by Shmuel Rosner
If you think Israel’s “right” is “nationalistic” and the “left” wants “peace,” think again.
Every five years or so I have to write about the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, that terrible event that changed Israel forever. And every time, I witness the inevitable fading of the emotional trauma. On the 10th anniversary, it was possible to remind readers that Israel is hardly the first state to have had a leader murdered; by the 14th, I was able to begin a talk about Rabin with a joke. Now, at the 20th anniversary, it’s easy to assume—with despair or triumphalism, depending on your politics—that Rabin’s legacy is fading as well.
But don’t be too sure. Rabin’s legacy is very much alive—if you interpret that legacy correctly.
Rabin, inevitably, is remembered first and foremost as the leader responsible for the Oslo process—the beginning of the long slog of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking that has thus far frustrated its practitioners. As Israel endures yet another wave of Palestinian violence, the Rabin legacy seems, again, like a loser. Peace? In our time? With the Palestinians? No way. More than 70 percent of the public, according to a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, does not believe “that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will lead in the coming years to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
But to see Rabin’s legacy as peace with the Palestinians is to make a basic, and very common, mistake—a mistake based on the assumption that in Israel there are two rival ideologies: the “nationalistic camp” (the right wing) and the “peace camp” (the left wing).
It’s more accurate to turn that view on its head. The right wing is gradually becoming the camp that believes in peace—if by “peace” you mean Israelis and Palestinians living together. The left wing—really, the centrist camp plus some of the left—is the group that believes Israelis and Palestinians, or Israelis and Arabs, cannot live together in peace and hence must broker some kind of political separation. This should properly be called the nationalist view. This is the true Rabin legacy, and it is thriving.
Consider the numbers. In that Democracy Institute survey, almost half of all Israelis, both Jews and Arabs, agreed with the statement that “the idea of two states for two peoples is dead.” Under such circumstances, more than a third of all Jews (36.3 percent) would annex the territories and establish “one state under Israeli rule on all of the land.” That is the hard-core right wing—not generally seen as peaceful, but the “peace camp” in the sense that many of its members believe that coexistence of Jews and Arabs in some kind of state is possible. (A tiny faction on the far left of Israel also believes in such an idea, in the form of a “one-state solution.”)
By contrast, most of the center-left camp, properly understood, does not believe in peace at all. It believes in separation of Arabs and Jews into two states—because, like Rabin, it does not believe that these two groups can live together in harmony, and because it wants Israel to remain both Jewish and democratic. The recent wave of violence, the sudden, random knife attacks, solidified this camp of separatists. Again, the numbers reflect this shift. In a survey by Menachem Lazar of the market research group Panels Politics in mid-October, 66 percent of Jewish Israelis supported “separation” of Jewish and Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, a clear indication that Jerusalem is not “united” despite the insistence of successive Israeli governments. Worryingly, 61 percent of Jews in that poll supported a “boycott” of Arab Israelis, because of their support of the Palestinians. Also worryingly, 58 percent support the idea of encouraging the Palestinians to “willingly transfer” themselves to other places.
These are devastating numbers, and they all point in one direction: Israeli Jews’ eroding belief in the ability of Jews and Arab Palestinians (in some cases even Israeli Arabs) to coexist in peace and their growing desire for separation. Of course, how to achieve such separation and what measures should be taken to get to a point of separation are still matters of debate. Some Jewish Israelis still think that a “two-state solution” through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is feasible. Others think that Israel has to act unilaterally and withdraw from territories in which many Palestinians live. Surely, Israelis understand that separation does not mean an Israel with no Arabs whatsoever. Rather, they hope that when Palestinians have a place of their own, the occasionally tense relations between Jews and Arabs within Israel will be defused.
This is what Yitzhak Rabin wanted. His last political campaign, in 1992, called for “taking Gaza out of Tel Aviv,” cutting the connection between Israel’s residents and the Gaza Palestinians. He believed “that in the long run, separation between Israel and the Palestinians is the best solution for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Surely, there were times in which he believed that the way to separation was through peace, through negotiations and agreements with the Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat. But it was not a coincidence that when Rabin and Arafat signed the initial agreement, when the two leaders needed to shake hands, President Clinton needed “to give Mr. Rabin just a little extra nudge in the back,” as The New York Times chronicled. He was reluctant about Arafat and wary about dreams of peace. And he was right about something else, as most Israeli Jews understand today, 20 years after the heinous crime that took him away from us: Israel’s urgent goal is not peace, but separation.
Shmuel Rosner, a Tel Aviv-based writer, editor and researcher, is a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times, political editor of The LA Jewish Journal, and a columnist for Israel’s Maariv Daily.