Dangerous Sainthood: How the Rabin cult undermined the peace camp

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A couple of days ago, Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez delivered a sharp shock to the remnants of the Liberal Zionist camp: She announced her withdrawal from a memorial to Yizhak Rabin. The reactions were angry, sometimes hateful, but mostly they had a distinct whiff of sacrilege about them.

Because that’s precisely what it was: Contempt of the cult of a saint.  I’ll try to touch on the relevant history briefly, and then devote more space to the cult and damage it caused.

1947-1948: Israel’s War of Independence/The Nakba. Rabin is a young, inexperienced brigade commander. His unit, dedicated to the defense of Jerusalem, suffers horrendous casualties. He is only 26. At one point, it is rumored, he cracks and withdraws from command for a few days. This is what most Israelis know of Rabin at this period.

This is the period when the massive ethnic cleansing of Palestine takes place. Rabin’s brigade participated in some of these actions, including the notorious occupation and massacre of Lydda (Lod, today). While Rabin was not one of the most notorious leaders of the Nakba, he certainly knew of it and participated in some parts of it – as much as the beleaguered state of his brigade allowed. His unit certainly participated in the second, quieter and critical state of the Nakba: The prevention of the return of Palestinians to their homes, by shooting them if necessary. This is a point most people overlook: Every war creates refugees, there is an expectation that they will be allowed to go home once hostilities cease. It is precisely the denial of this return which made the Nakba a fact.

1967: The Six Days War/Naksa. Rabin is Chief of Staff of the IDF (in Israeli terms, effectively the Commander in Chief), the architect of its stunning victory. The pressure of fighting three enemies at once, again, cracks him. He is out of action in the critical day before Israel’s pre-emptive strike on Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

The triumphant advance of the Israeli columns is followed, again, by ethnic cleansing  – this time in the West Bank and the Syrian Golan Heights. The scale is much smaller than that of 1948 – 20,000 or 30,000 people were exiled, mostly from areas the IDF considered of strategic importance (At the time this was happening, of course, nobody knew that Israel will hold the West Bank for more than fifty years). The official documentation of this ethnic cleansing is still classified, but it’s unimaginable Rabin, as Chief of Staff, was unaware of it.

3/30/1976 – Land Day. Rabin is Prime Minister. The government declares it will confiscate thousands of acres from Israeli Palestinians. A general strike was called. The government brought it down with live fire, killing six Palestinians in Israel and wounding about a hundred of them. The direct responsibility lies with that other man of blood, Shimon Peres (then Minister of Defense), but Rabin was the man who let him have a free hand.

1988 – First Intifada. Rabin is Defense Minister. Determined to bring down the Palestinian revolt, he orders a series of war crimes. The most notorious of them was his (verbal) order to “break their [the demonstrators’] hand and legs”, which led to an explosion of violence against Palestinian demonstrators and prisoners. Thousands were tortured, hundreds maimed, at least six died. During the 1988 elections, Rabin publicly boasted – as part of Labour’s propaganda ads – of the number of wounded Palestinians and Palestinian homes demolished under his orders.

1993 – Oslo Process. Rabin begins a process of turning parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to the PLO. Though he would envelope the process in the words of peace, Rabin never spoke of a free Palestinian state, but more of a semi-state, with Israeli security controls. While he was open to the idea of removing settlements, he never did so. Following Baruch Goldstein’s massacre in Hebron in 1994, which was a golden opportunity to remove the festering settlement there, Rabin placed restrictions on the target of the massacre, Palestinians, citing the fear of their retaliation. Many of these restrictions are still in place.

Oslo was not meant to bring about an independent Palestinian state. It was a result of Rabin’s conclusions from the First Intifada: That direct clashes with civilian population degrades the army’s ability to actually fight (here he was certainly correct). As he expressed it, he wanted the occupation to continue “without the HCJ [supreme court] and B’Tselem [human rights organization]”: Turn over the unsavory parts of maintaining the occupation to the Palestinian security forces.

11/4/1995 – Rabin is assassinated by Yigal ‘Amir, a religious-nationalist fanatic.

5/29/1996 – The first elections since Rabin’s murder. Labor runs on the murder and basically only the murder. Shockingly, Benjamin Netanyahu wins.

This is where history sharply diverges into myth. The mythification of Rabin began immediately after the assassination. The peace camp, which was still strong at the time (Labour got more votes than Likud in 1996) was in a state of shock. The murder was one cause, and in the weeks after the murder you could see stickers with Rabin’s face and the words Oseh Shalom Bimromaiv, i.e. “The Peacemaker is in Heaven” – but the original meaning of Oseh Shalom Bimromaiv is an attribute of God: “He who Makes Peace In the Heavens.” Apotheosis.

