Casting a Giant Shadow

The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin left the young generation in the Labor Party without leadership tutelage, and it put an end to any chance they had of evolving into leaders themselves.

It is all too easy to see everything as a symbol. Still, it is impossible to see the media silence, the indifference and the feeling of general disgust that is accompanying the Labor Party leadership primaries as anything but a symbol of what the party has endured since the assassination of its leader, Yitzhak Rabin.

The symbolic element is related to the timing of the primaries − November 9, 2005, exactly 10 years after Rabin was gunned down, a period in which the party has been groping to find its way. A full decade in which the party has been swinging between vain hopes and concrete disappointments; between an aged former leader and numberless off-the-shelf candidates who surface for a moment, only to plummet almost immediately back into anonymity; between left and center, between socialism and capitalism, between secularism and religiosity.

Since the departure of its mythological leader, the Labor Party, and with it the peace camp, has been at a loss. Apart from Ehud Barak, who in 1999 momentarily seemed to be a Rabin clone, but some 18 months later was brutally kicked out of power, no leader like Rabin has emerged in Labor. And when one looks around − to the sides, to the front, to the near and distant horizons − no such leader is visible. Even ignoring the exaggerated glorification of Rabin after his assassination, it is clear that both the left and the right, the rich and the poor, Shinui and the ultra-Orthodox, the Palestinians and the Americans, and indeed the whole world could have lived in peace with him.

None of those who have followed had all those qualities. Peres lacked leadership and the security orientation. Barak lacked experience, political maturity and emotional intelligence. All the others − Avraham Burg, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Haim Ramon, Amir Peretz, Matan Vilnai, Yossi Beilin, Ephraim Sneh, Shlomo Ben-Ami − candidates in the present and/or the past, brought only a tiny fraction of what Rabin had. So much so that half the party's registered members, and a similar proportion of its voters, today consider Ariel Sharon their man. And not least because Sharon, who was born anew in 2001, reminds them in no small measure of their silver-haired leader. The sangfroid, the judiciousness, the courage to make bold moves, the quiet anti-charismatic charisma − these qualities characterized Rabin, and these days even a few members of Rabin's family believe Sharon embodies them better than anyone else.

Haim Ramon, the last politician to hold a heart-to-heart with Rabin, in Rabin's Ramat Aviv home, just hours before the assassination, has an original explanation for the leadership dearth in Labor. The assassination, Ramon says, did more than remove Rabin from the stage: It left the party's young generation, the successors, without a tutor, with no leadership tutelage, and indirectly also assassinated their prospects of evolving into mature leaders. "On that Saturday," Ramon recalls, "Rabin told me that if he were to lose to Benjamin Netanyahu in the elections, he would leave politics immediately, and if he were to win, it would be his last term in office. If Rabin had won and remained party and government leader for four more years, until 2000, people like me, like Ehud Barak, Ben-Ami, Burg or Beilin would have functioned for four years as key ministers in a Rabin-Peres government, accumulating experience and status, and then a smooth transition to the next leadership generation would have taken place. A person such as Barak," Ramon says, "would have prepared himself for leadership and gleaned a great deal of experience − the [lack of which] was one of the causes of his failure as prime minister. When Peres lost in 1996 to Bibi [Netanyahu], Barak, who was perceived as a Rabin clone, won by a huge majority, but crashed very quickly."

Before and after BarakThe wretched decade the Labor Party has gone through since the assassination can be divided into two: before and after Ehud Barak. Veteran MK Avraham Shochat, a Rabin loyalist and later a Barak loyalist, continues to view Barak as the person whose totality of qualities is closest to that of Rabin. "Ehud was a great hope," Shochat says, "a combination of Rabin qualities: he did big things, he had a vision, he wasn't afraid to pay a political price. But he fell because of his behavior. Rabin, too, was not the buddy-buddy type; he was rough-hewn. And so was Ben-Gurion. But they were leaders. For many years, the Labor Party had natural leaders in its ranks: Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Peres and Rabin alternately, and for a short period Barak, too. From the moment Barak fell, Labor had no natural leader. Peres was a good prime minister, true, but it is impossible to be Churchill for 40 years. Today he is not someone that people will get up in the morning to fight for."

In fact, the person Shochat does consider a leader is Amir Peretz. "Amir," he says, "has a message. If that is your leadership gauge, then he has it. One can argue about the substance, about his political maturity, about his suitability and his experience, but he has the quality of leadership."

