The side of Rabin’s legacy Israelis love to forget

Over 20 years later, the mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO teaches us one thing: despite the hatred, we have no choice but to live together.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. president Bill Clinton, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat at the signing of the Oslo Accord (photo: Vince Musi / The White House)
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. president Bill Clinton, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat at the signing of the Oslo Accord (photo: Vince Musi / The White House)

From year to year, the memory of Yitzhak Rabin goes from a political issue to a nostalgic one. Twenty years after his assassination, the Israeli public is inundated with memories of Rabin the IDF chief of staff, Rabin the smoker, Rabin the straight-talker, etc. The films and articles memorializing him usually obscure (and often do not even include) one specific image: Rabin shaking hands with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993. This photo, of course, shows Rabin’s greatest achievement. If anything is worth remembering over the next dozen or hundreds of years, it is this.

This image, as well as the Oslo Accords, was made possible through the mutual letters of recognition between Israel and the PLO (Rabin was once again elected prime minister in 1992, when contact with the PLO were still illegal according to Israeli law) that Arafat and Rabin exchanged just days prior. In the letter to the prime minister, Arafat recognized Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, while Rabin recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Beyond Oslo, these letters were momentous in and of themselves. Many agreements followed, but the moment of mutual recognition was singular in the entire history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it reverberates until this very day — despite all the blood that has been shed.

Oslo was problematic — it perpetuated unequal relations between the two sides, left fundamental problems for the future, gave its opponents the time and opportunity to try and undermine it, and became a platform to continue the occupation, rather than end it. The mutual recognition, however, towers above the agreement and its many failures. It was a pragmatic recognition: Israel did not recognize the Palestinian people’s rights to the land, and the Palestinians did not recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” But throughout Israeli/Palestinian history, it has proven to be the most profound and significant expression for the understanding that both peoples live in this land, and that the only chance for a better future is if they live side by side as equals.

Most Israelis hate this image. I assume that many Palestinians also deplore it. Rabin, after all, was responsible for one of the biggest expulsions of Palestinians during the 1948 war. For Palestinians Rabin is the Nakba, for Israelis Arafat is terrorism. Israelis view the agreement as one that brought about thousands of victims; for Palestinians it meant not only many more victims, but also the outline for the borders of the prison they currently live in, more than 20 years later. But this image also represents that single, fleeting moment in which the two leaders forgot the past and looked to the future.

It is for this reason that I thank the Israeli Right, which continues to loathe Rabin and the yearly festival in his honor. By doing so, it reminds us that the prime minister’s assassination was a political act that took place in a political context, in a unique moment in history. If it were up to the pathetic leadership of the Labor Party or Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid (can we even imagine any of them taking such a controversial and historic step?) — we would likely be under the impression that Rabin was murdered because he was chief of staff. Or because he smoked. Or because he had a bad temper and a limited vocabulary.

Rabin was murdered because of the image above. And this image, which everyone hates so much, is Rabin’s real legacy — and it’s an important one: that with all the hatred of the past and present, we have no choice but to live together.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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