Ethan Bronner
The New York Times
October 28, 2010 - 12:00am

In the 15 years since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish militant after a peace rally here, blood seeping onto a song sheet in his breast pocket as he lost consciousness, his legacy in Israel has seemed clear — warrior turned peacemaker, symbol of a tough nation with an outstretched hand.

Roads, schools and squares, including the one in central Tel Aviv where he was killed, now bear his name. Every year at this time thousands have gathered at Rabin Square here for candles, peace songs, speeches about coexistence and recollections of heartbreaking moments, like President Bill Clinton’s farewell — “Shalom, haver,” Goodbye, friend.

This Saturday’s gathering, however, will be the last of its kind, organizers say. Attendance has been getting sparse and television stations are not lining up to broadcast the event. The shift has prompted intense debate in Israel as the Nov. 4 anniversary approaches. Has the public lost interest because it is disillusioned with peace and views Mr. Rabin’s involvement in the Oslo accords a mistake? Or has negotiating with the Palestinians simply gone mainstream, and Mr. Rabin is no longer its symbol?

The left has no doubt.

“Fifteen years later we can’t pretend any longer,” Yossi Sarid, a former member of Parliament from the left-wing Meretz party, wrote in Haaretz. “It was a perfect crime that paid off — a man was murdered and his legacy was covered with blood. Rabin’s way is deserted, in mourning.”

Ben-Dror Yemini, a conservative columnist for Maariv, thinks otherwise.

“The truth is the opposite,” he wrote. “Rabin’s assassination saved the Israeli left wing.” He added that before the killing, “There were terror attacks that gave rise to the phrase ‘the price of peace.’ The polls predicted a terrible fall for the Labor Party, and the strengthening of the right wing. The right wing not only ruled the violent and stormy street. The right wing also ruled in people’s hearts.”

Mr. Rabin, a soldier-statesman who was gruffly shy, remains mostly honored as a man. The battle over his legacy, therefore, is about what he stood for. In the first years, his memory belonged to his colleagues on the left. Right-wing incitement against Mr. Rabin — in one infamous example he was portrayed at a rally in a Nazi uniform — was widely seen as contributing to the atmosphere that led to the assassination.

But with the failure of the Oslo accords, the violence of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000, the withdrawal from Lebanon that increased Hezbollah’s power and the rise of Hamas in Gaza after Israel pulled out, land-for-peace is viewed with skepticism by a rising portion of the Israeli public.

Moreover, while Mr. Rabin was an early advocate of mutual recognition with the Palestinians, he never advocated a Palestinian state or sharing Jerusalem. As a result, the right says it is not so much disowning Mr. Rabin as repossessing the real him.

“Fifteen years ago, after the terrible stain of this assassination, it was politically impossible to say certain things against Rabin’s policies,” Boaz Bismuth, a senior editor at the conservative daily Israel Hayom, said by telephone. “Now, you are allowed to disagree with Oslo and not be seen as someone who favored his murder. What peace? After 15 years, you can come out of the closet and say, ‘This region is not about to become Benelux.’ ”

For those who were close to Mr. Rabin and are trying to preserve his memory, this shift has created a challenge.

Eitan Haber was the one who announced outside the Tel Aviv hospital that grim Saturday night that Mr. Rabin had died of his wounds, and the one who rescued the peace song sheet from his jacket pocket. Today, he is an opinion columnist for Yediot Aharonot.

On Sunday Mr. Haber wrote that, of course, this was a political murder of a political man trying to bring peace. And, of course, the incitement from the right will always be an inseparable part of the story. But it is time to broaden the legacy.

“Almost the only way to turn the memorial day for Yitzhak Rabin into a national day of mourning and remembrance is to turn him into what he was not during the last moments of his life — a person of consensus,” Mr. Haber wrote. “It has to be decided that the murder of the prime minister of Israel and the tremendous danger to democracy are central issues to be addressed by both left and right.”

Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at Hebrew University, said he always believed that the focus should be on democracy and respect for the office of prime minister rather than on Mr. Rabin’s politics.

“The intermingling of civics and politics has weakened the legacy,” he said in a telephone interview. “Today, the public conversation has moved to the right, so there is an attempt to bring the legacy back to the civics issue.”

One aspect of the debate focuses on Israel’s place in the world. “No longer are we necessarily ‘a people that dwells alone,’ ” Mr. Rabin said in presenting his new government to Parliament in 1992. “We must join the international movement toward peace, reconciliation and cooperation.”

During his tenure, the Arab boycott against Israel essentially fell apart, greatly increasing trade and consumer options here, and many countries that had shunned Israel established ties with it. In the years since, Israel has gone from a being a relative backwater to acquiring a European style of wealth and high-tech innovation. The assumption, common in the Rabin era, that peace and prosperity were mutually reinforcing has been challenged.

Meanwhile, international impatience toward Israeli treatment of Palestinians has been growing. Israelis may feel integrated into the global economy but they feel politically alone. Here, too, there is an internal debate. The left thinks Israel is partly if not largely responsible for the world’s hostility while the right argues that the antagonism is a result of anti-Semitism and opposition to Israel’s existence. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tends to favor the second argument.

For those who were close to Mr. Rabin, this shift has been a source of gloom. Mr. Sarid, the former leftist lawmaker, said in his column that he introduced the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Day Law 13 years ago and he now regrets it.

“At the time I thought it was self-evident, indispensable,” he wrote. “Today, I admit my mistake: it’s an unnecessary and even harmful law. It’s not right to use legislation to impose a day of pain and anger and horror on those who don’t feel as I do. Why force those who scorn him all year long to honor him one day a year?”


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