As peace hopes fade, so do Israel's memories of Yitzhak Rabin


McClatchy Newspapers

TEL AVIV — A dozen students on a field trip stood in front of the Yitzhak Rabin memorial in Tel Aviv on Tuesday to mark the anniversary of the former prime minister's assassination.

Several smoked cigarettes and stole glances at the shop windows across from the black slab of stone that marks the spot where Rabin was shot as he attended a rally in support of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians. A few hours later, fewer than a dozen members of Rabin's former government stood in the same spot to honor their murdered leader.

Their numbers were in stark contrast to 16 years ago, when millions of Israelis filled the square as the country stood still, shrouded in mourning for the popular leader of Israel's peace camp.

Today, Rabin's legacy has been recast, if not cast aside. The once-popular peace movement now lies dormant, moribund, some would say, as Israeli and Palestinian leaders exchange mutual blame for the lack of progress.

Rabin's Labor party has shrunk to eight seats in the 120-member Parliament, and it's currently losing its core group of voters to the hawkish Likud and Israeli Beiteinu parties.

And while Rabin's name stood sacrosanct in the years following his death, recalled by prime ministers who vied to be seen as his successor, his name now conjures a more confusing legacy for many young Israeli adults.

"I was so young when he died, but I still have the memory of everyone crying," said Jonathan Sapir, 27. "My mom couldn't stop crying and she told me that we lost our greatest leader. Then I grew up and I started to have questions. I mean, do we seriously want the peace process? He might have given up too much and been perceived as weak by the Arabs, you know?"

His parents may have voted Labor, but the whole family now supports the right-wing Likud movement, led by current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sapir said.

"There was the intifada," Sapir said, referring to a Palestinian uprising, "and everyone questioned if this was really the people we were trying to make peace with. There is a different atmosphere now on the street."

This year will be the first without a large public rally to commemorate Rabin's death. The decision was made by his daughter, Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, after last year's memorial drew a meager crowd of several thousand that failed to fill the square. Instead, a small memorial was held by those who knew him, and the Israeli parliament will mark a special session in his honor on Wednesday.

His daughter, who now chairs the Yitzhak Rabin Centre, said that she canceled the rally because "the rally costs half a million shekels yearly. ... Spending such an amount on a rally that in my opinion has exhausted itself as a memorial format is unnecessary."

Rabin's family has also asked that money from the state budget for Rabin's memorial events be redirected into private groups that can better honor his legacy.

"They don't like to see the politicians with their fake smiles of condolence hold longwinded speeches that use Rabin for their own political motives," said one volunteer with the center, who spoke to McClatchy without official clearance from the group and asked not to be identified.

Rabin's sister, Rachel Yaakov, conveyed a similar sentiment Friday at Rabin's grave outside Jerusalem.

"They have no interest in remembering (Rabin). The current political establishment wants to obscure his character and not talk about the assassination," she said.

Instead, she charged, the politicians now in charge supported the extremist groups that created an environment that gave rise to Yigal Amir, the right-wing zealot who assassinated Rabin.

"This was a political murder that didn't come out of nowhere. It was directed and organized incitement. It wasn't casual," she said.

In the years since Rabin's death, his killer has grown in popularity within certain extremist groups. Hardliners in Israel's settlement movement have expressed thanks to Amir and supported his wife and family as saviors of the settlement movement.

Earlier this year, a group of extremist settlers sprayed graffiti on a Muslim cemetery that praised Amir as a "true hero" of the Jewish people.

Ephraim Sneh, a former cabinet minister under Rabin, said that Israel had "let the Yigal Amirs of Israel win."

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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