In left-wing Israeli circles, the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Nov. 4, 1995, by a Jewish extremist opposed to the Oslo peace process is often referred to as the most successful political assassination in modern history. Twenty years later, it’s clear that the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians never recovered from Rabin’s killing. After Shimon Peres’ subsequent loss to Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1996 elections, the political camp that Rabin was leading collapsed, leaving Israeli politics as a competition among the right, the radical right and the crazy right.
In the years that followed, Israeli settlements expanded in the West Bank, likely beyond the point of no return. Today every fifth person beyond the Green Line is a Jew. Rather than present an alternative to the right, Rabin’s Labor Party supported Netanyahu’s military campaigns against the Palestinians, and the hawkish Likud party became the dominant political force in Israel. Likud’s ideology — the desire to maintain Israeli control over the West Bank, by force, if necessary — now reflects the Israeli consensus. Even Netanyahu’s rivals in recent years (Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, Avigdor Lieberman, Naftali Bennet) are either former Likud members or former Netanyahu staffers. The entire political system has shifted rightward.
Could things have turned out differently? Rabin formed his government at a unique moment: right after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, with new diplomatic momentum in the Middle East after the Persian Gulf War. Moreover, the first intifada (1988 to 1992) taught a generation of Israelis the price of maintaining military control over millions of Palestinians. The previously radical ideas of talking to the Palestine Liberation Organization and supporting Palestinian statehood became widespread in certain circles.
Internal dynamics were just as important. In 1992, Rabin and the parties that formed his political bloc won a minimal majority — 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats — and only thanks to a right-wing party’s just barely failing to win a seat. This almost accidental result forced Rabin to break another Israeli taboo and rely on the support of the non-Zionist Arab parties for his government.
A byproduct of this dynamic was a rise in government investments in Israel’s Arab population. While this didn’t bridge the gap created by four decades of discrimination and exploitation, it was still the most significant change in Israel’s history on that matter. It appeared that all the stars were in place for implementing the liberal Zionist ideology: separating from the Palestinian population that came under Israeli control in 1967 and bringing more equality within the pre-1967 borders, all without changing the constitutional arrangements that make Israel a Jewish state.
The murder occurred at a crucial moment: right after the Knesset approved the second Oslo Accord — again, with the narrowest possible majority — and when the discussion on a final status agreement seemed to have reached a breakthrough. At the end of October 1995, then–Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin reached an understanding with Mahmoud Abbas, then the deputy for PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, on the framework for a final status settlement. A few days after the negotiations concluded, Rabin was killed. Acting Prime Minister Peres, always fearful of being seen as too left wing, rejected the document. Israelis would always be left wondering what would have happened had Rabin lived to approve the framework.
But by the time Rabin was murdered, he had all but lost the Knesset majority and the support of the Jewish public — and he didn’t even evacuate a single settlement. It’s highly doubtful that he could have pushed forward a final status agreement that had the Palestinian flag flying over Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem, as the Beilin-Abbas framework suggested.
The Oslo Accord itself reflected the overwhelming imbalance of power between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel accepted the PLO leadership back into historic Palestine, but it also kept full sovereignty over the entire territory, thus allowing the new arrangements to become a blueprint for a new, worse kind of occupation. The Palestinian leader Hannan Ashrawi, who had lived in the West Bank since the early 1970s, was shocked when she saw the draft accord. “It was clear that the ones who initialed this agreement have not lived under occupation,” she later wrote.
Aside from derailing the diplomatic effort, Rabin’s murder had another profound effect. Overnight, it exposed the other Israel — the coalition of forces that simply wasn’t on board with the kind of transformation Rabin was attempting. They understood the term “Jewish state” to mean a state that favors Jews. For religious nationalists in particular, giving up the West Bank was like giving up their chapter in the Zionist story. Just like Labor Zionists owned the pre-1948 story, post-1967 was the right’s moment, its claim to power. No prime minister, they thought, had the right to deny them that.
Rabin, an accidental revolutionary, achieved a series of historic breakthroughs that should never be forgotten: recognizing the Palestinian people and the PLO as their representative and recognizing the Arab citizens of Israel as legitimate coalition partners. These acts took courage and political capital, and they ultimately cost him his life. But the historical conditions that led to them have never returned. The current Labor Party takes part in initiatives aimed at preventing Arab members of the Knesset from participating in elections, and the more pragmatic Israeli leaders, such as Yair Lapid, reject Abbas as a partner — let alone ideas such as working with a Palestinian national unity government.
If Rabin, the right person at the right moment, couldn’t fulfill the liberal Zionist dream, maybe the dream itself should be questioned. Separating populations to create a Jewish state that is democratic, respectful of a huge Arab minority and at peace with a neighboring Palestinian state might have been impossible to begin with. Perhaps the time has come for progressives in Israel and abroad to aspire to partnership rather than separation and to sharing the land rather than dividing it.