Opinion

24 Years After Rabin's Assassination, Israel Could Use a Little Polarization

Rami Livni
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to Benny Gantz while visiting an IDF Golani Brigade exercise in the Golan Heights, in 2012.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to Benny Gantz while visiting an IDF Golani Brigade exercise in the Golan Heights, in 2012. Credit: Avi Ohayon
Rami Livni

Twenty-four years after Rabin’s assassination, the main legacy associated with the event is that we must avoid polarization and diminish disagreements. The message comes across clearly in school lesson plans and ceremonies, and it was also delivered in Benny Gantz’s lukewarm speech at the main memorial rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square earlier this month.

It’s the direct continuation of the various Tzav Pius (Call to Reconcile) meetings bringing together different groups within Jewish Israeli society that flourished in the wake of the murder, and persuaded many people that Israel’s main disease is a surplus of politicization, a surplus of ideological tension between the camps and a surplus of emotion. The remedy is Valium for all, relaxation by means of dialogue, self-restraint and “listening to the Other.”

It’s shocking to see the extent to which this message has been absorbed: If pre-November 1995 Israel was highly polarized politically, particularly surrounding the Oslo Accords — the period was experienced as a contest between two halves of a divided nation — in the years since Israel has become a conformist society, staring at the world through bored, apathetic eyes. In contrast to our popular self-image, Israel today is not particularly divided ideologically and it is not torn from within in regard to any of the fundamental issues: not over peace, not over economics and not over religion and state.

In the narrow margins — a handful on the left, a larger number on the settler right — disputes continue. But the current political atmosphere dictates an enormous center, from Avigdor Lieberman and Likud to Kahol Lavan and the Labor Party. This center holds fairly similar opinions and shares a broad conservative consensus. Even the dispute that was at the heart of the last election — Benjamin Netanyahu, yes or no — was not based on wide gaps between the two parts of the nation, as can be seen in the overriding desire for a unity government.

A separation must be made. The incitement that preceded Rabin’s murder was bleak and horrific. But the blunt, sometimes coarse, public debate in this period was meaningful and as vital as the air we breathe. Israel is not an ordinary state. It is a state that has not yet solved the fundamental questions of its existence, not yet drawn its geographical boundaries or its moral profile, not yet determined which political vision to adopt — the left’s or the right’s — and has not yet decided what it wants to be. Such a state needs a decisive resolution, not conciliation. As long as it does not make a decision, it sentences itself to endless wallowing in the shallows in a process that seems to attenuate the disagreements and the hostility while in fact perpetuating them.

Polarization is not inherently a good thing. But like an emergency operation, the only way to overcome it and heal is to first of all open up the wounds and treat the source of the infection. We must not ignore it because it’s uncomfortable to face reality. David Ben-Gurion understood this, and therefore sought victory over rather than conciliation with Herut, the forerunner of Likud. The determination he demonstrated in the Altalena affair was painful in the short term but in the long term it guaranteed the upholding of a principle that was much more important to the survival of the young state — the authority of the central democratic government.

Rabin also understood this, and was not willing to allow the “propellers” among the settlers to jeopardize, through violence and lawbreaking, his historic decision to achieve peace, even at the cost of temporarily deepening the rift within Israeli society.

In the battle between left and right, one side must be defeated and its image of the world must be broken, despite all the pain involved. And it would be best for all if that side is the right.