The Magazine

MAKING WAR WITH THE WORD 'PEACE'

Nov 20, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 10 • By RUTH R. WISSE
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Mourning for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin will be more prolonged than for any bereavement Israel has yet known. The assassination of a democratic leader is a blow to whole nation at once. Unlike tile monarch or autocrat who imposes his rule on a people, the elected head of a democratic government represents every individual in his country, so that his murder is an act of aggression against all those he governs. Because Israel is a Jewish as well as a democratic state, the killing of Yitzhak Rabin struck simultaneously at the faith and familial pride of every affiliated Jew in the world.


Rabin had been a trusted leader. But the mourning for Israel's head of state is also compounded by the unprecedented political and moral confusion that he brought on his nation during this present term of office. Simply put, Rabm was elected with one mandate, and then implemented its opposite. Running well ahead of his Labor party in personal popularity, Rabin based his 1992 campaign on his soldierly credibility as a defender of Israel, and on the following promises: There would be no direct talks with the PLO, no return to the 1967 borders, and no additional state between Israel and the Jordan river (no Palestinian mini-state). Barely a year later, he had signed an agreement at Oslo with the PLO, giving legitimacy to the Palestine Liberation Organization and granting its leader Yasser Arafat ever-increasing powers for the disputed territories between Tel Aviv and the Jordan River.


Rabin had apparently been persuaded by his long-time rival for leadership, Shimon Peres, to arrange in secret a treaty with Arafat. Yet henever explained to his people (if, indeed, he ever explained to himself) the reasons for his reversal of policy. No doubt Henry Kissiner was correct when he eulogized Rabin as a thinking man, who had only reached his conclusions after long reflection. But Rabin did not make the people of Israel a party to his reflection. He sprung on the body politic a policy that was never revealed, defined, ora rticulated beforehand, and never clearly defined or debated thereafter. If they questioned the wisdom of Rabin's actions, Israelis were given no choice other than a massive disply of resisance that would lead to the collapse of Rabin's coalition government.


Thus rabin's murder arrested the policial process in Israel at the worst possible moment. With an election scheduled for September 1996, Israelis were to have their first chance to ratify or to repudiate an agreement that had been made without their electoral consent. Rabin would have been the all but exclusive subject of that election, especially since it will feature the nation's first direct vote for the office of prime minister. Rabin's murderer subverted the democratic process by denying Israelis the right to reward or punish their leader for imposing a proto-Palestinian state upon them.


Political assassins all too often destroy their side of the argument by bestowing martyrdom on their vicim and on his cause. Within minutes of the fatal shooting, anyone attuned to Israel's political process, or, indeed, to the politics of the 20th century, would have realized that the young man who claimed to have been acting upon the will of God had almost certainly ensured the triumph of the very forces he had tried to stop.


Rabin's followers did not wait for his body to cool before turning his spilled blood to political advantage. Their tactics were twofold: Discredit the opposition by holding it responsible for the murder; sanctify their own politics by calling it the dead man's legacy. The code word for this process was, as ever, "peace," but now a demonic imagery had been added to the picture. Brandishing the blood-stained "song of peace" from the slain prime minister's breast pocket, Rabin's closest followers gave notice of how they intended to conduct the political discourse of Israel from this point onward. The tentative political process Rabin had initiated was to be declared an irreversible and sacred trust of the "man of peace." Not every last person at the funeral acquiesced in this plan. "You will forgive me," said his plucky granddaughter," if I don't talk about peace, but talk about my grandfather." Hers was the lone attempt to bring the man -- and by implication, the political process -- to human scale.


To appreciate the current drift of Israeli politics, consider the American response to the Oklahoma City bombing once it became known that the perpetrator was not a foreigner but a homegrown boy. The Democratic left initially tried to turn the disaster to political advantage by blaming it on the "lunatic" and "dangerous" right. President Clinton even ventured a swipe at conservative-tending talk radio as a contributing cause to the act of terrorism. But exploitation of the disaster quickly stopped and a sobered government and nation took better counsel.


Far from being used to scapegoat the right, the anger of the Oklahoma City murderers triggered anxious questions about the actions of government agents at Waco and Ruby Ridge that may have unwittingly played into the hands of a recalcitrant minority, convinced of a punitive "system" at work against American citizens.


