When former President Bill Clinton speaks Saturday at a rally honoring Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated 20 years ago by a right-wing Israeli radical, he’ll be speaking in the same square where Rabin delivered his final speech.
But he’ll encounter an Israeli public that has dramatically changed in the two decades since Clinton watched Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat sign the Oslo Accords at the White House, setting the stage for a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians.
On the night of his assassination Nov. 4, 1995, Rabin spoke to a record gathering of 100,000 Israelis cheering on his push for the accords. “Today I believe that there are prospects for peace, great prospects,” Rabin exhorted the crowd. “The path of peace is preferable to the path of war.”
On Monday, in a ceremony in Israel’s parliament marking the assassination, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had an opposite message. “If we lower our sword,” he declared, “their sword will consume us.”
It’s not just Israel’s leaders who’ve changed. In 1995, the political map was split nearly in half between supporters and opponents of the Oslo Accords. Today, only 15 percent of the public defines itself as left of center, favoring the accords.
“Israeli society has become more nationalist and closed to the world,” said political analyst Tal Schneider.
Sharren Haskel embodies the shift in Israeli political opinion. Haskel, 31, is the newest Knesset member in Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party. She grew up in a dovish household and remembers furniture shopping with her father in the Gaza Strip. As a high school student, she was a member of Peace Now, the advocacy group that calls for two states, one for Israelis, the other for Palestinians on lands in the West Bank and Gaza captured from Egypt and Jordan in 1967.
The only thing we can do is protect ourselves.
Sharren Haskel, former peace activist
“As youth groups we would go to the square and light candles in memory of Rabin,” Haskel said. “Back then I did agree with him.”
The next years chipped away at her hopes. She was a teen when Palestinian attackers blew up buses in Israeli cities in what’s known as the second Intifada, or uprising; twice she fortuitously missed buses that were bombed.
By the time Haskel was 18 and facing military draft, she had left Peace Now and enlisted as a combat soldier in the Israeli Border Police, where as a first lieutenant she patrolled the streets of east Jerusalem, carried out night arrests of suspected terrorists, and guarded the demolitions of the homes of Palestinian assailants.
“I knew if I’m going to do two or three years in the army I can’t just sit and be a clerk, a nurse or a guide,” she said. “During this rough time of the Intifada, this is my time to stand up and protect my family and friends.”
Occasionally, she said, she would see old dovish friends through her helmet visor as she policed protests against Israeli policy.
“They believe in a kind of dream that is not possible,” she said. “The only thing we can do is protect ourselves.”
Haskel said she will not attend the rally Saturday. On Thursday, she spent the day touring Israeli settlements in the West Bank, where she met with the families of Israeli settlers who were killed by Palestinian assailants in recent weeks. Since October, Palestinians have killed 11 Israelis in a wave of stabbing and shooting attacks in Israel and the West Bank. Israel has killed more than 60 Palestinians, about half of whom were suspected assailants.
One indicator of the Israeli skepticism toward the peace process Rabin pursued is the growing belief in conspiracy theories around his assassination. Despite extensive evidence that Rabin died of gunshots fired by Israeli Yigal Amir – including Amir’s confession – a third of Israelis do not believe he is guilty.
Amir’s brother Hagai was released from prison in 2012 after serving 16 years for conspiracy in the assassination. Israeli police placed Hagai Amir under house arrest this week after he published a Facebook post that seemed to threaten President Reuven Rivlin, who pledged on Sunday to never pardon the assassin.
The only solution that doesn’t involve endless bloodshed is two states. But what happened is people just don’t believe it will happen.
Hagit Ofran, peace activist
“The time has come for Rivlin and the Zionist state to pass from this world due to the crimes they have committed against their people, and that day is not far,” Hagai Amir wrote.
As the Israeli hawks have increased in number, liberals are on the defensive.
Hagit Ofran was a counselor in the Israeli Scouts in 1995; today she snoops on Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as director of the Settlement Watch division of Peace Now. Palestinians envision the West Bank as the heart of a future state. In 2011, Israeli radicals vandalized the entrance to Ofran’s Jerusalem home with graffiti reading “Rabin is waiting for you” and “Hagit Ofran, Rest in Peace.”
“Nothing changed,” Ofran told McClatchy by phone. “Israel is still occupying all the Palestinians. The conflict is unresolved. And the only solution that doesn’t involve endless bloodshed is two states. But what happened is people just don’t believe it will happen.”
A former Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek, Dan Ephron, whose book “Killing a King” chronicles the assassination, said the American approach has also changed in the last 20 years.
“An American president spends a lot of political capital trying to bring the two sides together and it has just failed over and over again,” Ephron said. “It’s hard to see another American president making the same effort.”
Amid the rising Israeli-Palestinian violence, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in mid-October. On Saturday, he proposed installing cameras to cool tempers at Al-Aqsa mosque, revered by Muslims as the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven and by Jews as the site of the first and second temple. Current tensions have been fueled by rumors Israel is trying to expand Jewish presence on the site.
“Kerry – this is a joke in my judgment,” said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations at Bar-Ilan University. “I remember under Clinton there were even negotiations between Israel and Syria. . . . (Today) not only is the U.S. much less engaged, but the president himself is not engaged.”
Organizers of Saturday’s rally said 40,000 Israelis attended a similar event last year; they hope many more will fill Rabin Square this weekend.
Political analyst Schneider said she was not hopeful about Clinton’s ability to raise any new ideas for breaking out of the morass with the Palestinians.
“This Saturday is not going to be a peace rally or any hope for peace rally. It’s just going to be a memorial,” she said. “And it’s definitely not going to be something optimistic.”
Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.