MAXWELL:  The spirit of Yitzhak Rabin

5/23/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



Israel’s tough political and military veneer belies a complex sentimentality that assumes many faces. I detected it when I was here in 1996, when Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu was running for prime minister against Labor’s Shimon Peres, who took office after Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by Yigal Amir, a religious fanatic.

Some background:

I, along with the other members of the American press seminar with whom I was traveling then, stood at the makeshift shrine marking the spot of Rabin’s death. We wondered what would become of this tiny nation during the next few years if Netanyahu were elected. Many on the left had blamed the Likud leader for creating the lethal environment that had produced the likes of Amir.

What struck my colleagues and me most were the hundreds of Iraeli teenagers visiting the shrine each evening to mourn Rabin’s passing, even while many of the adults around them, especially those in public office, re-enacted extreme themes of the nation’s “Wild West” persona.

Israel’s future was unclear mainly because Rabin and, subsequently, Peres had earnestly pursued a policy of peace with the Palestinian Authority and had agreed to implement terms of the Oslo accords. Netanyahu and his supporters, on the other side, had declared war on Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Terrorists, furthermore, had done their job effectively _ frightening and angering most Israeli Jews, making them wary of peace negotiations and, therefore, susceptible to the allure of Netanyahu’s “peace with security” campaign slogan.

Fortuitously, I am back in Israel and have witnessed Netanyahu’s defeat, a precipitous fall that is matched only by the prime minister’s meteoric rise to power.

On May 16, the day before what may go down as Israel’s most important election ever, I revisited the site of Rabin’s murder. Today, the entire city block, along with the government facility there, is called Rabin Square. A permanent shrine has replaced the crude, flower-strewn one of old.

In all of my American naivete, I studied the new monument, thinking all the while that Netanyahu had run against the dead Rabin in 1996 and was running against Rabin’s ghost again in 1999 _ even though Rabin’s name had been noticeably and awkwardly absent from all public debate during the three years of Netanyahu’s tumultuous rule.

Viewing the area, especially along busy Ibn Gvirol Street, I realized for the first time that the building and other structures in the square were devoid of the campaign signage littering the rest of the nation. Netanyahu’s image, along with that of his opponent Ehud Barak, was nowhere to be found. Only a handful of photographs and drawings of Rabin caught the eye. I did not ask, but I would bet that campaign bosses in both camps decided that Rabin Square is special and that its dignity must be maintained.

All afternoon, visitors approached the shrine, staring down at it, whispering, some taking pictures, apparently knowing that this was a spiritual happening in some way.

Netanyahu, of course, steered clear of Rabin Square, perhaps fearing that he would hear voices from the past. But the victorious Barak, along with tens of thousands of his supporters, reflecting one side of Israel’s sentimentality, came here shortly after his opponent conceded defeat to affirm his message of national “unity.”

Like Netanyahu, Barak felt the presence of Rabin’s spirit. “We are meeting here at this place of memory, and with hope, in order to embark on our journey toward unity, peace, security and prosperity of the people of Israel,” he said to the cheering crowd. “I came here to Rabin Square, to the place where our hearts were broken when a stone blocked the gate just when we were about to embark on a new era; I came to pledge to you, citizens of Israel, to you, my friend and commander Yitzhak Rabin, that this is indeed the dawn of a new day.”

The next day, with hordes of journalists from around the world in tow, Barak visited the Western Wall, Israel’s holiest site, and Rabin’s grave on Mount Herzl. Again, he revealed a sentimentality that the people of Israel had quietly longed for during these times of ethnic, religious, political and cultural fractiousness.

Speaking at Rabin’s graveside, the prime minister-elect said of his mentor: “I see myself as continuing his path.”

The sentimental journey came full circle when, at Barak’s side at the square on election night, Leah Rabin, the late prime minister’s wife, held back tears. She said that the election results gave her the first happy moments since “that horrible night,” when her husband was gunned down.

“I was only praying tonight that (Barak) should win,” she said. “And not only did he win, but he won big. I like Ehud Barak very much. I trust him that he will be following in the path that my husband was taking. He was very close to my husband. My husband trusted him and loved him and had great esteem and respect for him.”

“Like,” “love,” “trust,” “very close,” “respect,” “great esteem” _ these are words that rarely surface in the public sphere of Israeli politics. Now, however, they have been spoken to international audiences. The assassination of Rabin forced much of Israel to re-examine its humanity, to return to its capacity to feel and speak from the heart.