In 1993 Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s prime minister, gave a speech as he signed the Oslo Accords, in front of Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat in Washington. It has often been said since then that the very same speech could just as easily be made today, by any Palestinian politician: “We, like you, are people – people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, to live side by side with you in dignity,” Rabin said that day. “Let us pray that a day will come when we all will say ‘Farewell to the arms’.”
The signing of the Oslo agreement ushered in a time of optimism: perhaps, after decades, a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be found.
Two years later, on November 4, 1995 – 18 years ago yesterday – a right-wing Israeli assassinated Rabin.
To Israelis and Palestinians, Rabin remains a controversial figure. To right-wing Israelis he was a weak leader, half-naive and half-traitor.
To Palestinians, he was the smiling face of a brutal occupation, a man who did not remove even one illegal settlement and who is best remembered for ordering his soldiers to “break the bones” of Palestinian protesters.
However, Rabin remains a hero to liberal Israelis, who have been scarred by subsequent years of right-wing success. To them, he was the best chance in a generation for genuine peace with the Palestinians. “If only Rabin had lived ...” remains a frequent lament.
So three weeks ago, when tens of thousands of Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv to remember Rabin, they did so in a despondent atmosphere.
“My grandfather was assassinated for peace, and you owe this peace to us, to all of us,” Rabin’s grandson told the crowd, addressing himself to Israel’s contemporary politicians.
Few in the crowd, however, can have believed that peace is anywhere on the horizon.
The years since Rabin’s death have not been kind to left-wing Israeli politics. Since the 1996 election, liberal parties have governed Israel for just two years.
The death of Rabin was not merely the death of a man or the death of a peace process; it was also the death of liberal Israel.
The nearly two decades since have seen the rise of the religious right, which has overwhelmed Israel’s political and public life.
The ultra-Orthodox minority has forced women to the back of the bus, denied women the right to pray out loud at the Western Wall, and sought gender segregation in public life. Had he lived, Rabin would have been astonished at the transformation of Israel in such a short span of time.
The decline of liberal politics in Israel, the decline of liberal Zionism, is one of the defining political events of recent Israeli history; it affects everything, from the composition of the army to the way the occupation is handled.
There is no major political party in Israel today that could be called liberal, in the way Rabin’s Labor Party was in the 1990s – and that includes the Labor Party as it exists today.
The most recent election, in January, was dominated by right-wing and pro-settler parties. Even Kadima – which, despite having being founded by Ariel Sharon, seeks the mantle of “liberal” – won the lowest share of any political party, practically erasing it as a political force.
Genuine debate about Israel’s politics – how best to end the occupation, how to reform the legal system, where to draw the line between synagogue and state – has been replaced by an insular mentality, a fear of the outside world and the narrowing of political debate.
Hamstrung by the need to placate the religious right and an often-violent settler movement, Israel’s politicians have had no response to the tremendous changes in the region: the Arab peace plan, on the table for more than a decade, has been rejected, and Israel’s political leadership has stumbled through the Arab Spring, bewildered and on its back foot. And on the central question of Israeli society, the occupation of Palestinian land, there is no answer from the left, and no viable answer from the right. Warnings, from home and abroad, go unheeded.
John Kerry the American secretary of state, Jordan’s King Abdullah, Israel’s former foreign minister Tzipi Livni – all have warned that the window of opportunity for creating a genuine two-state solution is closing.
But Israeli politics is paralysed. Two decades after Rabin made a bold move to lead Israel out of an impasse, there is no politician able to make a comparably bold move.
Rabin’s death was a tragedy for Palestinians, who have borne the brunt of the destruction of his legacy: they have felt it at checkpoints, through home demolitions and in exile.
But the tragedy of Rabin’s death is also Israel’s. Rabin’s vision heralded an Israel that played a constructive role in the region, an Israel that sought genuine peace – an Israel, in effect, without the burden of occupation. By seeking a genuine peace process, Rabin could have severed the umbilical cord of the occupation.
But his death ended that. Israel and the occupation have remained inextricably linked, and the slow strangulation of a viable Palestinian state has occurred in tandem with the demise of liberal Israeli politics. The shooting of Rabin echoes still.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai