Rabin’s cult of personality in Israel

The conflict will be solved through a viable peace process, not the personalities of a few

Yitzhak Rabin casts his vote at polling station on Tuesday, June 23, 1992 in Israel's general elections. Nati Harnik / AP Photo
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Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in Tel Aviv. Over the past 20 years, a cult of personality has formed around Rabin, both in Israel and in the West, as the leader who could end the conflict. Many people maintain that the Oslo peace process, which he spearheaded, died the night that he was shot by an extremist Israeli. Indeed, former American president Bill Clinton and more than 100,000 Israelis crammed into a central square in Tel Aviv to mark the anniversary and reflect on the peace process so closely attached to his legacy.

The historical record is not nearly as favourable to Rabin as the public image. There is scant evidence to support the claim that had he survived he would have been able to steer the conflict to an equitable resolution. Rabin might not have won re-election. In the months leading to his assassination, he was trailing rival Benjamin Netanyahu by as many as 13 points.

With regard to the peace process, the facts don’t support the image of Rabin as the leader who could solve the conflict. The Israeli government, under his leadership, ramped up West Bank settlement activity. Palestinian Authority security forces, the ones that are currently policing Palestinians on the West Bank at Israel’s behest, were trained and armed during the mid-1990s. Indeed, the separation barrier, which has sliced up the West Bank in a land grab and destroyed Palestinians’ ability to work inside Israel, was devised during Rabin’s administration. The infrastructure that currently defines the conflict was partially created under Rabin’s watch. In other words, the Oslo process has entrenched the conflict, not brought it closer to resolution.

What the conflict needs is a viable peace process that reflects the rights and aspirations of both parties – and one that is much bigger than a handful of personalities. The peace process didn’t die with Rabin, it has slowly died with every decision to entrench the occupation that Israeli governments have taken since his death.

Those 100,000 Israelis in Tel Aviv shouldn’t be mourning their lost chance at peace but creating a new one by reversing the dangerous path every Israeli government has chosen. Instead, they are ensconced in the fortress that Rabin helped Israel become while Palestinians are neatly kept out of sight behind a matrix of walls and checkpoints.