Israel Year in Review (high Holidays Feature 6): a Traumatic Year for Israelis Leads to Seismic Poli

Last Rosh Hashanah, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in his gravelly voice and straightforward prose, delivered the traditional end-of- year message from the premier to the citizens of Israel and to Jews around the world.

That memory alone is enough to render such overworked epithets as “traumatic” and “dramatic” hopelessly inadequate to describe Israel’s just-ending year, 5756.

One year later, Rabin is gone, his government is gone and the future of his peace policies is up for question.

A new leader, the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, swept into office under a new electoral system, holds out the promise of “peace with security,” coupled with economic prosperity.

As Israelis and Jews abroad make their individual and collective annual soul- searchings on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 5757, the path ahead, which seemed so clear a year ago, is now shrouded in uncertainty.

“Who would have thought?” is perhaps the only phrase, however hackneyed, that remotely conveys the cataclysm that the Jewish state has undergone during these past 12 months.

Who would have thought that a prime minister of Israel would be gunned down by a fellow Jew?

Who would have thought that the famed Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service, would let it happen?

Or that it would happen, as though choreographed, just at the end of a demonstration in the heart of Tel Aviv that marked the largest-ever outpouring of public support for Rabin and his policy of peace with the Palestinians?

Or that his successor, Shimon Peres, riding a great wave of public sympathy that welled up after the assassination, would fritter away his commanding lead and eventually lose the election to the Likud’s young and inexperienced candidate, Netanyahu?

When Rabin made his Rosh Hashanah broadcast a year ago, no one dreamed, of course, that he would be assassinated.

Nor did anyone — except perhaps his killer, Yigal Amir — seriously dream that Rabin’s term in office would be cut short.

Granted, Israel was riven with discord over his peace policies.

The political right, including large sections of the religious camp, were outraged about the steady process of transferring powers to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.

In October, Israeli troops began withdrawing from the West Bank town of Jenin, the first of six Palestinian population centers in the West Bank that were transferred to Arafat’s control before the end of December.

Demonstrators branded the prime minister a traitor; extremist rabbis cursed his name.

But the polls still showed a majority of Israelis supporting the prime minister.

And Rabin, angered but not cowed by his critics, pressed ahead with dogged determination, winning accolades from an admiring international community that felt that it was finally seeing peace come to one of the world’s most volatile regions.

In the Middle East itself, Israel’s success in opening up formal ties with several Arab states was the most cogent evidence that something was radically changing.

Even a wave of terror bombings earlier in the year that had threatened to destroy the peace process seemed to have abated.

But the assassination, on Saturday night, Nov. 4, turned everything around.

Looking back on the chain of events that it triggered, it becomes ever clearer that Peres, seasoned statesman and skillful politician though he was, never properly recovered from his own near- brush with death.

Amir, who was later convicted and sentenced to life, confirmed at his trial that he would have also shot Peres, had the then- foreign minister not left the parking lot moments before Rabin arrived.

In the months after the assassination, Peres made a series of blunders that, coupled with a new murderous wave of terror bombings, robbed him and his Labor Party of power.

First, he declined to call a snap election in the immediate aftermath of the assassination. He said he wanted to stabilize a potentially volatile situation. Sources close to him also felt that he did not want to be seen as winning on the coattails of the martyred Rabin.

But Peres did not stick to his guns.

In February, citing the fragility of the governing coalition, he instructed his party to enter into talks with the Likud on advancing the elections to the summer. May 29 was eventually set as the date for the general elections.

Then disaster struck.

On Feb. 25, a suicide bomber killed 26 innocent people when he detonated a bomb aboard the No. 18 bus on Jaffa Road, central Jerusalem’s main thoroughfare.

Hours later, a suicide bomber in Ashkelon killed one and wounded 31 others.

The next day, a car driven by an Arab American tourist plowed into a group of people at a bus stop in Jerusalem, killing one and injuring 22.

One week later, on the very same No. 18 bus route in Jerusalem, another suicide bomber claimed 19 innocent lives.

And the next day, on the eve of Purim, a suicide bomber killed 13 innocent people, including children, at Dizengoff Center in the heart of Tel Aviv.

A wave of profound horror, revulsion and bitter frustration swept the nation.

Responsibility for all the attacks was claimed by Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist movement that bitterly opposed Arafat’s conciliation with Israel.

The series of terror attacks also drew sharp international criticism, prompting the March 13 meeting of 29 world leaders, including 14 from the Islamic world, at an anti-terror summit in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheik.

In retrospect, Peres attributed his electoral defeat — by less than 30,000 votes — to those bombings and to the Likud’s slick campaign strategy.

Outside observers, however, also lay the blame on Labor, and specifically on Peres himself, for the party’s haughty and lackluster campaign.

In addition, Labor’s alliance with the staunchly secularist Meretz Party is thought to have alienated even those relatively few Orthodox voters who might otherwise have favored Peres over Netanyahu.

Peres may also have blundered in the run-up to the elections by escalating a periodic flare-up of fighting across the Israeli-Lebanese border into Operations Grapes of Wrath, the April 11-26 bombardment of targets throughout Lebanon by the Israeli army, navy and air force.

The April 23 shelling of the Kana U.N. camp in southern Lebanon, resulting in the deaths of at least 91 Lebanese refugees, also caused deep resentment among Israeli Arab voters — enough, in the view of some observers, to cost Peres the election.

When May 29 rolled around, Israeli voters for the first time were able to cast two ballots: one for prime minister, the other for a party in the separate Knesset race.

Israeli voters, enabled for the first time to split their vote between the party of their choice and their candidate for premier, did so with a vengeance.

A new immigrant-rights party, Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, led by former Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky, came from nowhere to capture seven seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

The single-issue Third Way Party, hotly opposed to a withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for a peace treaty with Syria, took four seats.

And three Orthodox parties — Shas, the National Religious Party and the United Torah Judaism bloc — collectively increased their number of Knesset seats to 23 and all won a place in the governing coalition.

The newfound power of the three parties is likely to mean a blow to non- Orthodox aspirations for religious pluralism in Israel.

The basic policy guidelines of the new government pledge legislation requiring all conversions to Judaism carried out in Israei to be validated by the Orthodox chief rabbinate. The Reform and Conservative movements had hoped that a Supreme Court ruling on this issue earlier in the year might lead to the recognition of non- Orthodox conversions in Israel.

Fears of another sort were expressed by Israel’s Arab neighbors in the immediate aftermath of Netanyahu’s electoral victory.

Days after the Israeli elections, warnings went up throughout the Arab world of the dire consequences that would follow any failure by Netanyahu to continue the peace process begun by Rabin and Peres.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak assembled 21 of the 22 Arab League members in June to present a united front against what they perceived would be the hard- line intransigence of the Netanyahu government.

Netanyahu managed to assuage those fears somewhat when he began holding his first rounds of meetings with Arab leaders in mid- July.

His meeting with Mubarak in Cairo on July 18 — exactly one month after he presented his government to the Knesset — concluded with an air of unexpected optimism.

Similarly, a meeting held the next week between Foreign Minister David Levy and Arafat was replete with statements that the peace process would progress.

Netanyahu also made overtures toward Syria about a possible Israeli withdrawal from its security zone in Lebanon.

Whether such optimism will be borne out by facts on the ground is the largest question looming over the Middle East as the new year begins.

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