way: Those who were politically against Rabin are sympathetic to the killer. And I think that was a big loss," he says.

Or as Noah Efron - a Bar Ilan University expert in religious-secular tensions - puts it: "They [the left] were the people, for a while, who didn't murder their prime minister."

If the right still feels a sense of being maligned, the left has a feeling that they've been deprived. "The Rabin assassination signifies a feeling for most secular Israelis that their country has been taken from them," says Menachem Lorberbaum, the head of the Jewish philosophy department at Tel Aviv University. "I think that for many people, certainly the younger generation, who don't remember Rabin as prime minister, will see it through the prism of Ariel Sharon. In other words, he promised one thing and he delivered another."

Although 84 percent of Israelis say another assassination is possible - and 34 percent says they're fairly sure another such murder will take place, according to a poll released by the Israel Democracy Institute - Professor Lorberbaum says that does not appear to hamper Sharon.

"He brings a certain character trait that Rabin didn't have. It's not as if Rabin was scared, but he wasn't fearless like Sharon," says Lorberbaum.

Rabin's daughter carries on his work

Dalia Rabin expected more. After her father was killed, ten years ago Friday, she thought Israeli leaders would bring the nation through a process of soul-searching about its public discourse.

"It was a disappointment for me," she says. "I expected national leaders to do more and say more to draw conclusions that needed to be reached."

It is with that in mind that she hopes to bring her father's legacy to a wider audience, in part as Chair of the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, which officially opens on Nov. 14. The center will house a "Museum of the History of Israeli Society and Democracy," which the Rabin family hopes will serve as a way of building tolerance across some of Israel's big divides: secular and religious, left and right, Arab and Jew.

"We are very much aware that many Israeli schools are not obeying the law to commemorate the assassination," Ms. Rabin says, speaking in a roundtable interview with foreign correspondents earlier this week. "We want to try and reach out to that sector of society which is detached," she says, from her father's legacy.

"The main message is that in a democracy, [assassination] is not the means to change policy," says Rabin, who wears a casual gray-black sweater, has reddish hair, and bears a striking resemblance to her father. "Unfortunately, the assassin was right: for a while, there was a freeze in process."

Rabin, who had a short foray in government, most recently as a deputy defense minister, says she is staying out of partisan life in order to dedicate herself to the center.

But when she looks at the current political landscape, she sees a society changed by her father's vision. It included a secure Israel next to a Palestinian state, she says, and "unilateral disengagement, the last step this government took, was a step in this direction.

"It's a step [that shows] that something has happened in Israeli society," she says. "It wasn't as bad as we thought, and I don't think it could have happened ten years ago.... [Yet] it was done. Without bloodshed."

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