"There were those who recently sought to cast a shadow on Gandhi's years of work in service of the State of Israel. … This was accompanied by a clear attempt to obscure or erase Gandhi's accomplishments and legacy, which simply will not happen. We will not let this happen." Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made this promise to preserve and protect the controversial legacy of the late far-right minister of tourism, Rehavam “Gandhi" Zeevi, in a speech before the Knesset Oct. 24. It was yet another example of the prime minister's ongoing public and political campaign against the left.
Last week marked the 16th anniversary of Zeevi's assassination by Palestinian terrorists, on Oct. 17, 2001. Zeevi, better known by his nickname "Gandhi," was a major general in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who went on to become the minister of tourism in Ariel Sharon's Cabinet. He resigned from the government just one day before he was killed, to protest the IDF's evacuation of the Abu Snina neighborhood in Hebron. From the moment he first entered politics in 1988 until his assassination in 2001, Gandhi's agenda included various racist elements. Chief among these was his "transfer plan" for Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to neighboring Arab countries.
His resignation had not yet gone into effect when he was assassinated in the doorway of his room at Jerusalem's Hyatt Hotel, so he was still a member of the government. This made him the most senior public figure in Israel to be killed in a terrorist attack.
After considerable pressure and lobbying from his family, the Knesset passed a law in 2005 to officially commemorate Zeevi. Despite fierce opposition from the left, the law determined, among other things, that the day of his assassination would be a national memorial day, and that the government would appoint a public committee to promote and oversee his commemoration.
This law was as controversial as Zeevi's legacy itself. It is still hotly contested, since the only other people commemorated in this way are the "Fathers of Zionism," Theodor Herzl and Zeev Jabotinsky. They are the only three people for whom a law was passed to formalize their commemoration, even though they were neither prime ministers nor presidents. As a result of this law, the state sets aside millions of shekels every year for his commemoration, more than it budgets for the commemoration of Herzl, Jabotinsky or most presidents and prime ministers. Over the years, roads and promenades were built and named in his memory; the Ministry of Education also grants an annual prize in memory of Zeevi.
In April 2016, a report by leading TV investigative program Uvda featured first-person testimonies by female soldiers and other women who claimed that Zeevi sexually harassed them. Some even claimed that he raped them while he was still serving in the army, even when he was chief of Central Command. The report also included past testimonies about Zeevi's alleged ties to organized crime.
The issue of Zeevi's commemoration was brought up again for public discussion as a result of the broadcast, since the debate surrounding him now involved matters pertaining to ethics and crimes against women. Though “Gandhi” is no longer alive to refute these claims and defend his reputation, the testimonies indicate that there are women who were victimized by him and have only now worked up the courage to talk about what happened when they worked with him.
What was lacking in Netanyahu's Knesset speech this week was any reference whatsoever to the problematic aspects of Zeevi's legacy. Netanyahu chose to ignore all that, preferring to turn that legacy and the crimes attributed to Zeevi into part of the debate between the left and the right. In doing so, he enlisted Zeevi for his own personal fight for survival, as he struggles to remain in power despite the criminal investigations against him. In that sense, Netanyahu's speech was the direct follow-up to the blatantly unstately (in manner) speech he delivered just one day earlier, at the ceremony marking the opening of the Knesset's winter session.
In his speech commemorating Zeevi, Netanyahu ignored the opposition benches, which emptied out as soon as the special session began. Instead, he simply complained, saying, "There is a clear attempt to erase and obliterate his memory and legacy." Who was Netanyahu referring to? The women who were hurt by him? The highly regarded TV news magazine? The left? In Netanyahu's world, they are all part of a huge plan to bring him down. And it is through those same glasses that he views the debate surrounding Zeevi's commemoration.
Netanyahu could have referred to this debate without detracting from Zeevi's contribution to building up the army or his love for the land. Chairman of the opposition Isaac Herzog did exactly that in his speech, which immediately followed Netanyahu's. He said, "Despite all the differences of opinion that my movement and I had with Zeevi, my heart and the hearts of all Israelis dropped when we learned that he was killed in his hotel by despicable Palestinian assassins. This was a man who was full of love for the land. Zeevi's idea to transfer [the Palestinian population out of the territories] was racist, and I argued with him about it extensively. Nor can I ignore the charges raised against Zeevi over the past few years. If he was alive, he would be given the chance to respond. … On his memorial day, however, I prefer to remember him as someone who described and wrote about the landscapes and beauty of this land. His contribution to Israel's security will always be remembered."
It was a very respectable and official speech, which did not insult Zeevi's family. It was the exact opposite of the prime minister's speech. In that speech, Netanyahu turned the women who complained against Zeevi into soldiers in the armies of the media and the left, who are trying to obscure his legacy.
Netanyahu's politicization of the debate surrounding the commemoration of Zeevi is even more jarring when compared to the commemoration of other historical figures, who contributed no less than Zeevi to the Zionist enterprise. Many of them have simply been forgotten. One of these is Israel's second prime minister and first foreign minister, Moshe Sharett. His family is fighting serious financial difficulties to ensure his commemoration, since the State of Israel has passed no law to officially commemorate him.
In an old apartment in Tel Aviv, Sharett's son Yaakov, 90, is trying to preserve his father's legacy, which includes a priceless archive documenting Zionism's formative years. In a conversation with Al-Monitor, Yaakov Sharett talked about how he went all the way up to Netanyahu last May in an effort to get help from him. When Sharett told the prime minister that all efforts to commemorate his father would soon run out of money, Netanyahu responded with empathy but explained that the limited budgets available amount to only a few hundred thousand shekels a year. "Apparently, Moshe Sharett is too far to the left," his son whispered sadly to sum up his efforts.