Analysis

Netanyahu’s Current Politics Reopen 23-year-old Wound of Rabin’s Assassination

The prime minister’s assaults on democracy and dissent suddenly seem like a return to his bad old days

Netanyahu speaks at the commemoration ceremony at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, October 21, 2018
Marc Israel Sellem

Anniversaries of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassinations traditionally create tension between left and right, but this year’s commemoration was different. The ceremonies and speeches that mark the day an Israeli prime minister was murdered for political reasons showed that, despite the 23 years that have passed, the feelings of bitterness and resentment in both camps are, if anything, stronger than ever. Rather than healing with time, the wound is as gaping, festering and venomous today as it was in the days following November 4, 1995.

Rabin’s grandchildren, Noa Rothman and Yonatan Ben Artzi, usually address the annual memorial ceremony, but their words have never been harsher. Leaders of the Labor opposition routinely allude to the right-wing incitement that preceded the assassination, but not in the blunt and damning terms used by Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni and former Labor chair Shelly Yechimovich in the Knesset on Sunday. 

Benjamin Netanyahu and other right wing politicians always rebuff the claim that they inflamed and incited and created the atmosphere that inspired Rabin’s assassin Yigal Amir, but Culture Minister Miri Regev declared this year that right wing incitement simply never happened and her colleague, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, asserted that the left is just as dangerous.

The tension stems, first and foremost, from the very fact that Benjamin Netanyahu is still prime minister. He’s been prime minister, in fact, for more than half the time that has gone by since Rabin’s killing.

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The left hates him all year, but on the day of Rabin’s assassination, he is especially despised. The left has never absolved Netanyahu of his sinful fanning of right wing fury after the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords, or of exploiting the ensuing wave of Palestinian terror attacks for political gain. Netanyahu, needless to say, hasn’t apologized, either.

But the anger directed at Netanyahu this year wasn’t limited to his alleged past complicity in the most heinous crime in Israeli history. It was fed by the increasing polarization in Israeli politics, which is inflaming political rhetoric in the U.S. and Europe as well. It was exacerbated by the left’s sense of helplessness in the face of the Netanyahu government’s assault on dissent and democracy, as well as by its dismay at Netanyahu’s increasingly shrill attacks on the left and its loyalty.

Rabin’s memorial linked the past and the present. It created a sense of deja vu, of living, as Jews say on Hanukah, “bayamim ha’hem bazman hazeh”, in those days, in this time. Netanyahu’s current conduct in office is just as divisive and incendiary as it was back in those turbulent times, if not more so, his critics asserted.

Not only is the left being delegitimized and marked as traitorous, as it was then, but, as Yechimovich reminded the Knesset, even the President, Chief of Police, Army Chief of Staff and President of the Supreme Court are routinely subjected to vicious right wing assaults.

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There’s even a division of labor: Netanyahu attacks the political left and civil society groups in public, while his obedient underlings mouth the negative views of state institutions that he expresses only in private.

As elsewhere, social media amplify these mutual attacks and consequent rage a hundred times over.

The arena for right wing rabble-rousing has moved from mass rallies and marches, in which Rabin was called a traitor, to the pages and posts on Twitter and Facebook. Rather than standing on the balcony of Zion Square while thousands of his followers shout out diatribes and death threats, or marching in Raanana with a coffin close behind him, Netanyahu disseminates his lethal invective today on social media.

Judging by Yair Netanyahu’s far less restrained outbursts of alt-right hate, it’s clear that the apple has fallen very close to the tree. No less infuriating for the left is that Netanyahu and the right have entrenched themselves in believing the fable of their own innocence. 

Despite the fact that Rabin’s assassin Yigal Amir was a far-right fanatic, a product of an extreme national-religious outlook and a follower of fanatic rabbis who cursed Rabin with the halachic death sentence known as Pulsa d’Nura, literally “Lashes of Fire”, the religious and secular right depict him as an aberration, if not an alien. They have healed their cognitive dissonance by erasing the memories of their past excesses and how these were embraced by Amir.

