As Israel remembers Rabin, his political legacy fades

The late Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel
The late Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel MCT

JERUSALEM — Fifteen years after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, his legacy of seeking peace with Palestinians is in disarray, his Labor party appears to be in shambles and the country seems much less willing to make concessions for peace.

Ceremonies were held around the country Wednesday to remember the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, but many of those who honored him also mourned the state of the causes he championed.

Rabin was shot on Nov. 4, 1995, by Jewish extremist Yigal Amir, who opposed the peace negotiations that Rabin had undertaken with the Palestinians.

Speaking at a Jerusalem event to mark the Jewish calendar anniversary of Rabin's death, Israeli President Shimon Peres said, "Don't be deterred from peace efforts, even under difficult circumstances." He stressed that those peace efforts were "Rabin's legacy."

In the years immediately after his death, Rabin was hailed as the martyr of the peace movement and the great hero of his left-of-center Labor Party.

The current round of peace talks is stuck over a dispute between Israel and the Palestinians over the government's support for expanding Jewish settlements. Few Israelis are confident that President Barack Obama can reach his goal of a peace deal within one year, and many are asking whether the legacy of the peace movement is still relevant.

The agreements Rabin reached with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to bring about Palestinian statehood are still on hold after a decade of violence, and Israel's right-wing newspapers mock the Nobel Peace Prize the two shared in 1994 in a series of satirical cartoons.

"There is a feeling that the Israeli left is rudderless, there is no one to stand up for us, to lead us, while the right-wing grows stronger and stronger," said Hagai el Ad, the head of the Israeli Association for Civil Rights.

The Labor party may not be able to muster the three seats it needs to maintain a parliamentary faction in the next elections.

For months, el Ad and several hundred other Israeli activists have taken part in demonstrations in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah to defend the Arab families fighting to keep their homes. Few Israeli leaders back the protesters, however.

"This is one of the most important causes that the Israeli left has rallied around, but we have no backing. There is no political party in the government today that is really left-wing," said Avner Inbar, one of the organizers. "So, without a leader we get smaller, and we have no representation in government."

The Meretz Party, which traditionally has been left of Labor, has shrunk to three members in the 120-seat Knesset, the Israeli parliament. The Labor Party, which was considered the mainstay of the left-wing Israel in Rabin's day with 44 seats, now holds 13.

Recent polls by Israel's Channel Two news station show Labor dwindling to four or five seats in future elections.

Speaking at an Israeli Defense Forces memorial to honor her father, Dalia Rabin said his death was "just a page in the history books," and that young Israelis already can't recall where they were the night of his death.

In an interview with Israel's biggest newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, she said the current peace negotiations had little to do with the movement Rabin started.

"They don't speak anymore about two peoples who want to cooperate and work out a system for living together," she said. These talks are coming from a different place, and that, in my opinion, is the difference. They call it a peace process, but it's not the peace that they spoke of in the '90s. It's separation."

She added that she tours the Rabin Center, dedicated to his life's work, nearly every day — but that fewer people come each year.

In the streets outside Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, where the assassination took place, few Israelis said they could define the former prime minister's legacy.

Neta Gauli, 32, said she wasn't sure what the "effect of Rabin's leadership" was, but she remembered exactly where she was the night of his death.

"I was preparing for my first week in the army. It was such a crazy time. We all felt so patriotic, so united. Even though it was one of our own that had been the assassin," she said. "I was so proud to be joining the military, even though I was left wing! I remember almost everyone was left-wing then."

Today, Gauli votes for Kadima, a middle-road party that is currently lead by Tzipi Livni, the former Foreign Minister.

"I don't know what 'left' means anymore. Everyone negotiates for peace, but nobody gets it," she said.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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