Claire Spencer
Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme & Second Century Initiative
Twenty years after he was killed by a right-wing Israeli, the evolution of politics in Jerusalem has put his unfulfilled mission even further out of reach.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin lights a flame on 19 May 1993 at a memorial on Jerusalem day, 26 years after he took the city as army chief of staff. Photo by Getty Images.Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin lights a flame on 19 May 1993 at a memorial on Jerusalem day, 26 years after he took the city as army chief of staff. Photo by Getty Images.

Since his untimely death in November 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has retained the reputation of a leader cut off in his prime, prevented from fulfilling the mission he took on only two years before. That Rabin was struck down by a fellow Israeli rather than an external enemy parallels the earlier fate of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt in 1981. Sadat was also assassinated at a public rally by radicalized military compatriots reacting to his ‘treachery’ as the first Egyptian head of state to travel to Jerusalem in 1977 and sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.  This cautionary tale has not been lost on subsequent Israeli leaders. None have fully championed or succeeded in pursuing the same strategy as Rabin over the past 20 years.

What remains of the Oslo accords, which formed the template for Rabin’s role as peacemaker, are the processes, debates and detailed proposals for a negotiated peace between Israel and Palestine, but not the leadership qualities required to see any of it through. Whether Rabin could ultimately have delivered on the historic deal struck with the then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is at the core of discussions of his legacy; his daughter now openly concedes that the Israel of then is no longer the Israel of today. The implication, lost on no one, is that the main beneficiaries of Rabin’s demise have been the same right-wing and religious settler groups that stood opposed to the pragmatic secularism that motivated him, as a highly decorated former soldier, to grasp the much derided Yasser Arafat literally and metaphorically by the hand.

Demographic and ideological change

The detail of ‘one-state’ versus ‘two-state’ outcomes which dominate current debates is now largely academic. The kind of sustained leadership needed to convince the Israeli public that any of what is proposed is worth the risk of implementation has long since evaporated. No Israeli leader since Rabin has succeeded in breaking this deadlock in the face of a barrage of reasons why unilateral withdrawals, land swaps, divisions of Jerusalem, refugee quotas and so on will never work. The paradox that a majority of Israelis still support a two-state outcome remains equally theoretical: the Gordian knot of how to get there, with the requisite cast iron guarantees, has never been solved; the collective ability of Israelis to imagine a future posited on high risk as being preferable to the imperfectly managed uncertainty of the present has never again been conjured up.

There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, the oft-repeated security fears of Israelis are real and cannot be dismissed as a pretext for stalling or placing false hopes in the status quo. The dilemma of what to do and what comes next in an increasingly volatile region is also real. Regardless of the causes, the recent upsurge of violent attacks in and beyond Jerusalem has demonstrated again that the assumed certainties of Israeli daily life can be instantly shattered from one day to the next. This experience has been forged through two intifadas since 1995, and at least three wars with Gaza, most recently just over a year ago.

The second reason is that the Israel of today is indeed no longer what it was in 1995, and the Israeli leaders who followed Rabin are, albeit to differing degrees, responsible for this. The changed demography of Israel – with the opening of doors to Russian and other post-Communist migrants in large numbers since the mid-1990s – altered the context for political debate and the diversity of views contained within it. Internally, the post-war generations who founded Israel were already giving way to the ‘sabra’ generations born in Israel, who came of age in the early 1980s. The combination of new migrants and indigenous Israelis educated in a muscular, uncompromising form of nationalism put paid to many of the historical sensibilities of the earlier generations. To this has been added the equally muscular phenomenon of the religiously-motivated settler groups. The common denominator of all of them is an ahistorical rejection of everything that has happened in the Middle East since Biblical times.

The role of Israel’s modern leaders has been to respond to these demographic and ideological changes with forms of populism that have ultimately led to their undoing. In a fragmented electoral system based on proportional representation, the once mainstream parties of Likud and Labour have now been captured by an electorate increasingly driven by narrowly-focused and self-serving ideologies; small parties, best thought of single issue/community lobbies now police what the centre ground can or cannot be permitted to do. No political leader, the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu first among them, can deliver any change that has not been bargained for and agreed to by the smallest member of his coalition.

More than this, the fears of Israelis have been politically instrumentalized to act as the glue holding this collective diversity together. The international community is powerless to intervene or influence what have essentially become the politics of personality and traded favours. Moreover, the immediacy of political crises across the Middle East and the ‘hands-off’ approach to peace-making of the US and EU both privilege, and are a response to, the short-termism of successive Israeli governments.

Unfulfilled mission

Rabin’s main contribution to Israeli leadership was his historically-rooted awareness of a moment to be seized, however complex the risks. He understood that the Israeli public needed to be led, more often than not against their own better judgement, towards the least worst options in securing their future. His unfulfilled mission has had a legacy beyond the loss of the man. Few Israeli leaders since Rabin have enjoyed his historical depth or conjectural understanding, and there is none within Israel’s current political elites capable of articulating where Israel is heading in the absence of peace. The context for a ‘new-age’ Rabin, should any be found, is one in which economic interests and narrowly defined strategic priorities are to the fore, not an inclusive vision for Israel’s future in the Middle East. The latter has been Israel’s real loss since 1995. 

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