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Israel’s bloody anniversary gets darker each year

The first few days of November — the annual commemoration of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Nov. 4, 1995 — are a period of self-reflection and worry in Israel. “What has happened to democracy here?” some wonder. And what about peace?

From the moment extremist Yigal Amir shot Rabin, it was clear the murder was the outcome of a wider culture of demonization. Right-wing activists, angered by a deal Rabin was about to make with the Palestinians and that he might cede land to Syria, printed a poster of him with the word “traitor” and a target superimposed on his face. Another was emblazoned with “liar” and depicted Rabin wearing a kafiyeh, making him appear remarkably similar to Yasser Arafat, the detested father of Palestinian terror. A doctored photo of Rabin wearing a Nazi uniform also surfaced, though it has never been clear who created it.

Immediately after the assassination, Israel went through paroxysms of guilt. Thousands of young people, not knowing how to express their grief and shame, fashioned a new Israeli tradition of lining sidewalks with innumerable candles. President Bill Clinton coined a phrase now ubiquitous in Israeli society, especially on the left, when in his eulogy he bade Rabin farewell with the simple phrase, “Shalom, Haver.” (“Good-bye, my friend.”)

But beyond candles and words, something had to change. Civil discourse needed to be reinforced. Some Israelis sprang into action; a new model of Israeli education, a one-year pre-army year of study emerged (often with religious and secular students living and learning together), designed to focus Israel’s youth on social responsibility and the sanctity of democracy. Today there are dozens of such programs.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that some of Israel’s right wing remains unapologetic — Amir still insists he feels no remorse — and some elements of Israeli society have not abandoned the vitriol that led to a night that forever changed Israel.

A telling example has emerged in recent days. Since President Reuven Rivlin apologized for the massacre of innocent Arab citizens 58 years ago in the Israeli Arab village of Kafr Kassem, he has been the object of a campaign of incitement that looks alarmingly like the one directed at Rabin. In an image harrowingly like the one printed about Rabin — and now widely circulated in horror — he was depicted wearing a kafiyeh. The message is clear: Apologizing to an Arab makes you an enemy of the Jewish state.

One might expect that such revolting rhetoric would strengthen the left. But it has not. Former President Shimon Peres spoke to a rally on Saturday night and argued that, “Those who have given up on peace are the delusional ones … they’re the naive ones, the ones who are not patriots.” The right just scoffed. Arafat had no intention of ending his campaign to destroy Israel in 1995, was their line, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is no different.

Despite President Obama’s own delusional implication that Abbas is a moderate with a “sincere willingness” to co-exist with Israel, even centrist (and some left-wing) Israelis believe that Abbas fools the West while inciting his own street. Last week, in a comment mostly ignored by the Western press, Abbas decried the “vicious assassination” of Moataz Hejazi, a Palestinian killed by Israeli security forces after he shot a rabbi who had been an advocate for greater Jewish access to the Temple Mount. Abbas assured the murderer’s family that he will “go to heaven as a martyr defending the rights of our people and its holy places.”

Nineteen years after Rabin’s death, some of the right has moderated its language, but some has not. Right-wing commentators insist the left is just as myopic as it was two decades ago. Much of the West still refuses to see Palestinian incitement for what it is. And in pushing Israel to make a deal with Abbas, Obama simply convinces more Israelis that it’s amateur hour at the White House, so the smartest thing they can do is to lie low until he is out of office.

Nearly 20 years have passed, but little has changed. That, too, is reason for grief, largely because no matter where one looks, it’s hard to see anything better on the horizon.

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jersualem.

© 2014, Bloomberg News