Throughout its history, Israel has undergone a series of traumas, ranging from exhilaration to self-doubt. The successful outcome of the wars of 1948 and 1967 took the country to its heights; the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the Lebanon War of 1982, despite the military successes, led to periods of national depression.
Anwar Sadat’s visit and Egyptian peace treaty were another high. So was the Oslo agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization and the White House peace ceremony for much – though not all – of the population of Israel.
Now, the country is going through another trauma, shaken to its core by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
This has proved to be the occasion for a penetrating self-examination of the very nature of Israeli society.
The central point that shocked the nation was that the murder was carried out by a kipah-wearing law student of Yemenite origin, which went against Israeli stereotypes.
An Arab assailant would have aroused the country to hysterical anti-Arab frenzy. A disturbed person would have to be shrugged off like those who have attacked U.S. presidents in recent decades.
But this was different.
How could a Jewish state have permitted a situation to emerge in which such an act was possible? It was not as though anyone regarded Rabin as a tyrant – he was elected democratically and was carrying out policies for which he had received a mandate from the people.
Moreover, the murderer was not a solitary freak; he was part of a widespread counterculture that had been allowed to develop.
The history of the deterioration in Israel’s internal climate brought into question the very essence of the state and the abandonment of the principles on which it was created.
From the very inception of the Zionist movement, the early fathers of Zion believed that the time would come when the Arabs would recognize the Jewish people as part of the Middle East.
Despite all efforts, Arabs never accepted us. The wars that occurred between Israel and the Arabs were never initiated to gain land or to rule over any Arab population. Wars were always imposed on us and they were senseless wars.
From the creation of the state until recent years, our hands were always stretched out, whether officially or in secret negotiations, toward peace, either collectively or separately with each Arab state. We never missed any opportunity.
Menachem Begin was the first one to take the challenge in reaching out for peace with Egypt when Sadat showed his willingness. But we always knew that the catalyst to peace agreements in the Middle East were the Palestinians.
Therefore, when the opportunity arose, due to the international situation – Soviet disintegration and Arab loss of support after the Iraqi attack where the Palestinians were left in the cold – it was seized and Israel proceeded energetically and forcefully to take full advantage.
It is just this global determination of the Zionist movement to make peace with the Arab inhabitants of Israel, as well as with the Arab states, that has been misconstrued by faithful Zionists and in particular, by some of the settlers in Judea and Samaria, whose reluctance to accept the absolute necessity of peace has given rise to a sort of desperation among some of them and their supporters.
The motivations included an extreme nationalism, a reading of the security needs of the Israeli state and a form of pseudo-messianism.
For the population at large, the security issue was at least comprehensible. The question of Israeli concessions to the Palestinians can be legitimately debated on the military and political levels, and decided democratically.
But around the issue, an unprecedented campaign of vitriolic hate had been developed.
It was patently absurd to consider Rabin a “traitor” – there was no greater patriot – but Israel for the past two years has been plastered with placards of Rabin dressed as Arafat, Rabin dressed as a Nazi officer, a group of women publicly “trying” him and finding him guilty of treachery and the frequent repetition of the epithet “traitor.”
Most amazing was the tacit endorsement given to this campaign by respected rabbis who seriously considered and pronounced judgment as to whether Rabin deserved a death penalty under Jewish law.
Before the murder, the rest of the populace let these things go as extremist aberrations not to be taken seriously.
Now, they realize the price of tolerance.
The populace is beating its breast and saying, “Ashamnu, bagadnu” – “We have been guilty, it is we who have betrayed.”
The 30 days of mourning was a month of contrition.
But what has happened now? The language of political discourse will doubtless be less extremely provocative. Rabbinical authorities may pay more attention to the dictum in the Ethics of the Fathers: “Sages, watch your words.” People have been alerted to the crisis of values and it is to be hoped that this is not just a temporary wonder.
The state was founded on the ideals of Zionism and these, too, are at stake. Moreover, some reactions in North America show that the problems raised are not confined to Israel.
The appointment of Shimon Peres as prime minister was entirely natural.
As President Clinton pointed out, for instance, there is an entirely new atmosphere in relations with Syria. Clinton and Peres agreed that the leadership elections in the fall, far from limiting peace prospects, will force them ahead.
As Peres said at his meeting with Clinton last month, “There is no time now for political vacationing.”
It is plain that Peres is now thinking of a multitrack approach that would take in discussions of “normalization” and security at the same time, since advances in any one area would reinforce vigorous behavior in the others.
It was just this approach that bore fruit in the peace negotiations with Jordan. But just as in those negotiations, with the Palestinian Arabs and with Jordan, unwavering resolution was needed on both sides to solve the problems. In such cases, of course, a sensitive attitude on the part of the United States will be vital.
The main problem with Syria is that it wants “normalization” first and foremost, whereas Israel wants a normal period before it gives up a strategic position from which it can keep Damascus under scrutiny.
Clinton, a hard-headed pragmatist, made what is no doubt the main point about the relations between Israel and Syria, when he pointed out that “the Syrian leader and Syrian people … see the exceptional price that the late Prime Minister Rabin and the present Prime Minister Peres have been willing to pay in their search for peace.”
Peres and his aides have begun a marketing campaign to convince Israelis that peace with Syria, however risky it might seem, would be good for them in the long run. Israelis are learning that peace with Syria means peace with Lebanon and would be the final stage in the acceptance of Israel by the ordinary Arabs.
For that matter, the state-controlled Syrian media, even though continuing to criticize Israel, have recently been strikingly favorable to the prospect of peace.
Of course there are big problems involved.
Israel is unwilling to retreat beyond the international border that was in effect before the creation of Israel and that was moved to the cease-fire line of June 1967, because even though the areas under discussion are small, they determine the control of important water resources and even access to the Sea of Galilee.
Thus, the appalling tragedy of Rabin’s assassination has had one good result – the peace process has been massively strengthened, while the vistas springing up in the imagination of countless Israelis are finally focusing the popular will by the concrete conditions of a peace that has moved forward into the realm of overwhelming probability.