Israel Pulse

Israel's Zionist Camp is back in the game

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Article Summary
The Labor Party announced that it will organize the annual Yitzhak Rabin memorial ceremony, which was originally canceled for budgetary reasons, thus reconnecting with the Zionist Camp's original political-diplomatic peace agenda.

Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog was right in his quick decision to assume responsibility for the annual memorial event marking the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. It was a necessary move for his party, which has lost its way over the years and in many ways abandoned the legacy of its fallen leader.

On Oct. 30 it was published that this would be the first time that there would be no large annual gathering to mark Rabin's assassination. The event, which has always taken place in the Tel Aviv square that now bears Rabin's name, was canceled due to lack of funding. For the first 15 years, the Rabin Center produced the event. For the past five years, the National Association of Youth Movements took over. These latter events were apolitical in tone. Certain politicians were even excluded to ensure that the assassination was transformed into a collective memory that both left and right could live with.

Organizers were forced to walk between raindrops in their efforts to be politically correct. This was especially true in those years in which the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, a mainstay of Rabin's legacy, became a source of frustration for large swaths of the population, and as the Labor Party, Rabin's political home, decreased in strength and influence.

As the years went by and the assassination's memory became a thing of the past, memorial events for Rabin were held under more generic banners, such as the struggle for democratic values. That was when they began to lose their impact. Tens of thousands of youth movement members from the right and the left still arrived in buses to fill the square. But these joint mass ceremonies slowly erased the correlation between the collective memory of Rabin's assassination and the motivations that lay behind it.

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Rabin was the victim of a political assassination, intended to stop the diplomatic process that began when he signed a peace agreement (the Oslo Accord) with the Palestinians in 1993. The heinous murder was a consequence of uninhibited incitement by the far right, which rejected the entire process and often used illegitimate means to oppose it.

Rabin's public activities did not focus on maintaining democracy in Israel. Back then, the importance of such values was taken for granted. It is not a part of his legacy. Rabin was a military man who became a diplomat, statesman and pragmatic politician. When the first intifada erupted in December 1987, he was a tough defense minister in a national unity government that included the Likud Party. With time, he realized that any solution to the conflict would have to be diplomatic. He did not come to this conclusion out of love for the Palestinian people or its leader Yasser Arafat, but rather out of pragmatic view, by which such a process was essential for Israel's security.

Rabin offered a very clear worldview as he led the Labor Party to a stunning victory in the 1992 elections and became prime minister. When asked during a television debate against then-Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir as to what diplomatic steps he would take when dealing with the Palestinians, Rabin answered, "It is true that I was minister of defense when the first intifada erupted. I never blamed anyone else for that. … I used force and took harsh measures. The press as a whole criticized me for my hard-handedness, but by mid-1988, I reached the conclusion that without some [diplomatic] process combined with the use of force — military means along with a proposal for a diplomatic solution — we will not find a solution to the problem."

Rabin was assassinated while he was on his way to achieving that objective and fulfilling a bold diplomatic vision. While he did refer to the incitement against him in his last speech shortly before he was assassinated, and expressed concern that the foundations of democracy are being gnawed away, in the end, Rabin was assassinated because he wanted to partition of the country. Benjamin Netanyahu, who came to power in 1996 in the first elections held after the assassination, was elected democratically to lead the country along a path diametrically opposed to Rabin's vision.

The two decades following Rabin's assassination were terrible for the diplomatic process with the Palestinians. Obviously, the blame for this lies with both Israelis and Palestinians. No one disputes that. The fact is, however, that over the years, and especially since Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, the peace process has become moribund.

The political camp to which Rabin belonged underwent a painful process. Instead of embarking on its rehabilitation, it became a shadow of itself. On particularly bad days, what was once the peace camp tried to please right-wingers, by distancing itself from Rabin's legacy. Former Labor Party chair Shelly Yachimovich paid a steep price for this in the 2013 election, when she tried to detach the diplomatic agenda from the party's platform and focus on socioeconomic issues instead. In response, former minister Tzipi Livni's Hatnua Party won six seats invaluable to the center-left electorate, which still believed in a two-state solution.

That is why the most proper thing for Labor is to restore the political component to the memorial event marking the assassination. The Labor Party's decision to take responsibility for the rally is the first step in that direction. With polls giving the party 13 seats at best, this is a golden opportunity to revive its diplomatic agenda and distinguish itself from Likud and Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid. Herzog recognized this opportunity and grabbed it. Like his party, he is at an enormous low in opinion polls.

What happens next depends on the chairman of the Labor Party. If he chooses yet again to dodge the important political and diplomatic issues on Saturday, Nov. 5 at the Rabin rally and tries to please everyone on the left and the right, he will have wasted the political capital that he would otherwise have gained. As of today (Nov. 4), Herzog is hard at work planning the rally, together with his co-leader in the Zionist Camp, Tzipi Livni (Labor and Hatnua form the Zionist Camp). They will both deliver speeches. Poet and Israel Prize laureate Erez Biton will also deliver a speech.

Most Knesset members affiliated with the Labor Party have been promoting the event on social networks. According to Herzog's staff, the public response has been excellent. All that remains to be seen is how far Herzog will go with his political message, apart from the obvious remarks about how democracy is being trampled. We have yet to see whether he has the courage to take advantage of this rare opportunity.

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Found in: zionist camp, yitzhak rabin, tzipi livni, labor party, israeli politics, israeli-palestinian conflict, isaac herzog, benjamin netanyahu

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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