Rabin, the Fanatics, and Palestinian Rights

[From The Beacon, William Paterson College, Nov. 13, 1995]


Rabin, the Fanatics, and Palestinian Rights


Stephen R. Shalom

The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was a double tragedy. It was a personal tragedy, as is every terrorist killing, but it was a tragedy as well in that it highlighted the distressing extent of right-wing religious chauvinism in Israel. True, the assassin was apparently the member of a small organization, but there were many others, including numerous rabbis in Israel and the United States, publicly declaring that the murder of Rabin would be "a good deed."

In focusing on the fringe organizational affiliation of the killer, the media has understated the significance of fanatical chauvinism in Israel. Media analysts have also ignored the crucial respects in which Rabin and his Labor Party over many years had contributed both to the creation of the right-wing settler movement and to the virulent anti-Arab racism among sectors of the Israeli population. For almost three decades, Israeli governments, with the full support of the Labor Party, have encouraged settlers to move into occupied territory and colonize Palestinian land, thus producing a lobby for continued occupation based on powerful self-interest. For many years Israeli governments, again with the full backing of Labor, have denounced contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization as totally unacceptable. In 1976, for example, the government of Prime Minister Rabin announced that it would not negotiate with any Palestinians on any political issue or talk with the PLO even if the latter were to renounce terrorism and recognize Israel. Thus, the Labor Party shares responsibility for the fact that a substantial minority of Israelis today reject peace talks.

When the Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories -- the intifada -- began in late 1987, Defense Minister Rabin urged soldiers to "break the bones" of demonstrators, and he went along with the right-wing Likud government's assassination of Khalil Wazir, the PLO leader who was directing the intifada from Tunisia (and who had kept the uprising unarmed). Bone-breaking and assassination hardly laid a firm foundation within Israeli public opinion for respecting Palestinian rights or resolving differences peacefully.

Another confusion in media coverage of the Rabin assassination has been the uncritical acceptance of the recent agreements between Israel and the PLO as a peace process that might actually bring justice for Palestinians. Compared to the right wing's continued refusal to speak to the PLO, of course, Rabin's new-found willingness to do so was commendable. And compared to the agenda of the right, which offers Palestinians nothing but naked repression, the Israel-PLO accords which Rabin helped bring about might offer Palestinians some minimal relief. But for almost fifty years the fundamental issue of justice in the region has been whether or not Palestinians would be entitled to and receive the same degree of self-determination as Israeli Jews. Labor and Likud have both been consistently opposed to any such recognition of Palestinian rights.

The peace process agreed to by Rabin calls for the redeployment of Israeli troops from most areas of dense Palestinian concentration to other parts of the West Bank, but not their withdrawal from the territory entirely. Israeli settlements -- whose presence even Israel's closest ally, the United States government, has always considered to be in violation of international law -- will remain in place. Israel will retain authority over most of the land, and all the settlers, roads, water, and borders, while the Palestinians will have civil control -- not sovereignty -- over about five percent of the West Bank, which essentially means that they will be responsible only for maintaining order over a population seething in poverty and despair. While Labor Party theorists have argued that this sort of arrangement will be more manageable than direct Israeli military rule over masses of Palestinians, a peace process that does not provide justice and self-determination to a long-suffering people is unlikely to provide much peace either.

Thus, the question discussed in the media -- how will Rabin's assassination affect the peace process? -- in some ways misses the point. Perhaps sympathy for the fallen Rabin and fear of the prospect of more Jews killing Jews will generate greater support for pushing through with Rabin's program. On the other hand, perhaps the lack of a Labor Party successor with Rabin's military credentials, which gave him credibility among more conservative voters, will cause Labor to back off from the peace process. Either way, however, the fundamental roots of the Palestinian problem -- the denial of their basic right to self- determination -- will not be addressed. And until that happens, I fear that Israelis and Palestinians, people who have known far too much strife and death, will suffer many more tragedies.