THE SPINE NOVEMBER 2, 2009
This coming Wednesday will be the 14th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin at a Tel Aviv rally for the Oslo peace accords. Like the initial rally itself, the memorial--scheduled for Saturday, October 31, but postponed due to what turned out to be only light rains--was to be a highly charged political event. Except that in 1995, Israel was still stirred by hopes of bringing the decades of war with the Arabs to an end. Yet, at the same time, foreboding grew that these hopes themselves constituted a trap, a mortal trap. (I admit that, already in September 1993 during the ceremonial handshakes on the White House lawn from which Oslo emerged, I felt like a mourner at the wedding feast. And the fact is that I did not go, Al Gore's imprecations to the contrary. The New Republic editorial roughly reflected this disposition.) From the edges but mostly from the edges of the Israeli right this discord turned into hatred and vengeance. When Rabin was getting into his car to go home a young man, a self-designated emissary, calmly stepped from the crowd and shot two bullets from his Beretta semi-automatic pistol into the prime minister's body. Rabin was dead within 40 minutes.
I was in Israel, having dinner with friends at a Jerusalem restaurant, the night the assassination occurred. I remained for the funeral and stayed on for a few days thereafter to experience the aftermath. Israel went into spectral mourning, and even among the Zionist ultra-right there was some self-reproach. The left, although traumatized by the shooting of someone who was for them a very new and remote hero, did its utmost to get what it could politically from the murder. It is his killing that made him their lion.
Every year, when the yahrzeit of the killing comes around, the remaining faithful of Oslo, an ever-declining cohort, by now a pathetic cohort, tries to stir up the memories and the hopes. It is a forlorn venture. Almost nobody believes in "peace now" or, for that matter, in "peace soon." There may be a few handfuls who can still see "peace in our time." But that is not a politics; it is a disposition. Now this cosmic and concrete pessimism can change on a dime or on 10 agurot. Still, this is the public temper now and it has been the public temper for a long time.
Hard as you may have to swallow to believe this, it is Bibi Netanyahu who is keeping Israeli policy flexible enough to move when Palestinian politics opens up. In fact, he is ready to ban all new settlement construction permits which Hillary Clinton herself has dubbed "unprecedented" in the history of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But, just in the last few weeks, while Bibi has been more and more accommodating, Mahmoud Abbas has been more and more negative and abrasive. (Will someone at the New York Times recognize this incontrovertible fact?) The Palestinians have fabricated a crisis over the Temple Mount during this time, threatening a new intifada in the West Bank which would, of course, abort the eased security regulations in the territory, retard the fast-growing prosperity in its cities and towns and encumber the American-trained Palestinian soldiery from doing what a domestic soldiery needs to do. Now, that would be progress, wouldn't it?
The fact is that Yitzhak Rabin, a hero from 1948 to 1967, is no longer a hero in Israel. He is a memory, a gauzy memory, to be sure; and sometimes the mention of his name brings tears to the hearer. Ariel Sharon is also no longer a hero but a memory, still breathing but not really alive. He is tended to by his sons, faithful past the end. And, by the time Moshe Dayan died, he with the one eye-patch, this daring fighter had also been passing before the critical scrutiny of historians and history. Not one of these knights matched his own legend.
Rabin was a very special case. He was not an especially gracious man, not that heroes need be gracious: he was stand-offish, remote, even impatient. But he conveyed a sense of intellectual solidity and responsibility. Alas, his last great act turned out not to be so great after all. It required of his followers that they relinquish territories that he had sworn them not to forsake at peril to the survival of the state: the Golan Heights, for example and specific parts of the West Bank where Jewish patrimony and Israeli safety are coterminous. He did not have to face fully the historical urgency of the future of Jerusalem. Still, as the years passed since his murder, his moral authority simply eroded. And it eroded due to what the Palestinians did to his trust. One post-script to the narrative: "Oslo" began as a conspiracy without but against Rabin, a conspiracy initiated by his long-time adversary, Shimon Peres, whom he despised...despised...and by the deceitful Yossi Beilin, whom Rabin called "Peres' poodle."
Who knows whether, had he lived, he would have been able to sustain the optimism that peace was on its way? Perhaps he would have somehow convinced the Palestinian polity, about which he was without illusion, to alter both its thinking and behavior. Just writing this now, however, makes me feel, well, more than a bit silly.