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Once they believed themselves innocent, the right could turn the tables. Leftist demands for a true reckoning were painted as unwarranted incitement against the right. The right created a virtual reality in which demagoguery from the left was just as poisonous as their own venom. As Yechimovich pointed out in the Knesset, however, when asked to cite a specific leftist act of violence that could justify her equation with the right, the best that Shaked could come up with is a nasty comment on social media.

To offset the long list of right wing Jewish fanatics who have resorted to deadly violence, including five active terrorist cells and almost two-dozen mass murderers, the right is forced to reach deep in history. Their staple reply to the unequivocal evidence that not most, but all of the physical political violence in modern Israel came from the right is “But what about the Altalena”?  Altalena was the name of the ship that the newly established Israeli government ordered to attack in June 1948 for carrying an unauthorized arms shipment to Menachem Begin’s underground Irgun.

Americans in the days of Donald Trump are well acquainted with this modus operandi. In Charlottesville, Trump created the same kind of false equivalence between far right – and, in his case, even neo-Nazi - fanatics and leftist protestors.

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In exaggerating the scope of leftist radical groups such as ANTIFA, the deadly reach of the MS-13 gang or the very existence of Democratic “mobs”, Trump is using the same tactics that spur Netanyahu and his allies to inflate the existential threat of BDS or the sinister global influence of B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence.

And Netanyahu, like Trump, is a world class cherry picker: Rothman, in her speech, ascribed a venomous tweet to an official spokesperson rather than right-wing agitator/columnist Caroline Glick, an innocent mistake that Netanyahu turned into irrefutable proof that it was the left that incites and the right, especially him, who are the innocent victims.

In both Israel and the U.S., in fact, self-victimization is a defining characteristic of the right and its leaders. They thrive on perceptions of foreign threat and on fears of domestic subversion. Even when power is in their hands, as it is today in both the U.S. and Israel, the right desperately clings to its concocted self-image of being persecuted and pursued.  They are forever inventing vast left wing conspiracies, powered by mysterious moneymen – usually George Soros - and driven by “elites” and their so-called “mainstream media”. Their successes are always their own but their failures and faults are forever a fabrication by the mighty forces confronting them. 

The mythology of the right has gone so far as to fabricate an alternate past in which their supporters were hounded and persecuted by the left in the wake of Rabin’s murder. Back on earth, reality was just the opposite: Fear of a dangerous split in Israeli society led Rabin’s successor Shimon Peres to quell demands on the left for accountability on the right. His vain refusal to be seen as benefiting from the outcry against the assassination compelled Peres to resist pleas to hold immediate elections, which could have given Labor an unassailable majority in the Knesset. When he was defeated a few months later by none other than Netanyahu, Peres suffered the consequences of his own blind eye. 

By refusing to indict the right for its complicity in creating the hate-filled atmosphere that spawned Amir’s heinous act, Peres allowed Netanyahu and his allies, especially in the national-religious right, to emerge not only scot free but guilt-free as well. In the ensuing years, the sense of remorse and regret felt by many on the right in the immediate aftermath of the assassination dissipated, replaced by the false narrative in which they were unfairly maligned.

Large segments of the national religious education system refute the need for a state-sponsored commemoration of Rabin, who brought about what they describe as “the Oslo catastrophe." They devote their ceremonies on the Hebrew date of Rabin’s assassination to the biblical Rachel, wife of Jacob.

Israeli society never underwent what psychologists define as “closure."  Shocked at the fault lines exposed by the killing of a prime minister, both sides shied away from conducting a state-sponsored investigation that would examine, diagnose and jointly confront the events of 1994 and 1995 that led to the assassination. Instead, both sides festered in their sense of resentment and grievance, assuming, perhaps, that time would soften the blow and even heal the wound.

They forgot that Jewish history is always a current event; that the unsolved 1933 assassination of Labor leader Haim Arlozorov on a Tel Aviv beach plagued and divided Israel for a generation; and that repressed feelings and pent up rage are bound to burst out in the open, when the right circumstances appear.  On Sunday, as Israel marked Rabin’s assassinations, there was a perfect storm.