April 26, 2000
Lift your eyes with hope/Not through the rifle sights, Sing a song for love/And not for wars. Don't say the day will come/Bring the day for it is not a dream, And within all the city's squares/Cheer only peace. These words, part of the anthem of the Israeli peace movement, were among the last uttered by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin before he was gunned down by a right-wing zealot after attending a peace rally in Tel Aviv's main square November 4. "Shir L'Shalom" was written in 1969, as a protest against the deadly war of attrition between Israel and Egypt that dragged on after the Six-Day War. Controversial then because it suggested that the government wasn't making enough efforts to seek peace--the Army commander for the West Bank, Rehamim Ze'evi, now the leader of a far-right party in the Knesset, banned it-- "Shir L'Shalom" was eventually endorsed by the Army's chief education officer and went to number one on the charts. That Rabin was even addressing a rally that was virtually a Peace Now event was itself extraordinary--not so much for Peace Now's support for Palestinian statehood, a principle Rabin had not yet endorsed, but for what it said about how far the Prime Minister had traveled politically in his lifetime. During Israel's War for Independence, as a brigade commander, Rabin had personally carried out orders to expel some 50,000 Palestinian Arabs from the towns of Lydda and Ramleh. "Great suffering was inflicted on the men taking part in the eviction action ....[who] had been inculcated with values such as international brotherhood and humaneness," Rabin wrote in his memoirs. His troops were socialists, as was Rabin, but saw that internationalism was incompatible with the needs of the state; the hard men who built Israel gave themselves over to the pragmatism of "creating facts on the ground." And so Rabin was part of the Labor government that sanctioned the first illegal settlements in the West Bank, and later as Defense Minister he called for "might, force and beatings" as his response to the Palestinian Intifada. As the Mossad-style killing in Malta of an anti-Israeli Islamic militant just a few weeks ago showed, the idea that one could countenance murder for the security of the state--perversely adopted by Rabin's killer and his apologists--was apparently never renounced by Rabin. And yet, in his last years, Rabin had begun to shift. Abandoning Labor's long-standing refusal to talk with the Palestinians' chosen representatives, he struck a deal with Yasir Arafat and declared "the end of the dream of Greater Israel." New facts were created that may eventually lead to self-determination for the Palestinians: Soon the Israeli Army will begin withdrawing from West Bank population centers and Palestinians will elect a representative council. The Rabin-Arafat accords are far from perfect--indeed, there is danger now that the situation will be frozen, with the Palestinians in a kind of permanent second-class, quasi-state limbo. But a psychological breakthrough has happened. Which is why the Israeli right has become so desperate. In the months leading up to Rabin's assassination, its rhetoric and acts grew darker and bloodier. One left-wing cabinet minister was nearly run off the highway while driving; another almost had his car overturned when he passed a right-wing rally. (Indeed, it was these worrisome events that convinced Rabin to attend Saturday's "Yes to Peace, No to Violence" demonstration.) Having failed in the Knesset to block the coming troop redeployments, it was almost inevitable that some far-right militants would turn from the ballot to the bullet. There is much blather now from the political right (both in Israel and among Jews in the United States) about "national unity," and ending the violent rhetoric and acts "on both sides." But, as leftist writers and friends have been quick to note, the murderers come from only one side of the political map. Peace Now demonstrators may have indeed carried signs during the Lebanon War of 1982 reading "Sharon is a Murderer" (which he was), but no one in the dovish camp ever took that as a call to violence. If anything, Peace Now members were the ones attacked at their own demonstrations, and, in one noted case, even killed. Rabin's widow Leah is right to lay blame at the feet of Likud opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu: not only did he regularly participate at anti-peace rallies where the Prime Minister was labeled a traitor and worse, he and his party and its allies have long employed physical violence and threats as a means of intimidating left-leaning voters. There is also much talk now about upholding Rabin's legacy and continuing the peace process. These are noble goals, but only if understood as leading to security and justice for Israelis and Palestinians. Rabin's successor, Shimon Peres, may be ready to move toward Palestinian statehood, but he is not as strong a political figure. He will need help. The European Community should reassert its role. As for Washington, it must stop quietly taking positions to the right of Rabin on such issues as the settlements--which it no longer calls "obstacles to peace"--or the occupied territories themselves--which it now refers to more meekly as "disputed" territories. And Clinton, who still thinks the Middle East is a foreign policy success for him, can no longer bask in the glow of one September handshake, hoping that it alone will make the day of peace come.