Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to evade responsibility last week for the atmosphere that led to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. “Since the murder, there have been continuous attempts to distort the historical truth and to blame me for the incitement that preceded the murder,” he wrote in a Facebook post, citing examples of things he said before and after the murder where he condemned the wild incitement against Rabin.
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It is Netanyahu, however, who is distorting history. One can certainly believe that Netanyahu did not intend to incite to anyone’s murder, and did not even imagine that things he said, or that were being said by the extreme right, would lead to murder. But all of this does not absolve Netanyahu of his involvement in the incitement that led to the murder.
One cannot ignore the harsh atmosphere of criticism against Rabin that prevailed in the months before the murder. Rabin was called a traitor; there were calls of “Death to Rabin”; there were posters of him wearing a kaffiyeh or a Nazi uniform; and his picture was burned under the slogan “The government of blood.” There were also the two famous rallies that Netanyahu led – one in Jerusalem’s Zion Square, featuring slogans like “In blood and fire we will expel Rabin,” and the second at the Ra’anana junction, in which marchers carried a coffin and noose. All these left no doubt, and nor could they leave any doubt: there was a dangerous and violent campaign conducted against Rabin, which culminated in his assassination by Yigal Amir.
The images of Netanyahu standing smugly on the balcony at Zion Square, with cries beneath him of “Rabin is a traitor,” “Rabin is a murderer” and placards were being waved of Rabin in an SS uniform and the crowd singing “Death to Rabin,” cannot be denied. Their significance cannot be denied, either. Perhaps Netanyahu did not intend to incite, but he did nothing meaningful to stop the incitement. Even if he occasionally tried to calm things, he did it after the fact, in a sterile TV studio.
In real time, Netanyahu marched in front of the mock coffin and gave the incitement his approval. In real time, Netanyahu saw the picture of Rabin being burned and did not respond. In real time, Netanyahu gave the incitement free rein, and thus betrayed his role as a leader in a democratic country – the role of someone who leads a tolerant, nonviolent dialogue, even at a time of crisis.
One cannot suspect for a moment that Netanyahu ever acted to calm the discourse – the absolute opposite is true. So it was in 1995, and so it is today. Netanyahu’s rhetoric has been consistent all along, from “The left has forgotten what it is to be Jews” to “The Arab voters are going to the polls in droves.” Netanyahu’s repudiation of responsibility for the atmosphere that led to Rabin’s murder will not succeed.