The Labor Party's continuing problem is also the problem of the peace camp in Israel. Its leader will come not from Meretz, but from Labor. Since Rabin and the brief episode of Barak, the peace camp has had no daddy. Of all people, it is MK Yossi Sarid, the former Meretz leader, who admits that, as long as the Israeli reality is one of blood and terror, the salvation of the peace camp will come from the generals, from the security activists, from "those who break arms and legs."Sarid elaborates: "Only people like Rabin, and like Sharon today, are capable of getting the nation to accept a more moderate and compromise-oriented policy. Only someone who was identified as 'Mr. Security' can introduce a different policy. It is not enough to be a general. We have generals like the sand on the seashore. You have to be a myth, a war hero, for people to agree to accept a policy like that. Fuad [Ben-Eliezer] and Vilnai are security people, but they are far from that status. In Rabin's personality there was some sort of balance between left and right, compromise and toughness, which made him a man for all seasons, a man for all people. He had a rare combination of traits, and no one else has been able to step into those shoes, apart from Barak for a brief moment."

The fate of the peace camp, according to Sarid, is that its work is done by others. "When the agenda changes and people no longer feel threatened − only then will it be possible to place at the head of our camp a leader who has a 'different agenda.'"Sarid's colleague in Meretz, MK Haim Oron, ascribes less importance to the person, or the personality. He believes it is the way that is decisive. In his view, the past decade has shown that the Labor Party lost its way − and therefore also failed to produce a leader. "Many people in the left are talking about this," Oron says. "The question is whether the present situation of the left stems from the fact that it is not putting forward an alternative way, or from the fact that it does not have a leader, and whether the way gives rise to a leader or the leader carves a way. I think the way is no less important than the leader. After all, Rabin's image was heightened even while he was still alive, only because of the way. Since then, not one of his successors has achieved the stature the role requires, because in the eyes of the general public there is no role to fulfill."

The meagerness of the galleryAccording to Oron, the recurring failure of Labor candidates in the past decade is due to the fact that they did not put forward a substantive path. "The decision that Rabin made − to go for Oslo − heightened his image to that of a giant leader. Our public today sees Sharon as doing the work for Labor. But Sharon's image, too, was built up only because of the historic decision he made. Without decisions about the way, there are no leaders," Oron notes, "and it is also true that without a gallery of figures you will not find the way. The situation today is that both these elements have fused: the feebleness of the Labor Party and the meagerness of the gallery."

Take all the current members of this political gallery, from [Shinui leader] Yosef Lapid at the far right to Shula Aloni [former Meretz leader] at the far left, and you will not find anyone who rises to the level of a natural leader, as Benjamin Netanyahu is perceived to be the successor to Ariel Sharon ?(at least until recently?) in the eyes of the right, Oron says. "There are good people there, but no leaders. Haim Ramon has leadership traits, but in a way that is hard to explain he has lost his sheen in recent years. He lacks a certain maturity, a certain ripeness that could have been acquired and accumulated."

The story goes that Abba Eban was once asked why Israel had lost an important soccer game. Because we did not score enough goals, he replied. By the same token, one can reply to the question of why Labor and the peace camp have not produced a leader like Rabin since November 4, 1995: because Rabin was assassinated. The frustrating question of what would have happened if Rabin had not been murdered will continue to gnaw at the Israeli left for years to come.

Many have forgotten that on the eve of the assassination, Rabin and Netanyahu were tied in the polls. The reason for the rally in Tel Aviv was the depression and pessimism that had seized the Labor Party and the peace camp at the time. Ramon remembers that Rabin asked him, in that last conversation, whether he intended to establish a center party that would run against Labor in the Knesset elections. ?(Ramon, who was at that time the chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, had left the Labor Party; he returned to the party after the assassination and was appointed interior minister in the government formed by Shimon Peres until the May 1996 elections.?)

"He said to me, 'Look, the polls between me and Netanyahu are touch and go, and there will be a bitter fight between Labor and the Likud. If you head a party that will run against Labor, what will you say about Labor?' I replied, 'Yitzhak, I will tell the truth, which is not far from what you are thinking.'

"'And what will you say about the aged leader of the Labor Party?' Rabin asked me." Ramon told him that he would try not to say anything. To which Rabin retorted, "'But there will be people who will make the connection between Labor and me [at the time there were direct elections for the prime minister and a separate vote for the Knesset], and if you harm the party, that is liable to detract 1 or 2 percent from me, in the struggle against Netanyahu.'"

And so the conversation continued, between the aging, pessimistic leader − who feared a loss to the scamp from the Likud − and the scamp from his own political camp. It just goes to show that Rabin, a few hours before he entered the realm of myth, was, after all, just a human being, a somewhat frightened politician who in those moments did not think anything would come of the rally in the Tel Aviv square.