Opinion: 10 years after Rabin slaying, Israel just as restless

On a chilly, drizzly morning recently during Sukkot, a group of about 15 Israeli paratroopers paid a visit to the military cemetery at Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem. While there were memorial ceremonies scheduled later that day to honor those who had fallen in battle 32 years earlier in the Yom Kippur War, these young men were there for a different reason.

Their military guide led them directly to the section of the cemetery reserved for national leaders, and they hovered at the grave of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. There, they read Hebrew poetry and reflected on the life and death of the man whose assassination shook the country, and the world, exactly 10 years ago.

Much has changed in Israel since an assassin’s gun took Rabin away on the night of Nov. 4, 1995, but the search for peace that he championed continues to this day. Nobody can say how the events of the past tumultuous decade might have been different if he had survived, but every Israeli agrees that the Jewish state is a different place because of that night’s events.

Much like Americans and the Kennedy assassination, Israelis can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news from Tel Aviv that night. With the 10th anniversary, those memories come flowing back with vigor.

Supporters of the Oslo process who were eager to demonstrate that there was widespread popular support for the government’s policies had called a rally in downtown Tel Aviv. The enthusiastic behavior of the large crowd seemed to mean that the goal had been achieved. People brought signs, chanted slogans, heard speeches, sang songs and for a grand finale all the VIPs — topped by the premier and his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, stood in a long row on the stage, right in front of City Hall, and sang the “Song of Peace.”

If things had happened differently, the chattering classes might have spent the next few days debating whether or not Rabin should have lent his voice to a song that had been banned on state radio just a few years earlier because of its pacifist message.

But within minutes of the song’s finale, that controversy was swept aside, replaced by the stark reality of three bullets in Rabin’s back.

The prime minister was on his way into his waiting car when an Israeli law student who had been hiding nearby took aim and shot.

And everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news.

My wife and I were buying a gift for my brother-in-law, who was due to be married five days later. We had also picked up a set of tall, slender mugs with a floral pattern that had caught our eye.

We were standing at the cash register just a few minutes before 10 p.m., watching the clerk wrap our mugs, when a young lady burst into the shop and said to nobody in particular, “Have you heard?” When nobody replied, she went on to say breathlessly, “They shot Rabin!”

That’s where I was when I heard that Rabin had been shot. I will never forget that little gift shop. Rabin? Shot? This couldn’t be happening.

At the time, I was the editor of the Jerusalem Post’s weekly magazine. I knew my colleagues on the daily news side would be scrambling, but since my presence was neither required nor expected, I decided to stay with my wife. Once home, we watched everything unfold on television, drinking strong coffee out of the new mugs.

I stayed up all night, watching the world spin out of control. At 11:15 p.m. doctors pronounced the prime minister dead, and a few minutes later his top aide addressed the crowd of reporters at the hospital, saying quite simply, “Rabin is dead.”

The entire world watched as Israel went through an often ugly process of grief and recrimination. World leaders paid tribute at Rabin’s funeral at Mt. Herzl, and hundreds of thousands of people made pilgrimages to the scene of the killing and the burial site.

In time, international attention moved on to other matters, and the sharp, painful edge surrounding the first assassination of an Israeli premier began to fade.

But the impact on Israeli society has been profound. What was unimaginable a decade ago has become a very potent reality today. Soldiers visit Rabin’s grave not merely to become acquainted with their country’s history, but to be warned of the dangers inherent in the deep divisions that plague Israel. New programs have been implemented in schools aimed at teaching children to engage in civil discussion about issues that divide society. Confronting different viewpoints is difficult and often unpleasant, but it may be the best way to prevent future assassinations.

Rabin, who was killed for shaking Yasser Arafat’s hand and handing over territory, weapons and authority to the Palestinians, would not have recognized the Israel of late 2005.

He envisioned Oslo as a five-year interim period during which both sides would build trust and learn to live side by side. Even Rabin, who was famous for saying that timetables and deadlines were not sacred, would have expected the final-status deal to have been implemented by now. Instead, Israel and the Palestinian Authority remain at loggerheads, and after a relentless war of terror, Israel has embarked on a series of unilateral moves aimed less at peace, more at ensuring peace and quiet for its citizens.

Did Rabin make the right choice in recognizing the PLO? Is Israel better off because of Oslo? Or was it all a disastrous mistake? The jury’s still out, but few Israelis bother asking those questions anymore.

From the vantage point of 2005, it seems inevitable that something had to change, that the pre-1993 reality couldn’t be sustained.

Rabin was an Israeli hero, and he died as a visionary whose ideas were bogged down in deeply divisive controversy. Israel has prospered since Oslo, but it also has suffered immense pain. Israelis don’t afford themselves the luxury of looking back and wondering too much. This is the path that was chosen, and these are the consequences of those choices.

The painful acrimony that surrounded the recent withdrawal from Gaza shows just how deep the differences of opinion remain, and the fact that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is surrounded by a huge security detail underscores how seriously the worst-case scenarios are taken today.

On Friday, Nov. 4, Israelis will focus once again on Rabin — the man, the leader, what he stood for and what happened to society when healthy debate crossed the boundary into intolerance, incitement and hatred. The young paratroopers who reflected on the tragedy a few days ago in Jerusalem are part of an ongoing effort to ensure that that the lessons are learned. They are lessons that all of us must learn.

Carl Schrag is a writer and lecturer based in Chicago. He was editor of the Jerusalem Post.