Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated at a peace rally on Nov. 4, 1995. The day 25 years ago marks one of the lowest moments in Israeli—and even Jewish—history. This is not, as many believe, because Rabin’s assassination killed the Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. It didn’t. Hamas terrorism and Yasser Arafat’s lies did that. But that makes it no less essential to memorialize and even ritualize Rabin’s death. As the prime minister warned minutes before his murder: “Violence erodes the basis of Israeli democracy. It must be condemned and isolated.”
After two bullets felled Rabin, the Israeli democratic miracle that the Jewish people had built since 1948 seemed in danger. But at Rabin’s funeral the eulogies didn’t stress a unifying, nonpartisan worry about democracy, peace or national survival; instead, they emphasized one political camp’s fear that the Oslo process was threatened. President Bill Clinton defined Rabin as “a martyr for peace” rather than an avatar of democracy. Oslo—one diplomatic strategy that had already begun to fail—was in this way consecrated and romanticized. Rabin’s legacy became about perpetuating “his” peace process.
This spin overlooked Rabin’s growing skepticism about Palestinian intentions as Hamas bombs exploded and Arafat, president of the new Palestinian Authority, green-lighted terrorism. Rabin was particularly devastated by the Bus No. 5 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv on Oct. 19, 1994, in which 22 civilians were murdered, and the Beit Lid bus stop suicide bombings on Jan. 22, 1995, whose perpetrators murdered 20 young soldiers and one civilian. The Beit Lid attack also included an aborted plan to ambush Rabin. But Rabin’s doubts were buried with him.
We have opposed the Oslo Accords since Rabin signed them in 1993. Installing a dictator like Arafat in Ramallah was a strange way to make peace. Predictably, his regime oppressed Palestinians and threatened Israelis. The assassination abruptly shifted our energies from debating Oslo to mourning our leader.
The conventional wisdom is that Rabin’s assassin killed hope for peace. True, the evil act was intended to derail Oslo, but it backfired. Making Rabin a peace-process martyr artificially extended Oslo’s life. Suddenly, peace-process skeptics found themselves accused of pleasing the murderer. Sighing “If only Rabin were alive,” Oslo’s champions across the world could blame Israel for every clash, absolving Arafat and Palestinian terrorists of responsibility.
For 25 years the perpetual peace-processors have demanded more Israeli concessions, believing that one more withdrawal or gesture will appease Palestinian maximalists. There is a magical faith that if only a brave leader like Rabin emerged, he could bring peace whatever the circumstances—whether Israel’s partner recognizes its right to exist or not.
As Jews, the world experts at turning tragedies into nation-building opportunities, we should have used Rabin’s monstrous murder to restore unity and strengthen democracy. Unfortunately, partisan furies overpowered metaphysical hopes.
Likud’s unexpected victory over Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres, in 1996 further fouled the atmosphere. Peres’s disappointed supporters blamed the victor, Benjamin Netanyahu, for the rhetoric that killed Rabin. “First you murdered, then you stole” the election, some Peres supporters cried. Only a few made this awful accusation publicly, but many believed it privately. Nearly everyone on Israel’s left blamed anyone on Israel’s right for Rabin’s death—and for anything else that misfired with the Palestinians. Every Oslo critic became a Brutus.
These ridiculous accusations helped right-wing ideologues dodge the hard questions and necessary soul-searching about their behavior during the anti-Oslo campaign: Did we cross the line with posters of Rabin in an Arafat-style kaffiyeh or an SS uniform? Did we dehumanize our opponents? Did we fuel the lynch-mob atmosphere?
If memorializing Rabin remains so intertwined with idealizing Oslo, the magnitude of the assassin’s crime risks being minimized when peace finally breaks out or a different approach works. Today the Abraham Accords offer a new and improved model of peacemaking. Rather than trusting demagogues like Arafat, who need Israel as the Palestinians’ enemy for their own survival, the latest agreements are with willing partners in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. By normalizing relations, the plan is to build trust from the bottom up through cultural, economic and diplomatic exchange.
It is time to stop politicizing Rabin’s assassination, a tragedy of biblical proportions. Let’s master the moral lesson about debating with raised voices and firm principles without turning violent or writing off one another. Building on tradition, this awful anniversary should become a new Jewish fast day. It would make a moral statement: We affirm the importance not of mere tolerance, but of true acceptance of our fellow citizens and their right to disagree with us.
Mr. Sharansky was a political prisoner in the Soviet Union and a minister in four Israeli governments. Mr. Troy is a professor of history at McGill University. They are co-authors of “Never Alone: Prison, Politics, and My People,” on which portions of this article are based.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.