"It's not surprising," says Ahmed Zouabi, thinking out loud. "Maybe now of all times, it's not surprising that we are mourning the death of someone considered one of the greatest Zionist leaders." Zouabi, head of the Bustan al Marj regional council, whose jurisdiction includes four Arab communities, believes the poor relationship between Jews and Arabs has only intensified the obligation of public figures and educators to mention Yitzhak Rabin; this negative relationship, he says, arouses in many people the need to remember him.
Zouabi's council is one of several Arab regional councils preparing for the first time to conduct semi-official ceremonies in memory of Rabin, in addition to the ceremonies to be held today and tomorrow in schools, at the orders of the Education Ministry. Over the next two weeks in Baka al-Garbiyeh, Majdal Krum, Akhsal, Kalansua and Bustan al-Marj, there will be memorial ceremonies, conferences and study evenings, attended by Arabs and Jews and sponsored by the Rabin Center; there will also be a memorial ceremony in one of the Arab neighborhoods of Ramle.
We're talking about only a few Arab communities - which don't include the large cities, or even one of the villages which in October 2000 were the site of the bloody conflict between demonstrators and police - and still, with isolation and hostility between the two populations at an all-time peak, the adoption of Rabin, seven years after his death, is of complex significance. It is perhaps not difficult to imagine his portraits pasted on walls in Arab villages, but the anticipated raising of Israeli flags, even to half mast, and the playing of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, are apparently an innovation that is hard to contemplate.
But honoring the memory of Rabin in the Arab public is a penetrating expression of criticism of Israel, more than it is an identification with its policy. "In the Arab sector they remember him with nostalgia, longing for what was and is no longer," says Salem Jubran, editor of the newspaper Al-Ahali. "For the Arabs, there is no doubt that Rabin's second term as prime minister was the best period in the history of their lives in the State of Israel." In talks held in Arab communities in preparation for the ceremonies, Prof. Yuli Tamir of the Rabin Center heard an oft-repeated explanation for their leaders' willingness to conduct the ceremonies this year. "People say, `Rabin's death and the events surrounding it were the last time that we felt a part of the Israeli collective,'" she says. "It's something that began last year - as the rift became more profound, the event became more meaningful. In polls conducted among children - and one can see that in the territories as well - one finds that children describe the murder of Yitzhak Rabin as an event with which they identified."
Those feelings of identification were apparently the climax of what many Arabs call "the golden era," the years 1992-1996, the years of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, which also granted their citizenship resounding momentum. Even then many remained at the social and economic margins, but at least in hindsight many have fond memories of the dramatic improvement in their civil status. The clearest expression of that was the increased budgets transferred by Rabin to the Arab sector, mainly in the field of education (where funds were doubled from 8 percent to 19 percent of the budget) and health (dozens of clinics were built in Arab communities). "It's a period that returns, in terms of the way people see themselves, in many retrospective descriptions, as a period of which they say, `That was the time when our citizenship became significant,'" says sociologist Dr. Danny Rabinowitz, testifying to the Or Commission [which investigated the events of October 2000 that led to the deaths of 13 Israeli citizens] on behalf of three of the Arabs leaders who were warned - MK Azmi Bishara, MK Abdulmalik Dehamshe and Sheikh Raad Salah.
Rabin was not always such an admired figure in the Arab minority. In 1966, as chief of staff, he (like his predecessors) strenuously opposed the abolition of the Military Administration in the Arab communities. A decade later, as head of a Labor government, he approved, despite the position of some of his advisers, a widespread expropriation of Arab-owned lands, as part of the development plan for the Galilee. Neither he nor the Shin Bet security service foresaw the intensity of the conflagration that erupted two weeks later, on March 30, 1976, the day when the Arab sector went on strike in protest against the decision. In the demonstrations that broke out then, six young men were killed and dozens were injured in what turned into the "Land Day" that even today is considered a symbol of the protest of the Arab minority.
But Rabin did not arouse the Arab public against him until 1988, when as defense minister he propounded an inflexible approach ("to break their hands and feet") in dealing with the first intifada. Tamir says these details in Rabin's biography turned the preparations for the memorial day in the Arab sector into a "debate full of ups and downs." "Rabin must not be turned into a poster," she says, "the greatness of the man lies in his complexity."
In 1988, this complexity led MK Abdul Wahad Darawashe to leave the Labor Party and he formed the Democratic-Arab Party list (Mada). He resumed cooperation with Rabin after he formed the government in 1992, which was supported from the outside by the five Knesset members from the parties Hadash and Mada.
"The reason why Rabin has a place of honor for every Arab citizen, and why his death was the first time when Arabs mourned a Zionist leader, is that he was the first and only leader who recognized the injustices of the past and actually worked to amend them," says Darawashe, who since leaving the Knesset has been president of Mada. "There was no prime minister who looked at Arab politicians the way he did - face to face. That had an effect on the entire Arab street."
The rise in the power and political participation of the Arabs also had an effect on the Jewish street, where the right attacked Rabin because his government depended on the votes of Arab MKs to bring about the Oslo Accords. Other developments in Rabin's term are less well remembered, for example Mada joining the Labor list in the Histadrut elections of 1994, and the founding of an Arab section in the Labor party; in 1993, again for the first time, an Arab MK became a member of the Knesset State Control Committee (Hashem Mahameed, then a member of Hadash and now of Ra'am - the United Arab List).
The Arab public's confidence in the political process became so strong that in the elections held after the assassination of Rabin in 1996, in which candidate Ehud Barak promised leaders of the Arab public that he would carry on Rabin's policies - their participation in the elections reached a record 77 percent (as compared to 62 percent in 1992); Barak then won about 96 percent of the Arab vote. Darawashe attributes the "longing for Rabin" to the disappointment with the Labor party. "Barak did not take over Rabin's legacy, but that of [the late prime minister] Golda Meir. This longing [for Rabin] is an outcome of this, and of the disappointment with the present leadership of the Labor party."