Did Rabin assassination mark decline of Israel's peace camp?

At the time of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, his Labor party controlled more than one-third of parliament. Today, it's barely 10 percent – and slipping.

By , Correspondent

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    Israelis gather during a memorial rally marking the 15th anniversary of the assassination of late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at Rabin's square in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Oct. 30.
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Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination 15 years ago at the peak of Israel's pro-peace movement now appears to have heralded the beginning of a long, slow decline for an Israeli left that is in danger of fading into irrelevance.

In 1995, Rabin had signed the Oslo Accords, one of the most dramatic gestures towards peace in the long history of Israel's conflict with the Palestinians and the act that inspired his Israeli assassin. His Labor Party controlled 44 parliament seats, more than one-third of the Israeli Knesset. Today, they have only 13 seats, and recent polls show the party would drop to 10 seats if elections were held today.

The currently stalled peace process and a government driven by ultranationalist and religious parties could serve as a rallying cry for Labor and other dovish left-wing parties. But instead, the political forces that spent the last three decades pushing for a lasting peace lack a charismatic leader and can't shake the perception that they're too naïve to negotiate.

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There is an ideological crisis: The left's 1990s legacy – the groundbreaking Oslo Accords – is now considered a failure by most Israelis. And their signature platform – a two-state solution – has now been adopted by Benjamin Netanyahu, albeit under pressure from the US.

Then there is a leadership vacuum: Labor leader Ehud Barak's popularity has been eroded by a series of scandals and compromised by his involvement in Netanyahu's coalition government. Efforts to show himself and Labor as a pro-peace counterbalance to Netanyahu's right-wing skeptics were undermined after the government rejected US requests for a new Israeli settlement freeze – effectively suspending the peace talks.

"Let's be blunt. There's no peace process," says Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "If somebody in Israel is a traditional left-wing voter, they have nothing to attract them to be active, to mobilize voters, to impact public opinion, and hopefully to start resuscitating the left with the next elections as the goal."

Barak called a 'moron' by Labor colleague

On the very anniversary of Rabin's Nov. 4 assassination, his successor Barak was squabbling with restless party colleagues who want to dump him as party chairman and bail out of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's center-right coalition government.

In recent weeks, two Labor parliament members have declared themselves candidates to replace Barak. On Wednesday, the influential head of Israel's umbrella labor union called him a "moron'" on television for illegally employing a foreign worker. Another former ally and party power broker spoke of finding a new leader.

Barak fended off the accusation in a radio interview Thursday morning, but it wasn't before a political commentator in the liberal Haaretz newspaper wrote that Barak had become a lame duck.

A Pyrrhic victory for the left

Left-wing parties laid the foundations of the Israeli state and ruled for the first 30 years. When the right-wing Likud first came to power in 1977, Labor and the left became more identified with the Arab-Israeli peace process.

They spearheaded the 1990s Oslo peace process, but were blamed by Israelis after the Camp David peace summit collapsed in 2000 and a second, more violent Palestinian intifada broke out.

Today, the Labor party and its smaller ally Meretz have yet to recover.

It has shrunk into a homogenous group: middle-class Israelis from European backgrounds concentrated in the liberal Tel Aviv bubble. Gone are blue-collar Middle Eastern Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Russians. The isolation from the Israeli mainstream is a mirror image of ideological religious settlers living in the hilltops of the West Bank.

In the interim, though, the left won a Pyrrhic victory as politicians from the Israeli right adopted key parts of the left's agenda, including a willingness to make territorial compromises in the West Bank and Gaza. First it was Ariel Sharon, who unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and set up the centrist Kadima party. Last year, under pressure from the Obama administration to negotiate, it was Netanyahu's turn.

"When everyone is for two states on the surface, the left doesn’t have much to offer,'' says Noam Sheizaf, who writes the political blog Promised Land. "There’s no ideological division between Barak and Netanyahu. They just differ on how to get there."

Efforts at renewal

To be sure, Mr. Sheizaf and many others see the beginnings of a renaissance at the grassroots. They cite the weekly demonstrations in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah against a group of Jewish settlers who have won property cases against Palestinians, resulting in their eviction.

And in mid-October, thousands turned out to demonstrate against a bill to require non-Jews to declare loyalty to a Jewish state.

There are other efforts at renewal. In the last year, a group calling itself "the nationalist left" published a manifesto lashing out both at the settlers and the far left for directing all of its criticism at Israel. Rather than peace, partition with the Palestinians should be Israel's first goal.

"The lack of peace is not capable of destroying Israel, but the occupation is: It is eroding our international legitimacy, and it's going to drag us into a binational state, and it is against a core humanist value of Zionism,'' says Gadi Taub, a supporter of the group and the author of a history of the settlement movement, "The Settlers."

"Let's stop making peace a condition for ending the occupation. When peace is at stake, every one has demands for ultimate and cosmic justice, so let's settle on the pragmatic establishment of two states first and hopefully everyone will become more pragmatic about peace.''

Passing the baton to a younger generation

But just as telling was the annual Rabin memorial rally, held Oct. 30 in the Tel Aviv square where he was assassinated. Though the event – an annual convention of the left – drew about 30,000, it was a fraction of the participants a decade ago. For the first time, Israeli television channels didn't broadcast the rally for lack of interest.

While Barak was absent, Israeli President Shimon Peres, the longtime standard bearer for peace, delivered a speech that observers said failed to inspire them.

Amid talk of discontinuing the rally next year, speakers encouraged a younger generation that came of age in the wake of Rabin's assassination to take charge of the mission of peace he so valiantly fought for. But at the rally, young people – who witnessed the demise of Rabin's party – sounded uncertain about its prospects.

"I didn't come to remember Rabin,'' says Beni, a 28-year-old journalist who recalled the night of the assassination. "I want to remind myself about a way that doesn't exist anymore: the pursuit of peace."

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