JERUSALEM (Oct. 17)
Against the backdrop of the ongoing intifada, Israel’s observance of the seventh anniversary of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination was characterized by official ceremonies, nostalgia and speculation over what might have been.
Seven years by the Hebrew calendar after Rabin was shot dead leaving a peace rally in Tel Aviv, the memorial day had a feeling of ritualized remembrance.
At the same time, the special programs revealed social rifts still unhealed and lingering dissent over the Rabin legacy.
Adding to the debate were the findings of a public opinion poll reported Thursday by Israel Radio. According to the poll, one in 10 Israelis supports amnesty for Yigal Amir, the right-wing student who killed Rabin because Amir opposed the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians.
Asked about the poll, Israel’s attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, said he did not see Amir winning amnesty “in the foreseeable future.”
Speaking at a memorial ceremony Thursday at Rabin’s grave, President Moshe Katsav said that the “national trauma” of the assassination would remain with Israeli society for generations.
At a candlelighting ceremony the previous night, Katsav had warned that the political discord that wrenched Israeli society before Rabin’s assassination must not be allowed to turn violent again.
“We must teach and learn the limits of public debate, what is permitted and what is forbidden,” he said. “We must prevent situations in which words turn into bullets.”
As in previous years, the Gesher organization, which promotes dialogue between secular and religious Israelis, erected a study tent Thursday at the Mount Herzl military cemetery.
Flags flew at half-mast at government institutions and army bases, and schools held special activities on democracy and the dangers of political violence.
Despite efforts to use the day as a springboard for reconciliation and reflection, the social and political wounds exposed by the assassination were evident at the Knesset memorial session.
Left-wing legislators claimed that many right-wing lawmakers did not attend the special session Thursday afternoon. Knesset member Avshalom Vilan of the left-wing Meretz Party said the right-wingers’ absence made him wonder if they had absorbed the lessons of the assassination, Israel Radio reported.
The right-wing camp countered that the speakers at the session — Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and opposition leader Yossi Sarid of Meretz — had used the session to incite against the right-wing.
Knesset member Uri Ariel of the right-wing National Union-Israel, Our Home faction said the speeches given made it difficult for half of the nation to mourn Rabin.
Meanwhile, the Rabin family criticized Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was in Washington and could not attend the ceremonies. Before leaving for the United States on Monday, Sharon spoke about Rabin in the Knesset and apologized for not being in Israel on the anniversary of the assassination.
But Rabin’s daughter, Knesset member Dalia Rabin Pelosoff, said she hoped Sharon’s absence from the memorial day would not set a precedent.
The anniversary also spurred debate over what would have happened to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — now battered by the two-year-old intifada — had Rabin not been murdered.
On Wednesday evening, passions rose during a Knesset debate on a motion to cancel the Oslo accords. The motion failed.
Tempers flared when the legislator who initiated the motion, National Union Knesset member Zvi Hendel, declared that were Rabin alive he himself would have called to nullify the accords.
Indeed, Rabin had said that if the Palestinian Authority ever turned the weapons it received under Oslo against Israel, the accords would be nullified — though he died long before the intifada began in September 2000.
Left-wing figures, in contrast, say Rabin would have signed a final peace agreement with the Palestinians by now, but that the leaders who came after him did not remain faithful to his vision.
Only the “fanatical” left-wing still clings to the agreements, Hendel claimed.
Peres, who as Rabin’s foreign minister hatched the accords in secret negotiations, responded that the accords were “alive and well.”
“I don’t regret the Oslo” accord, Peres said. “I am proud of it, and Rabin would have stood here like myself.”
When legislators from the right ridiculed Peres’ vision of a “New Middle East,” he responded, “better a new Middle East than a nuclear Middle East, with terrorism. That is where you are leading us.”
Internal Security Minister Uzi Landau, of the Likud Party, caused controversy when he said that while Rabin’s personal qualities were beyond reproach, his political legacy was controversial.
Speculation over what might have been was not limited to the Israeli side. Commenting on the anniversary of the assassination, Palestinian Authority official Saeb Erekat said: “I cannot say for certain whether if Rabin were alive, we would have already achieved a peace agreement. But I believe we would have.”
He added, “Opposition in Israel to the Oslo process was great, and the obstacles along the way were forbidding. At the same time, Rabin had the necessary courage and decisiveness to realize the vision of peace.”