10 years after Rabin killing, Sharon has emerged as his heir

jerusalem | As world leaders gather in Israel to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, Nov. 4, Israelis are asking to what extent the killer’s bullet changed the course of Israeli-Palestinian history.

Had Rabin lived, would the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been resolved? Or would the peace process he started still have unraveled?

The latter possibility raises additional questions: If Rabin realized that the Oslo process was a debacle, would he have continued to insist on a negotiated peace deal? Or, like Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, would Rabin have concluded that without a credible Palestinian peace partner, Israel should set its borders unilaterally?

The legacy Rabin left is not simple. His life as soldier and peacemaker underlined the Sisyphean struggle to keep Israel strong and, when possible, to cut peace deals with its neighbors. His death highlighted the need for greater tolerance in Israel’s politically divided society.

A decade after the assassination, it’s not clear how much of Rabin’s legacy has been implemented. Though left-wing politicians such as Yossi Beilin, who sponsored the “Geneva Accord” peace initiative, try to present themselves as the successors to Rabin’s legacy, a recent poll in the Yediot Achronot newspaper shows that 24 percent of Israelis see Sharon — the Likud Party leader who vehemently opposed Oslo during Rabin’s lifetime — as Rabin’s true heir.

Only Shimon Peres, with 27 percent, outpolled Sharon in that survey — but 73 percent hold that Rabin’s and Peres’ own Labor Party is doing little to promote the slain leader’s legacy.

The poll also shows that nearly 70 percent believe another political assassination is likely in Israel.

Rabin wanted to be a water engineer, but his belief in the need for a strong army made him a general. He was always defense-minded, a man with limited faith in the goodwill of Israel’s neighbors and a conviction that only a militarily strong Israel can survive in the Middle East.

For Rabin, the main strategic goal was to secure Israel’s survival in a tough neighborhood. Peace was a means to that end, not an end in itself.

In 1993, Rabin cautiously embraced the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians in the hope that it would lead to Israel’s acceptance in the region, but he insisted that it be reversible: If the process threatened Israel’s security instead of advancing it, he insisted, Israel would be able to revert to the pre-Oslo status quo. Some see that as a shocking bit of naïvete from a man who at other times displayed keen strategic thinking.

Rabin called Oslo “an experiment in laboratory conditions,” which he believed could be stopped at the first signs of failure. It’s not clear whether Rabin would have stuck to that principle had he lived, since many Israeli politicians who initially were skeptical of the peace process felt constrained to see it through, even as evidence that the process was failing became overwhelming.

Five years after Rabin’s death, the Oslo concept was put to the test at Camp David in July 2000. It failed. Then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak was unable to reach agreement with then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The result was nearly five years of Palestinian terrorism. Yet Barak, and many in Labor and parties further to the left, insist that if negotiators do get back to work one day they should pick up roughly from where Barak’s team left off.

Some speculate that Rabin might have succeeded where Barak failed, arguing that he would not have labored under the burden of the three-year interruption under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which Palestinians claim eroded their confidence in the Oslo process.

Moreover, unlike Barak, Rabin was trusted and even liked by Palestinian leaders — though it’s not clear if Arafat’s protestations of affection for Rabin after his death were anything more than crocodile tears.

And no one will ever know, by force of his personality, whether Rabin could have overcome the huge differences between Israel and the Palestinians on basic issues such as refugees, Jerusalem and borders.

Many believe that if Rabin had failed to bridge those gaps, he would have called an end to the Oslo experiment and gone down the unilateral route — the way Sharon has done, and for much the same reasons.

Rabin’s strategic outlook was very close to Sharon’s: Like Sharon, he put a premium on close ties with the United States, prioritized the achievement of a state of non-belligerency with potential adversaries and recognized the long-term demographic problem caused by Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

That in itself probably would have been enough to lead Rabin down the unilateral road.

The fact that so many Israelis see Sharon as Rabin’s heir is one of the most significant facts in Israeli politics today: It’s symptomatic of the blurring between security-minded peacemaking in Labor and Likud and the creation of a new ideological center in Israeli politics, in which both Rabin and Sharon are iconic leadership figures.

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