This was not about Rabin, this failure of the right history to happen. It was about Yassir Arafat and his minions, who had always played reckless with their own Palestinians. If you take a look at a photograph of Arafat and Rabin shaking hands at the White House on September 13, 1993 you can see the disgust in the prime minister's eyes, almost a portrait of self-reproach. He may have intuited the outcome. Not, mind you, the assassination. But the betrayal by his "peace partners."
There are other reasons for the lowering of Rabin's estimation in the eyes of his nation. And the truth is that modern nations don't revere their leaders, not certainly as they used ti. History moves too quickly. And, in a way, it sees more than it used to.
The corruption at the top of Israeli politics, now almost endemic, quite frankly started with the Rabins, Yitzhak and Leah. The previous prime ministers had been--how to say it?--well, they were actually true ascetics. David Ben Gurion, who lived out his life with his books on his Spartan kibbutz Sde Boker. The Zionist diplomat Moshe (Shertok) Sharett. Levi Eshkol who made Israel productive but not himself prosperous. Golda Meir, who had many passions (she loved music, actually cello music, and she had many lovers) but not for style or cash. And, then, of course, Menachem Begin, a true ascetic (whom Henry Rosovsky, David Landes and Michael Walzer visited in 1970 in his three-room "English basement" apartment where he had hidden from the pre-state British Mandate police and where he died.) These were austere people.
And, then, suddenly came Leah and Yitzhak, high livers who in a country still alienated from high living cut their swath. Rabin's first term as prime minister was cut short by a petty (actually utterly insignificant) banking scandal. On this count, the rest is history. No one could swear that Israel has had a pecuniarily honest p.m. since.
I've visited the Rabin Memorial twice, a beautiful structure designed by my architect friend Moshe Safdie, whose work I've written about here several times. Alas, it yearns for a theme and a narrative that could fill the gorgeous envelope. There is none.
I've taken up this space not because I wanted to write about Yitzhak Rabin. But because I wanted to write about the notion that Barack Obama and his people (these are the Obami, a word I have shamelessly stolen from the very gifted Jennifer Rubin at Contentions) have that the best way they have to getting to the people of Israel, whose alienation from them it is evident they grasp, is through linking themselves to the assassinated prime minister. Two articles in Ha'aretz--both on October 29, "Obama to tell Rabin memorial: US-Israel is unbreakable"; and "Obama sends Rabin memorial video, in bid to woo Israelis"- elaborate this point.
Beware, Barack. Beware, Rahm. Beware, David Axelrod. This merely confirms my fears that I have enunciated here before: you haven't a clue.
In fact, the notion that the ghost of Rabin can be a conduit from the president to the people Israel is only a display of the incomprehension you have shown in dealing with the Jewish state from the start. The Israelis are so far beyond Rabin's formulae and nostrums, beyond even his instinctive and healthy suspiciousness and his allergy to "feel good." You do remember that it was candidate Obama himself who drew the sharp line between himself and the Likud, a gratuitous distinction now that Israel is governed by a coalition in which the Labor leader, Ehud Barak, just about as hawkish as the Likud's Bibi, is defense minister. The few Labor doves, who sit in the Knesset back benches, were in Washington at the J Street mishap.
Indeed, the Israeli political system watched in utter (but almost comic) disbelief as the president attempted to get fundamental concessions from Jerusalem while letting the Palestinians off the hook. Which is, as you know, just how they took it. They did nothing. And suddenly the president and secretary Clinton, who had been so frosty with the Israelis and Hillary really frosty, as only she can be, had to change not only their tune but their very line to find some stasis for themselves. You are back where you started. And, by the way, did the Saudis help any?
You also sent Susan Rice to Jerusalem ten days ago to speak at President Peres' annual self-celebration. Laura Rozen writes in Politico that Peres had taken a shining to her and so was more than delighted to have her attend his fest. I wonder who thought this was a significant venue.
Anyway, it's only airfare. But she herself is also the wrong messenger because she carries the wrong message. It is Ambassador Rice, after all, who persuaded the president that U.S. membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council would, to mix a metaphor, cut its claws. This was part of the administration's great rap about "engagement." A few weeks ago we would have said: "We shall see." We've already seen.