Where does Israel go from here? Rabin assassination leaves uneasy truce between right, left

November 12, 1995|By Doug Struck and Dan Fesperman | Doug Struck and Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Yitzhak Rabin didn't want a rally.

For months, the peace movement had sought his blessing for a show of support. It would counter the angry opposition from the religious and from the right, and all the bitter demonstrations against Mr. Rabin and his peace plan.

"Rabin said, 'We are in the government. We don't need demonstrations,' " remembered parliament member Eli Dayan, a Labor Party activist.

But on Oct. 10, an angry crowd jeered Mr. Rabin as he spoke at a sports complex. One man lunged toward him and was stopped only a few feet away. And when a supporter in France, John Friedman, offered to finance a pro-peace demonstration, Mr. Rabin accepted. They set Nov. 4 for the rally.

The prime minister and Yigal Amir, a religious young law student bent on assassination, both marked the date.

It is a cliche to say that day shocked Israel, changed it forever, but surely it did. The question is, how?

The shots could not have been very loud. It was only a .22-caliber pistol. Its regular bullets might not have been fatal. But the revolver taken from Mr. Amir's hands in the scuffle after the shooting had been loaded with hollow-point bullets designed to inflict maximum damage.

Then came the shock.

"We never thought a Jew could kill a prime minister," Mr. Dayan said. "We always thought we could fight, we could disagree, we could shout and curse. But this violence was unimaginable."

The blame found its most powerful, most unassailable voice in the widow. Leah Rabin, one day after her husband's burial, was calm, articulate and accusing.

"The silent majority never felt it had to speak up," she said. "The majority is never loud, never loud enough. Today they realize they've made a mistake. Why did we leave him alone on the battlefield? Why were we not there to speak up for him?"

She evoked the sordid images: her husband, who had spent his life building and defending the Jewish state, dressed in effigy as a Nazi; the thousands of posters of him wearing Yasser Arafat's Arab headdress; the hecklers' Friday ritual in front of her house -- the last time, she said, they had promised to hang the Rabins as Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his mistress had been at the end of World War II.

"It's going to change," she said. "I'm sure."

Religion and politics

Israel, by nature, is self-absorbed. Forty-seven years after its birth, it is still looking at itself and wondering what kind of nation has been wrought. The assassination of Prime Minister Rabin Oct. 28 brought a painful urgency to that process.

An estimated 1 million Israelis walked solemnly past Mr. Rabin's casket last week. Some concluded that their nation was flawed and must be mended. Others hoped that the shock of this killing would work its own cure, jolting Israelis into unity and tolerance.

"I think that 99 percent of the people feel that they have to rethink their behavior, the way they speak, the reactions they have," said Moshe Nissim, a former justice minister in the right-wing Likud government.

"Some people who are very heated in their words have created a climate of conflict," he said.

But when the tears start to dry, the vision many see is of an Israel where the conflict continues and calls for unity are soon forgotten.

"It will be business as usual once the shock settles," said veteran peace activist Janet Aviat. "We still have ideological differences. The Likud and the settlers will try hard to moderate their style. But when it gets to the crunch, they won't be able to control their sympathizers."

The right wing is the target of most of the recriminations now.

"All the time, the right wing said we are just talking, nothing is dangerous," said Moshe Raz, political secretary of Peace Now. "But we know Jews do kill Jews. We knew it could happen."

Peace Now is the embodiment of everything the right wing despises: secular, liberal, anxious to recognize the rights of Palestinians, willing to give back to the Arabs land held sacred by Jews.

The division between left and right splits Israeli society. Few claim a middle ground. Opinions are strong and fiercely held.

Religion fuels the passions. Many on the right wing are religious. They believe God gave Jews the land now inhabited by Palestinians. Hard-line rulings by rabbis sympathetic to their cause give their resolve a righteous fervor, often bolstered by a state-funded but separate religious education system.

Police suspicions of a conspiracy to assassinate Mr. Rabin center on students at the Bar-Ilan University, a religious school near Tel Aviv where Amir, the confessed assassin, was a student.

The right wing believes Peace Now betrays the righteousness of Israel's biblical claims, and there has been violence over this before.

On Feb. 10, 1983, it was a hand grenade. An angry right-winger pitched the grenade into a group of peace activists after a particularly rough march in protest of Israel's war in Lebanon. Eight people were injured, and one, Emil Grunsweig, was killed.

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