Kalindi O'Brien, David Rosenberg
The Media Line
October 28, 2010 - 12:00am

Fifteen years after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down at a Tel Aviv rally, the tug-of-war has yet to let up over the former prime minister’s legacy as the architect of a troubled peace process and a symbol of the dangers to democracy from extremism.

Officially, Rabin is mourned by all of Israel. His name appears on city squares and streets as well as schools and hospitals. As in years past, he was memorialized at official government ceremonies earlier this month on the date of his assassination on the Hebrew calendar.

But Rabin’s signal initiative, the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians, remains a source of controversy to this day in Israel. The political left has sought to link Rabin’s memory to Israel’s current efforts at forging an agreement with the Palestinians. Israelis on the right remain suspicious of the peace process and Palestinian intentions, and shy away from Rabin commemorations.

“After Rabin was assassinated and the left turned the Rabin commemoration into a show of political force, I felt that I had no place there,” Yossi Klein Halevy, an author journalist and researcher on Israeli society and culture, told The Media Line. “They gave Israelis like me an untenable choice – either, swallow your politics and participate in the commemoration, or not honor the memory of Rabin.”

A mass memorial ceremony, scheduled for Saturday night, at the plaza where Rabin was assassinated Nov. 4, 1995 may be the last of its kind as Yitzhak Rabin Center, set up to commemorate the life and work of the former prime minister, mulls new ways to preserve the nation’s memory.

Rabin was killed a little more than years after he shook hands with Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat, marking the onset of peace talks, and he never had the chance to show whether they would work. Repeated attempts to reach a final agreement have failed while the Palestinian intifada that broke out in 2000 cost 1,050 Israeli and 4,700 -- Palestinian lives. The Gaza Strip has been controlled by Hamas, a Palestinian faction that opposes talks entirely, since 2007.

A 2009 survey conducted for the Walla! Internet site illustrated the division of opinion about Rabin in Israeli society. Among those identifying with Rabin’s political party, Labor, 63% said the missed his presence more than any other deceased leader. Among those who vote for Likud, Labor’s traditional opponent elections and the party of Israel’s current prime minster, Binyamin Netanyahu, only 9% said they missed Rabin the most.

The annual mass memorial in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square has grown smaller as the years go by, with just 25,000 people attending last year’s event and live broadcast of garnering low audience ratings. Israel’s state-controlled Channel 1 television network only agreed to broadcast it this year under public pressure.

Zvi “Shishko” Friedman, who has helped staged the memorial ceremonies, said organizers haven’t decided how Rabin’s death will be marked from next year on, but he said there would be less emphasis on speeches. He declined to say whether the mass memorial would be continued.

On Israel’s left, many want Rabin’s memory to be rooted in the aspirations for peace and put the onus for his death to right-wing extremism.

On the Israeli right, some leaders have sought to identify themselves with Rabin and his policies, arguing that the left has misrepresented Rabin’s views. At this year’s memorial, Netanyahu pointed out that Rabin never agreed to freeze construction of Israeli settlements or to divide Jerusalem. Ruby Rivlin, the speaker of Israel’s parliament and a Likud Party leader, said the political right shouldn’t be held responsible for the assassination.

“In the past there have been attempts to connect [Rabin’s] murder to Oslo’s opponents, but just as the memory of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination doesn’t belong to the northern states, Rabin’s memory belongs to all,” Rivlin said at the Knesset ceremony.

But for many on the right, the Oslo process was a failure and holds the former prime minister accountable for it, Abraham Diskin, a professor of politics at the Hebrew University.

If Israelis can share anything about the Rabin legacy, said Diskin, it is an appreciation for Rabin as a personality. Among Israel’s best-known prime ministers he remains the one most missed by the public, according to Wallah! poll, with 20% naming him. Menahem Begin followed with 17% and Israel’s founder, David Ben-Gurion in the third with 14%.

“Because the way his life ended, he will be remembered,” Diskin told The Media Line. “A general, an honest person who wanted peace and was murdered because he wanted peace – and that is how he will be remembered.”


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