Americans for Peace Now announced on September 24 that U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) would appear at their memorial event for the upcoming 25th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s death. Then-Israeli Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated on November 4, 1995 by his fellow countryman and far-right extremist Yigal Amir. Amir believed Rabin “want[ed] to give [Israel] to the Arabs,” based on policies including his signing of the Oslo Accords with the former Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat. The first of these two agreements would establish the Palestinian Authority, of which Arafat became president.
Soon after Peace Now revealed AOC’s involvement on Twitter, Palestinians and their supporters rushed to remind the Congresswoman of Rabin’s oft-omitted violence. For Palestinians, Rabin is remembered principally as the “bone crusher.” This stems from Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Colonel Yehuda Meir’s testimony that it was the one-time IDF Chief of Staff who ordered participants in the First Intifada, which began in 1987, be punished by having their bones broken.
Following these timely reminders, AOC responded that she would be “[t]aking a look into this” because her participation was pitched “differently from how it’s now being promoted.” Ultimately, she withdrew from the proceedings.
Despite enthusiastic praise from pro-Palestine activists, the backlash from pro-Israel voices has been resolute.
Despite enthusiastic praise from pro-Palestine activists, the backlash from pro-Israel voices has been resolute. For the most part, her critics assert that Rabin is a complex, nuanced figure, although they often downplay his many faults. In the end, it is said, having paid with his life for his efforts towards reconciliation, he was a true proponent of peace.
As young Jewish-Israeli peace activist David Vanunu told me, Rabin’s shocking death made him the face of “the whole peace process.” While skeptical of this, Vanunu acknowledges the popular perception that it is all “Rabin’s legacy.” The left-of-center Zionist parties now compete to “out-Rabin” each other. This also means that Western publics view Rabin as the Israeli face of Middle Eastern coexistence.
In other words, the former PM has become a potent campaigning tool for the Israeli Labor Party and Meretz to use in attracting voters, and an example activists worldwide hold up as evidence of Israel’s benevolence. This reading is therefore profoundly political, and as a political matter, we should interrogate its consequences and the possible alternatives.
Among Palestinians, a far darker but arguably more holistic view prevails. It is not just Rabin’s bone-crushing reputation that provokes outrage, but a history of oppression stretching back to the 1948 Nakba. This term, which means “catastrophe” in English, refers to the Palestinian exodus, a period during which Rabin signed an order authorizing the expulsion of the inhabitants of the Palestinian town of Lydda. This was to be done “without attention to age,” and constitutes a call for ethnic cleansing. He also admitted involvement in a simultaneous order to expel the tens of thousands of inhabitants of nearby Ramle.
It is not just Rabin’s bone-crushing reputation that provokes outrage, but a history of oppression stretching back to the 1948 Nakba.
After having just suffered what has been described as “an orgy of indiscriminate killing,” the Lyddan townsfolk were then forced on the torrid Lydda Death March. Approximately 30,000 people—many of whom being children or elderly—were forced to walk in the sweltering July heat for three days, until the Arab Legion army rescued and transported them to Ramallah. Typical estimates put the total number who perished on this journey at 335 to 350, although the British soldier and Arab Legion commander John Bagot Glubb heartbreakingly wrote in his memoir that “[n]obody will ever know how many children died.” The resultant refugee crisis continues to this day.
Rabin seemingly had little remorse for this episode. In a section he was forced to redact from his 1979 autobiography by a board of censors drawn from the Israeli Cabinet, not once did he apologize. While he acknowledged the difficulty of the decision to expel the people of Lydda and Ramle, adding that this was “a harsh and cruel action,” his overarching contention is that they had been “obliged to undertake” it. Moreover, he noted, quite callously, that “[t]he inhabitants of Ramle watched and learned the lesson” from what had occurred at Lydda, and thus decided to leave voluntarily, before they suffered the same fate. Just as coldheartedly, in 1992, while the first Oslo Accord was being negotiated, Rabin proclaimed that “he wished ‘Gaza would sink into the sea.’” That same year, Rabin’s government engaged in an illegal mass deportation of Palestinians.
Furthermore, Rabin’s memorialization as a man of peace and friend of Palestine runs contrary to his stated intentions. He made his desires well known in the Knesset just a month before his assassination, when he revealed that his government wanted the Palestinians to have “an entity which is less than a state.” So, if it was peace Rabin wanted, it was only ever an unequal one—and even that is questionable. Indeed, Rabin and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Shimon Peres, ordered Joel Singer—the lawyer who drafted the first Oslo Accord— to fight against Palestinian requests for a freeze on Israeli settlement building.
In addition, Professor Neve Gordon of Ben Gurion University told the Middle East Eye that after the ultra-nationalist settler Baruch Goldstein sadistically murdered and maimed over 150 Palestinian worshippers in 1994, Rabin had a prime opportunity. He had sufficient justification to at least “remove the 400 extremist settlers who were embedded in the center of Hebron.” Here too, he declined to act. As Singer says of the decision to give the Palestinian Authority security responsibilities, any concessions Rabin made during this period were not “to be nice to the Palestinians but because he thought [they] would enhance [Israel’s] security.”
AOC’s appearance at Rabin’s memorial would have further solidified his image as a man of peace.
AOC’s appearance at Rabin’s memorial would have further solidified his image as a man of peace, including among the left of the Democratic Party—a vital pocket of pro-Palestinian solidarity. Doing so, despite all the evidence to the contrary, has three key negative impacts. First, it allows Rabin to serve as a symbol for Israeli sincerity at Oslo, strengthening the false claim that the Palestinians squandered a genuine opportunity. In reality, Arafat and his team were sadly taken for fools. Oslo didn’t weaken Israel’s domination of Palestine, it strengthened it, as was intended. The same applies for the so-called peace process in general.
Linked to this, and as previously mentioned, Rabin’s memory conjures up a peace-loving Israel in the minds of the international community. Similarly to how I have put it elsewhere, this imagined righteousness whitewashes Israel’s misdeeds by making it unbelievable that it could ever have committed them. By juxtaposition, Palestine then erroneously becomes wholly evil and responsible for all the wrongs the region faces.
Lastly, listening to Palestinians renders the third and final damage of lionizing Rabin crystal clear. This project causes immense psychological and social pain because it ignores countless historic and ongoing injustices with roots in or parallels to Rabin’s conduct. Palestinian refugees still number in the millions, the IDF continues to brutalize innocent civilians and Israeli apartheid is running wild. While the rewriting of political figures’ histories is nothing new, such rehabilitation can only come with the consent of the wronged, lest it obscure and even implicitly endorse what was done to them.
Quite tellingly, scarcely if ever do Rabin’s cheerleaders allow for similar nuance around Arafat, given his equally fundamental role in the Oslo Accords and unilateral, unreciprocated 1988 recognition of Israel’s nationhood. They will always view him as nothing more than a terrorist. This thus demonstrates the cynical opportunism of the pro-Rabin crowd. Following AOC’s example, no one should be taken in by it.