That is what is so sadly missing from the aftermath of the assassination: a genuine effort at national soul-searching that involves both parties, both political factions. Instead, the right is under assault without response or let-up. And it is sheerest cant for members of the Labor government (and the bereaved Leah Rabin) to cast the blame for a rhetoric of violence on the Likud opposition alone, since Labor is responsible for its introduction into the political debate over the Oslo agreement.


How so? The democratic process depends on the presence of at least two competing views on all major political questions, but if one side claims to be ushering in "peace" while simultaneously referring to its opponents as the "enemies of peace," it has effectively rendered them morally illegitimate, extreme, and evil by definition. Labor's tireless use of the "enemies of peace" epithet pushed opposing voices into the wings where they would have to be louder and shriller in order to be heard. The government of Israel is not responsible for the crime of Yigal Amir -- of course not -- but it certainly bears its share of blame for having turned brother against brother, Jew against Jew.


The effort to stifle debate on the peace process is a dangerous act, because what will happen in the next two years may well determine the nation's fate in perpetuity. The Labor party favors the strategic surrender of some of the land Israel won or regained in the war of June 1967, and for some o its most influential members, that includes East Jerusalem. (Since the government has never revealed which land or how much land it considers negotiable, Palestinians have been circulating maps of what is (now Israel that eliminate any Jewish presence whatsoever.) Likud and the settler movement in the occupied territories are not the only political forces arrayed against the Oslo process. The breakaway Labor group known as The Third Way was formed by desperate former colleagues and supporters of Rabin who realized that the government was working with no overall strategic plan, but simply improvising a policy of negotiated concessions to Arafat behind closed doors.


While some concessionists seek at least verbal guarantees from the Arabs that they will halt their war against Israel, others on the left consider withdrawal from Arab population centers an independent goal, whether or not the residents pursue the destruction of the Jewish state. Thus, for example, the Israeli government knows perfectly well that in open violation of the Oslo agreement, Yasser Arafat has not eliminated the goal of destroying Israel from the PLO covenant. (Arafat confirmed this in his speech at Harvard, comparing tile inviolability of the PLO covenant to the American Constitution.) It knows that Arafat continues to "reassure his followers that he will pursue their holy war. The crowds chant: "In spirit, in blood, we will liberate Palestine!"


Either Rabin was not concerned about these speeches, or he had decided along with has closest advisers that strategic withdrawal was still preferable to policing Arafat's followers on a "daily basis. He must have calculated that trying to contain Arab violence in a territory between Jordan and a smaller Israel was easier, at least as long as King HuSsem remained alive, than a wearying intifada within the borders of Israel. While the merits of this approach are certainly debatable, they do not warrant any promise of peace. And if the government of Israel truly believes that strategic surrender is necessary or inevitable, it should say so, and be able to convince its politically sophisticated citizens to take the risk with open eyes.


In calling Israel's strategic withdrawal a "peace process," the Labor government has tried to camouflage the harsh political realities of decisions it believes its citizens would not otherwise accept. Like the leader who promises bread to a land of famine, or water to a people in the desert, politicians who promise Israelis peace are appealing to a craving so great that it can sweep reasoned doubt away. But preying on a people's hunger is politically irresponsible. As long as the government of Israel cannot control the supply of peace, it should be required to debate all initiatives and policies with full disclosure of the possible and probable risks they involve.


Following the murder of Yitzhak Rabin there has been a good deal of talk in Israel and abroad about fulfilling his legacy. Some take this to mean that concessions to the Palestinians and surrender to the Syrians should be made even more hastily and secretly than before, lest the democratic electoral process interfere with what the Labor party has decided to impose on Israel's citizens. Some within Rabin's party intend to use the tragedy to stifle political debate even further.


But if Rabin leaves a true legacy to Israel, it should include all he did for his country and what he stood for most of his life. As a soldier and citizen, he took part in one of the most heroic achievements in human history, the transformation of the Jews from a homeless people into a sovereign nation. But that sovereignty has not ended the particular hatred for the Jews that found its ultimate expression in the Holocaust, a hatred that still -- still -- finds expression in the attitudes of the Arabs who surround Israel and still -- still -- desire its obliteration. Nor has the creation of a Jewish state ended the harsh differences among Jews themselves.


For the sake of all that Rabin devoted his life to creating and preserving, for the sake of its sovereignty and its unity, the nation's future should not be the province of only one camp, only one faction, only one party.


IMPLICATION, THE POLITICAL PROCESS--TO HUMAN SCALE, Richard Kozak



Ruth R. Wisse is professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University. Her most recent book is If I Am Not For Myself: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews.