I arrived in Tel Aviv two days after the assassination. The atmosphere was immersive. The square was flooded with candles burning all night and people mourning. They mourned the dead and themselves together. Those nights in Tel Aviv of mourning, mourning and anguish were one of the most moving experiences of my 40-something years in journalism. I came back with the belief that Rabin’s blood would forever change Israel, sterilize that difficult, complicated, imperfect and very fragile peace process. That, despite the many problems of the specific agreements (“a bad deal, but the best we can have in a bad situation,” Arafat had said), the peace process, which had begun with the recognition of the state of Israel by the PLO and its own recognition by Israel, there was no going back.
I fell out. In the elections that followed the following May, a large majority of Arab-Israelis, who were 14% of the electorate, did not support the peacemakers, voted blank and void. Shimon Peres, Rabin’s successor, lost by just 29,000 votes. Six months after Rabin’s assassination, the election was won by the ill-fated Bibi Netanyahu, who called him a traitor and had his followers wave banners in which the chief of staff in the victorious Six-Day War of 1967 sometimes appeared wearing a Palestinian headscarf, sometimes in Nazi uniform and very often on the hanger.
The hardliners, the opponents not of the specific agreements, but of the peace process itself, found themselves in power in Tel Aviv. It was only a matter of time before the even more fanatical enemies of peace on the other side, Hamas, took power in Gaza. And the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians to atrophy and die. As Arafat had prophesied. When he was told the news of his interlocutor’s murder, he, they say, said: “tonight the peace process died.” He was never resurrected.
It was the triumph of fanaticism and blood strategy. Rabin’s assassination was the latest link in a chain where Hamas and ultra-Orthodox Jews competed in bloody terror attacks to blow up the accords. The strategy proved, unfortunately, successful.
And it was also a hard lesson in applied politics: the strategy of tension, the politics that systematically invests in fear, in division, in the cultivation of toxicity and social hatred, is usually irresistible. Since then, after all, the method has been perfected in the political battles that have followed. Post-truth, divisive discourse, ‘us and them’, the multiplication of internet toxicity with the firepower of trolls and bots, have proven their effectiveness in the Brexit campaign, the Trump campaign and many other fields of war of democracy with its enemies.
Tonight marks 28 years since the night of Rabin’s assassination. In all this time, there has never really been a realistic prospect of a revival of the peace effort. Much more, one might say, there is no such prospect now, after the sadistic brutality of Hamas’s killings and kidnappings and the disproportionate violence of Israel’s response to Gaza. But there are still optimists who believe in a miracle.
That’s how it’s always been done, they say. The 1967 war made the Palestinians realize that the goal cannot be the disappearance of Israel, but the creation of their own state next to the Israeli one. The 1973 war led to peace between Egypt and Israel (for which, by the way, Assad was assassinated). The first intifada brought the Oslo Accords in 1993. The second intifada brought the (unfortunate) Arab peace initiative in 2002. Today’s horror, after the military defeat of Hamas and Israel’s realization of the real cause of its inability to foresee and prevent the terrorist attack of October 7, could it not lead to a similar result?
I would very much like to share this “optimism of the will,” versus “pessimism of the mind,” as Timothy Garton advised us the other day, here from Athens. But two conditions need to be met. One is to marginalize the current leaderships on both sides, to let the realists succeed the current hotheads or deliberately extreme ones. Easier, probably, on the Israeli side, harder on the Palestinian side. The second condition is that the dispute itself should be grounded in reality. Because, as the wisest say, the worst thing that has happened in the last 28 years in the Middle Suspension is that a conflict that was always fierce, bloody, complicated and intractable, but was a “secular”, political conflict, took on the characteristics of a dogmatic religious conflict, where on both sides were imposed those who see every compromise, every concession of even an iota of ground as a sin, as an affront to the divine law, the Torah or the Koran. Is there a return from irreconcilable divines to reconcilable mundanes?
(from the newspaper “TA NEA”, 04/11/2023)