The day the Israeli dream died

The Jewish state believed in its unity. Patrick Cockburn analyses the tensions too strong to beat
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The Independent Online
The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was the result of a gamble that failed. His government believed that by ignoring the extreme religious right-wingers who saw the peace process as a betrayal of Israel it could isolate and marginalise them. It made no effort to disarm them, despite their repeated threats that they would resort to violence.

The peace rally at which he died was a perfect illustration of the strategy. Tens of thousands of Israeli supporters of the peace process stood in Tel Aviv's main square, singing and chanting for peace. In a side street stood stood a huddle of right-wingers holding a placard promising "a rope for the traitors". But it was a bullet, not a rope, that killed the "traitor" - and may have ended for ever the dream of Jewish unity that sustained the state of Israel for 47 years.

It is a nation whose citizens come from scores of different countries, with a fragmented political system that gives influence to the tiniest of parties, where there are myriad tensions between the religious and the secular, the Ashkenazi (Eastern European) and Sephardi (Middle Eastern) Jews, between groups of immigrants and competing brands of Zionism. Israelis pride themselves on their tough, argumentative, macho natures, but until yesterday they believed the threat from outside would enable them to bridge any divisions within.

Mr Rabin's policy of marginalising his opponents almost succeeded. Right-wing demonstrations in recent months have been ill-attended. The 140,000 Israeli settlers in the occupied territories received only lukewarm support from Likud, the mainstream party of the right. The opponents of progressive Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank became increasingly desperate after Mr Rabin and Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, signed an agreement in Washington on 28 September that within a few months Israeli troops are to withdraw from the main Palestinian cities and the peace agreement will become irreversible.

Politicians and security officials saw there was a danger that the most extreme enemies of the peace process would resort to violence. The Israeli press has been speculating on the chances of a repeat of last year's atrocity when Baruch Goldstein, a religious settler, slaughtered 29 Muslims in a mosque in Hebron. "The script was written," said Professor Ehud Sprinzak, an expert on the radical right at Hebrew University. "The potential assassins were there. Over the last week I have been worried sick. Rabin was shown in posters in an Arab keffiyeh [headdress] like Arafat, with his hands covered in blood. At a demonstration in Jerusalem there was a picture of him in SS uniform." The demonisation set the stage for assassination.

In mid summer the bodyguards around Mr Rabin and Shimon Peres were strengthened. But Yigal Amir, the assassin, was able to own a pistol while associating with extreme groups and distributing anti-Rabin leaflets. Twice before this year he is said to have attended meetings addressed by the prime minister in the hope of making an attack. For all the forewarnings about violence - and Mr Rabin's assassination was frequently predicted - Amir came within a few feet of him, despite the presence of 700 police. Perhaps they couldn't believe an Israeli Jew would ignore communal solidarity and kill their prime minister.

The assassination can only sharpen the deep differences in Israel between secular and religious Jews. The vast majority of Israelis are secular, but the religious are far more numerous than just the ultra- orthodox in their black hats and suits. Since the founding of the state, when some early Zionists dreamt of a secular socialist nation and others worked to build a country based on strict orthodox Judaism, the differences have been deepening as increasingly religious Israelis combined territorial nationalism with cultural exclusiveness.

The religious-secular tensions always shaped Israeli electoral politics. In 1977, Mr Rabin's first government was brought down because of religious protests over a ceremony to receive US fighter aircraft on the Sabbath. The three most famous acts of political violence by Israelis during the past 15 years were all carried out by students from religious seminaries - a grenade thrown into a demonstration of Israelis against the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Goldstein's massacre in Hebron and now the assassination of Mr Rabin.

How far has Amir succeeded in derailing the peace process? Yossi Sarid, a senior minister, said: "The prime minister has been assassinated, but the policies of this government have not been assassinated." Mr Peres, who has been more committed than Mr Rabin to the peace process but who is less popular with the electorate, becomes prime minister. Binyamin Netanyahu, Likud's leader, will tone down his opposition to withdrawal and Palestinian self-rule. To stand a chance of winning the next election, he needs to refute accusations that his overheated attacks on Mr Rabin's government created the atmosphere in which the assassination took place.

This gives Mr Peres room to manoeuvre in the short term. He could even try to capitalise on the discrediting of the far right by holding a snap election in three months' time - though this could delay the withdrawal process. This would be a dangerous manoeuvre. Israel's divisions about Palestinian self-rule will not go away. In Mr Rabin the Labour Party has lost its best vote-winner. It will try to persuade voters that opposition to the peace process is a vote for the politics of Amir, but it may not succeed.

At the same time, the agreements with the Palestinians have their own momentum, even if they are not very popular with either side. Polls show that a majority of Israelis dislike and distrust Mr Arafat, but a majority also feel they must go on talking to him. They do not necessarily want to withdraw, but they also do not want to face the alternative - which is to fight.

Many Palestinians are equally unimpressed. Israel will still have overall military control of the West Bank. But there is a deep desire to see Israeli troops withdraw, even if it is only to the edge of town. Mr Arafat may not have got Palestinians what they want, but he has won them more than they had before. His opponents have failed to mobilise popular support, despite the many failings of Mr Arafat's authoritarian government. Ordinary Palestinians do not believe there is an alternative policy. Leaders of Hamas, the largest extremist Islamic organisation, admit they are in disarray despite their campaign of Israeli bus bombings that has caused great anguish in the Jewish state.

The distress of the bus bombings, however great, was nothing compared with yesterday's shock of violence by one Jew against another Jew. Liberal Israelis were yesterday hoping the trauma would discredit the opposition to the peace process and the messianic religious zealots alike. Some settler leaders sounded abashed by the consequences of their rhetoric. But this is probably only temporary. The divisions that led to the assassination are too deep to be overcome. In the past, friction between Israel and the outside world masked - both to foreigners and to Israelis themselves - the deep tensions within the country, which on Saturday exploded into violence. Along with Mr Rabin will be buried the idea that Jewish communal solidarity makes Israel different and more united than other states.