Saturday's murder of Boris Nemtsov, among the most eloquent spokesmen of the liberal Russian camp for 25 years and among the most vocal critics of Russian involvement in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, shocked many in Russia and beyond, but surprised no one.
Not one hour after the murder, the idea spread via social networks and supporters of the Russian opposition that the murder had been commissioned by no less than Russian President Vladimir Putin himself.
There has indeed been a series of suspicious and strange deaths that have visited Putin’s opponents in recent years. But actually, a look at Russia’s official television stations and the Russian blogosphere over the past year of fighting in eastern Ukraine indicates that in Russia these days, gunmen might not need a special presidential invitation to take out a prominent opponent of the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbass region.
Critics of Putin’s imperialistic policies in general, and opponents of the war in Ukraine specifically, are presented in current Russian discourse as subversives working tirelessly against Russia’s essential security and diplomatic interests. They are presented as collaborators with the hostile West and as traitors to the Russian homeland, pure and simple. In light of this outright incitement, the possibility that Nemtsov was murdered by “patriots” drugged by Putinesque nationalist propaganda is no less likely than the assumption that Putin and his people are directly involved in the murder.
Those who are fluent not only in Putin’s mother tongue but also in that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will easily find similarities between the nationalist rhetoric of Putin and his party, United Russia, and the mudslinging campaign against supporters of the Oslo Accords by Netanyahu and the Israeli right on the eve of the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Netanyahu was careful to distance himself at the time from the extremist incitement, especially toward Rabin, that was expressed by those who wanted to see Netanyahu as prime minister. Putin, too, quickly and strongly condemned Nemtsov’s murder.
And yet, just as opponents of Russian imperialist militarism are depicted by Putinesque propaganda as enemies of the Russian people, so Rabin’s policy of territorial compromise — which he did not hesitate to promote by relying on the support of Arab MKs — was presented by Netanyahu and his followers as illegitimate from a national point of view.
Thus, the assassination of Nemtsov and of Rabin preceded their symbolic ousting from their countries’ national collectives — the boundaries of which are drawn by Vladimir Putin in Russia and by Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. Nevertheless, one key difference cannot be ignored between opponents of Putin in Russia and opponents of Netanyahu in Israel: the extent to which delegitimizing national-patriotic discourse is effective in each country.
The Russian president finds it difficult to achieve the primary goal of ousting his critics from the Russian national collective — the goal of silencing criticism of the government. After every political murder, the voice of the Russian opposition, weak as it may be, continues to be heard. In contrast, the goal of denying national legitimacy to Rabin’s policy of peace has been achieved. And the message to anyone who would head Israel’s government, that the peace process must be advanced on the basis of broad consensus among Jews while ignoring Arab voices, has been perfectly internalized since Rabin’s murder.
Even Netanyahu’s most outspoken opponents, when from time to time they managed to take hold of the reins of government after Rabin’s murder, took no diplomatic step to end the occupation that did not involve efforts to create a solid Jewish majority for it. But that is not possible because most Jewish Israelis are prepared to continue living with the occupation and the settlements.
In that sense, the despair of Netanyahu’s opponents in Israel after Rabin’s assassination is greater than that of Putin’s opponents in Russia after Nemtsov’s murder. Those who oppose Putin can at least dream that one day the gray KGB man from the Kremlin will be gone — even if they can’t imagine how it will come to pass, considering the lack of a democratic tradition in Russian.
Netanyahu’s opponents, however, know full well that thanks to the democratic system in Israel, Netanyahu may one day move out of the house on Balfour Street. But the realistic among them understand that even if another party forms a government, it is almost certain that its members, who have learned the lesson of Rabin’s death, will continue to promote Netanyahu’s policies, even if in a different form and by different means.
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