November 4th marked two key ceremonial activities in Israel – the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, and the subsequent hand-wringing over his legacy.
Rabin was killed 14 years ago by a religious Jew, Yigal Amir, who feared Rabin’s commitment to peace. Rabin was a former general serving his second stint as Israeli Prime Minister (the first coming in the 1970s), forged the Oslo Peace Accords with PLO president Yasser Arafat and made peace with Jordan and King Hussein in 1994.
Despite those positive contributions, Rabin’s legacy is unclear. Much recent talk has centered on the unsatisfying nature of the peace with Jordan, on both sides. Oslo is viewed, at best, as a flawed, quixotic process that was too broad and lacking in details to have a chance at success, and at worst as either a betrayal of Israel or a direct cause for the second Intifada.
A martyr for peace, as he was termed in the immediate aftermath of his death, Rabin’s memory as a leader draws less criticism than his efforts. In light of his international renown and success in leading the country in a new direction, even if a controversial one here, Rabin has earned many followers from across the political spectrum. In fact, everybody wants to be the next Rabin.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees Rabin as a model both because Rabin had a successful second go around as PM (Netanyahu’s first try came in the election after Rabin’s death) and in his aim to form a secure peace. Never mind that Netanyahu hasn’t been able to commit to even the slightest freeze in the settlements to get the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations going, nor has he shown much signs of taking Syrian President Bashar Assad up on his offer for peace talks, insisting so far on direct negotiations rather than getting a mediator
Ehud Barak, Rabin’s successor as leader of the once vaunted Labor Party, has similar problems. Barak is not exactly on a hot streak after losing 6 seats for his party in the last election and then joining and legitimizing Netanyahu’s government to a degree even though it went against the wishes of half of his party. Now he has been raked over the coals for staying in a 5-star hotel with his whole entourage for a recent conference in Paris, has been the most unwilling key member in the government to deal with the Goldstone report responsibly or begin negotiations with the Palestinians properly, and has chased off a faction of the Labor party.
Even President Barack Obama has aspirations of living up to what Rabin started. A fine thing, but his efforts have so far been muddled on the settlement issue and a lack of creative ways to get around it and restart negotiations. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s back and forth between praising Netanyahu for unprecedented understanding on the settlements in Jerusalem and reiterating that he hasn’t done enough and that the U.S. is still against the settlements in Marrakesh was a fine illustration of the confusion.
Beyond his status as a cipher, what is left of Rabin? What can be grasped from his legacy that might actually apply to the political figures mentioned above? In two words: Political Will.
Polls have shown that the majority of citizens on both sides of the conflict see the same solution as likely – the majority of the West Bank and Gaza forming the Palestinian state, with Israel compromising in some way to make East Jerusalem the capital of Palestine, and the Palestinians compromising in some way on the refugees issue. The settlements are untenable over the long haul for Israel, just as Hamas’ use of force and lack of recognition of the state of Israel will not hold. A one-state solution is viewed as a toxic option for Israel due to demographics. In essence, the ends are known, but the means are hard to come upon, especially when trust and faith are lacking.
What Rabin did well was use political will and take risks. By taking part in Oslo, he gave a framework for peace, even if it suffered from being vague. He made clear that Israel was going to makes sacrifices to fulfill their stated wish for peace. He earned friends and more importantly, respect abroad, not by acquiescing but by acting. That especially is a foreign idea around these parts.
What Rabin failed to do, or perhaps couldn’t do, was marshal political will from the public. A heavy delegitimization campaign led up to the assassination, and the country is still obviously torn over the steps he took to achieve peace. No conflict resolution can be complete without the support of the people. Rabin reached too far without having a ground to stand upon.
If President Obama wants to follow Rabin’s general lead in Israel, he can do it by making a clear stand on whatever issues the U.S. views as vital in the matter – settlements and restarting negotiations, for example. He’s shown plenty of willingness to put his neck out on issues like health care and Iran, but with Israel he still hasn’t exerted all his options, whether by tying support on the Goldstone issue to restarted peace or talking about restricting Israel’s aid.
Netanyahu, for all we know, could be following Rabin’s steps; so far he’s been most concerned about staying in power and pleasing his base as much as he can, which could be considered a marshalling of political will. Still, half a year into his term, he has yet to show signs he’s willing to use that capital to make changes. Coming from the right, Netanyahu has the ability to reach and convince more Israelis on the ground, and whether it’s on the Syria front or with the Palestinians, he has the chances to make huge strides diplomatically. If he’s willing.
We hear Rabin praised for bringing peace, and we hear vows that his life was not in vain, and that his goals will not be forgotten. Unanswered will be the question whether anyone on any side is willing to the price needed for peace. After all, Rabin paid the ultimate one, and it has not proven to be enough.