A candle to the last peacemaker

As Israel commemorates the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Patrick Cockburn looks at the deepening divides in Israeli politics
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The Independent Online
A single incident this week showed Israelis that the divisions that led to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin are as deep as ever.

Yael Dayan, daughter of the famous Israeli general and a member of the Israeli Knesset, was touring Hebron, home to 100,000 Palestinians and 400 Jewish settlers. An advocate of Israeli withdrawal from the city, she was stopped by a man wearing a Jewish skullcap holding a cup in his hand. "Do you want tea?" he asked her. "Please," she replied, whereupon he hurled the boiling tea at her face, giving Dayan second-degree burns.

Israelis noticed the parallel with events a year ago when Yigal Amir, who had temporarily removed his skullcap, walked up behind Mr Rabin and pumped two expanding bullets into his back. The virulence and willingness to use violence of the extreme religious nationalists (for whom any Israeli withrawal from the West Bank is treachery to God and country) has not diminished.

There are other menacing similarities between the episode in Hebron and the death of Rabin. The man suspected by police of throwing the boiling tea is Yisrael Lederman, a resident of Jerusalem, once sentenced to 16 years for murdering a Palestinian but released after two. Later, he was charged with snatching a baby from its Palestinian mother during a riot. As with Yigal Amir, the security forces were prepared to show a high degree of tolerance towards a man who advocated and carried out violence against Palestinians and were only surprised by the fact that the violence was used against a Jew.

In the immediate aftermath of Rabin's murder, there was a rash of articles and speeches blaming his death on the right as a whole. Leah Rabin, his widow, said she had almost refused to shake the hand of Benjamin Netanyahu, now the prime minister, at her husband's funeral because she held him responsible for creating the atmosphere of violence that led up to the assassination. But within a few months, this was replaced by an ostensibly more rational approach, stressing that Amir acted almost alone.

But the first emotional reaction was the most accurate. Israeli society is deeply divided, not just between right and left but between secular and religious, between a hard core who seldom go to the synagogue and a similar number who go every day. It was the mobilisation of the ultra- orthodox and religious nationalists in the May election in that gave Netanyahu the narrowest of victories.

Even during memorial meetings yesterday these differences were visible. Members of two right-wing youth movements refused to sing the so-called Song of Peace that Rabin sang at the final peace rally in Tel Aviv, minutes before he was shot. The United Torah Judaism party, an ultra-orthodox movement, said they would yesterday be commemorating the death of Rachel, the wife of the Patriarch Jacob, and not Mr Rabin.

Are members of the secular left likely to retaliate with violence similar to that used over the last year by the religious and nationalist right? There are some signs that this is feared by the security forces. Soldiers attending a ceremony honouring the Israeli armoured corps were reportedly ordered to leave their rifles in their buses because the prime minister would be present.

The story has been denied by the Israeli army and, in any case, the most overt and effective opposition to the Netanyahu government comes from within the heart of the establishment. Last week, Professor Ze'ev Maoz, the head of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University who is close to senior army officers, coolly suggested that if Netanyahu went on disregarding the opinions of the security establishment, including the Shin Bet security agency, then a military putsch "could be attractive".

This is not likely. The middle ranks of the Israeli officer corps is today full of men who support the right-wing Likud party and wear skullcaps. But at the same time the Israeli civil and military establishment and the secular middle class, which largely support the Labour party, will not support Netanyahu in reversing Oslo, provoking another Palestinian Intifada or seriously alienating the US. His attempt to keep the army command out of negotiations with the Palestinians has been quietly reversed in recent days.

For some supporters of Oslo this is grounds for optimism. The army and the Shin Bet will not let negotiations with the Palestinisns collapse. They know that Israeli security depends on co-operation with Yasser Arafat. They despise the kitchen cabinet of Netanyahu, which told him that he could open up a tunnel in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem without provoking a Palestinian reaction. It is they who are the unsleeping guardians of Rabin's legacy.

Not everything can be blamed on Mr Netanyahu. Even if he had not won the election to be prime minister, Jewish Israeli voters - 12 per cent of the electorate is Israeli Arab - decisively opted for parties opposed to Oslo in the separate election for the Israeli Knesset. Israeli politics is dictated largely by what in Northern Ireland is called "the politics of the last atrocity". Neither Mr Rabin nor Mr Peres succeeded in making Oslo - the idea of peace for land - popular enough among Israelis and Palestinians to prevent it from being derailed by Jewish settlers and Muslim militants.

Could it have been any different? There was an instant as Mr Rabin was being buried a year ago that Mr Peres could have called an election and won a decisive majority. This might have broken the stalemate in Israeli politics in which no government is strong enough to make war or peace. The outpourings of sentimentality and schmaltz in Israel yesterday over the death of Mr Rabin masks his failure - though the task may have been impossible to persuade Israelis to offer enough land for Palestinians to agree to a real peace.