Rabin's memory marks rift in Israel A society divided over peace prepares tribute to slain leader

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- A year after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the rift in Israeli society over the peace process and the legacy of the slain prime minister who led Israel to peace extends even to sculpture commissioned to memorialize him.

The inscription on the basalt stones to be placed in the Tel Aviv square where a religious extremist shot Rabin was to read: "May Peace Avenge His Blood."


But city officials changed it to "Peace Is His Testament," an epitaph less emblematic of the political divisiveness associated with the murder.

As Israel prepares to commemorate Rabin's death this week, the Jewish state remains divided over the land-for-peace deal brokered with the Palestinians by the former general and military pragmatist.


The decision to change the Rabin inscription reflects the split, the vilification that preceded his murder and the acrimony that followed.

After the assassination, supporters of peace with the Palestinians accused the opponents -- specifically the nationalist and religious settler movement -- of complicity in Rabin's death. They charged the hard-line opposition with creating an atmosphere that encouraged the young law student Yigal Amir to carry out his murderous plan to stop the peace process.

But the religious right was as shocked as Rabin supporters to learn that a Jew raised in a religious home had killed the Jewish prime minister. They accused the liberal, secular left of cynically using Rabin's murder to discredit the nationalist and religious movement that believes that Jews have a biblical claim to the West Bank -- ancient Judea and Samaria.

The murder was marked as a turning point in the country's history. The immediate expectation was that near-unanimous revulsion over the act would change the country in a fundamental way.

Polarization over peace

But today, many Israelis doubt that much has changed. The debate over how to achieve peace continues. Decisions are being made by a less compromising government. The discourse is less inflammatory, but the society remains as polarized.

"Tragic events don't change people's nature. Tragic events don't change people's characters," said Rabbi David Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute, an educational foundation in Jerusalem. "Changing character traits is a very slow educational process. What needs to be done is to develop a culture where people talk to each other civilly."

The two political camps continue to rail at each other over this troubled peace. And yet, as they do, each will memorialize Rabin this week for the contributions he made in war and peace.


The Labor Party, which he led, has organized seven days of events that include a torchlight march, a memorial candle-lighting in Israeli homes and an assembly in the main Tel Aviv square where he was killed after addressing a peace rally. The square is now named after Rabin.

The Likud government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is carrying out an education campaign initially planned by the Labor Party he defeated in May. Videos and posters of Rabin are being distributed. A movie of his life is planned.

The education minister, a religious Jew, has issued a long, thoughtful memo on how the anniversary of Rabin's death should be dealt with in Israeli schools. It includes the pronouncement that "we must overcome the tendency to hurt verbally he whom we oppose. An opponent is not an enemy; he who holds a different opinion is not a traitor. We must show respect for the other in the daily life."

The message pointedly seeks to discourage the kind of invective that preceded Rabin's assassination on Nov. 4, 1995, when the prime minister was bitterly denounced by the nationalist and religious right.

Demonstrators waved posters depicting Rabin in the customary Arab headdress of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. They called him a traitor and dressed his effigy in the uniform of a Nazi. Hecklers held Friday night vigils outside the Rabin apartment.

Rabin's widow, Leah, blamed them for creating the atmosphere in which her husband was assassinated. She specifically denounced Netanyahu, who attended some of the rallies. The Israeli press reported that, despite his renunciation of violence after the murder, Leah Rabin demanded that neither Netanyahu nor President Ezer Weizman speak at the graveside ceremony organized by the family this Thursday, the anniversary of the murder under the Jewish calendar.


Both men are expected to address the Knesset ceremony later that day. A representative at Leah Rabin's office said she was unavailable to be interviewed last week.

David Bar-Illan, an adviser to Netanyahu, said the most constructive way to commemorate Rabin's life and his death is through education.

"It must never become routine, another terrible event. Otherwise we are doomed to have it repeated," said Bar-Illan. "Our great pride, our basic beliefs, no matter what kind of Jews we are, whether atheist or Haredi [ultra-Orthodox], is the reverence for human life and the sense of responsibility every Jew feels for the life of another Jew."

Charles S. Liebman, a professor of religion and politics at Bar-Ilan University, said Rabin's death "didn't get interpreted as a

national symbol of mourning as it should have been because it was accompanied by attacks [against the right], as though part of the country was to blame for the assassination."

Ehud Sprinzak, an expert on extremist politics at Hebrew University, attributes part of the radicalization of the right in the months before Rabin's death to Rabin himself. He wasn't sensitive enough "to the pain of the right," many of whom believe their right to settle in the land of Israel -- including the West Bank -- is God-given.


The agreements with the Palestinians gave up Israeli control of much of that land.

As long as the conflict with the Arabs is not resolved, the rift remains, he said. The right has not received what it was promised by Netanyahu -- peace with security. And the left is frustrated and angry because, since Netanyahu's election, Israel's place in the Middle East has reverted to hostility from the Arab world, including those with whom Israel has signed peace treaties.

'A question of identity'

Tom Segev, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, argues that the Rabin assassination only widened a rift already present in Israeli society.

"These things go much deeper than the future of Hebron," said Segev, referring to the West Bank city where Israeli troops remain despite commitments to leave. "It's really a question of identity, what kind of society this society wants to be. We are in the midst of a very deep cultural confrontation."

Segev disputes the notion that the Rabin assassination affected the peace process because there is no guarantee that Rabin would have won re-election. Despite his death, the peace process goes on, and "the cultural war is going on as before."


Janet Aviat, a leader in the Peace Now movement, estimates that 20 percent to 30 percent of the country opposes the peace agreement that Rabin signed with the Palestinians. Some critics are driven by nationalistic desires, others by religious ideology.

"There has been no reconciliation with that minority," says Aviat. On the other side there are Israelis who will "not tolerate a collapse of the peace process and the destruction of the fruits of peace that all Israelis began to feel in the last two years," she said.

"Economic prosperity. International acceptance and the window of opportunity for the youth, which saw that the cycle of violence for 100 years could be broken."

Rabin offered Israelis a chance to live alongside their Arab VTC neighbors. The Israeli war-hero-turned-peacemaker decided on this route only during the turmoil of the intifada, the five-year Palestinian revolt that ended with the signing of the peace accords.

"The present situation is no hope," Aviat said, referring to the Likud government that ideologically opposes land-for-peace. "That's what Rabin changed. He opened the window here for another life. We will not let the window close."

But the very same agreement upon which Aviat pins her hopes for Israel, Eliakim Haetzni believes will lead the country to war.


A secular Jew and a lawyer, Haetzni moved to the outskirts of Hebron soon after Israel occupied the West Bank after the 1967 war.

Haetzni opposed the Oslo accords from the day they were signed. He said he has given up trying to reconcile with those he calls the peace fanatics.

"You can't appease them. You can't convince them it's impossible," he said. "What caused such a terrible rift in our nation?

"Maybe you can't force upon a nation a policy they cannot swallow," he said, noting that a large majority of Israeli Jews voted for Netanyahu in the last election.

"This terrible rift will not be reconciled by good reason, open hearts, by good will. It won't happen here until those blind fools will open their eyes to the catastrophe they brought upon us. And then it will be too late. This won't be settled with words."

Pub Date: 10/20/96