But if the assassination was a shock, Netanyahu’s victory was the bigger one. People went into the streets and cried. They believed, correctly, the assassin has won. Netanyahu, after all, was a major part of the hatred and incitement that rocked the Israeli public sphere before the assassination. Being Netanyahu, he never admitted any complicity and from time to time claims he was innocent of anything; he reminds me of Lady MacBeth, “what, will these hands ne’er be clean?”

The peace camp lost all power. So, increasingly, it turned to martyrdom. We didn’t lose: Assassins killed the best of us, one who surely would have beaten Netanyahu.  Have you killed and also taken possession? The beatification of Rabin was now in earnest. To many, this was all that was left. And as the man became the saint, all the angles were rounded. Everything was put in sepia and pink. The tough, plain-speaking, rough-drinking, chain-smoking man was gone. A saint emerged.

So, there was no more speaking of the Nakba, the Naksa, the Intifada. All mention of Rabin’s crimes became verboten. If you mentioned it, you were obviously part of the assassin’s camp. As for Land Day, hell, most Labor voters couldn’t tell you what it was.

Saints are made in stone. As Rabin memory’s ossified, so did the Peace Process. The peace camp began seeing the Oslo Accords – creaking even in 1995 – as holy writ. People forgot they had an expiration date: May 1999.

Here something truly astonishing took place. The majority of the right wing realized, much to its surprise, that the Oslo Accords were a much handier version of the occupation. They had a huge advantage, hasbara-wise: You could claim with a straight face (as long as you manage not to burst laughing) that there was no longer an occupation, that the Palestinians ruled themselves. The division of the West Bank into Areas A, B and C facilitated this fiction. Few Israelis even know how the West Bank looks, so it’s easy to tell them Israel can easily annex Area C. Nobody tells you it’s a witches’ brew of enclaves.

So, at the same time the Peace Camp began to worship Rabin and see his temporary plan as a sacred text, the right wing learned how to abuse the Accords to cement Israeli rule. And, since the left saw the Accords as sacred, they fell headlong into this trap.

Even now, 25 years after the assassination, the majority of the Israeli center and left cannot divest itself of the Oslo Accords and of the chimera of a two-states solution. They are, after all, sacred. They are what Oseh Shalom Bimromaiv planned. Any attempts to deviate from it is denying scripture. And so the devotees of Oslo and Rabin become the equivalent of monks, dead to the world and singing the sacred hymns. The divine plan has long lost any connection to reality, but anyone challenging it quickly becomes anathema. And, of course, the divine plan is inward-looking: Palestinians are not a part of it, so there is no need to ask them what they actually want.

The size of the cult has been diminishing steadily since the early 2000s, as more and more Israelis find Rabin and Oslo simply of little importance. Every year, the cult leadership bemoans the (embarrassingly-small) number of people who still dutifully appear at its yearly memorial festival. What remains of its vigorous days is the deep-seated hatred of Netanyahu, the snake in paradise.  

Netanyahu is a snake, but Israel-Palestine are more akin to hell than heaven. AOC’s blow was so shattering to the egos of the leaders of the cult because they idolize AOC. They see her as the embodiment of what they cannot create. Let’s hope her action will become a wake-up call. All those who are among the living have hope: For a living dog is better than a dead lion.

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“The triumphant advance of the Israeli columns is followed, again, by ethnic cleansing – this time in the West Bank and the Syrian Golan Heights. The scale is much smaller than that of 1948 – 20,000 or 30,000 people were exiled, mostly from areas the IDF considered of strategic importance…” Can we have more discussion on this?   https://www.wikiwand.com/en/1967_Palestinian_exodus The 1967 Palestinian exodus refers to the flight of around 280,000 to 325,000 Palestinians[1] out of the… Read more »

Regarding Rabin, his was a unique wide ranging career. It is difficult to determine what might have been possible if not for Yigal Amir (and the violent right wing, for if not Amir someone else would have taken a shot.) Of course Rabin’s pronouncements of his plans for a final agreement will not satisfy Palestinian liberationists. The concessions that will lead to an agreement (past tense would be wiser here or fantasy tense) will be… Read more »

During Plan Dalet’s Operation Dani, i.e., the conquest of Lydda and Ramleh and the expulsion of their Arab Palestinian inhabitants: In the early afternoon of July 12/48, Ben-Gurion visited Operation Dani head quarters and met with various officers. Among those present were Yigal Allon, commander of the Palmach, his deputy, Yitzhak Rabin, operations chief of the assault on Lydda/Ramleh, and General Yigael Yadin, Israel Defence Forces officer in command of operations. During the discussions it was proposed… Read more »

Mr. Gurvitz,

What “peace camp” exactly? As judged by deed, not empty words.