“There were three forces acting against Yitzhak Rabin,” says Amos Gitai, the Israeli filmmaker, in his usual quiet voice, taking a moment to sip tea as he slips back to that moment two decades ago. “The fanatical rabbis who used the Talmud to justify their invective, the lobby of the settlers who did not want the withdrawal of Israel from the Palestinian territories and the parliamentary right. This triumvirate villain was able to destabilize a democratically elected government.”
It was 20 years ago today when Yigal Amir, a young Jewish right-wing extremist, assassinated Prime Minister Rabin. “I’m not saying that the parliamentary right was behind Rabin’s murder; however, it unleashed a very bitter campaign against him,” Gitai says, referring to the protests organized by a galaxy of parties and movements that opposed the Oslo Accords. Some demonstrators displayed posters of Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform.
Always contrarian throughout his long career, Gitai has dedicated his new film, Rabin, the Last Day, to the assassinated prime minister. The docudrama, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September, will be screened for the first time in Israel here in Tel Aviv tonight and in Jerusalem tomorrow. Already, conservatives and settlers, frequent targets of Gitai, have denounced the film.
Those on the far right, religious conservatives and ultra-nationalists, saw the Oslo Accords, signed by Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat in 1993 and 1995, as an attack on the integrity of Eretz Israel, the biblical land of Israel. Today, these voices are represented at the top of the coalition government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The saddest thing is that the right-wing in power now has no opposition,” Gitai says. “This is very serious because we live in an age when one person decides everything.”
On Saturday, in the same square in Tel Aviv where he was assassinated and that now bears his name, about 100,000 Israelis remembered Rabin and challenged the government. But Gitai says Rabin is not and should not be made into a mythic figure.
And, most of all, he shouldn’t be held up as an icon of the left. “He was not a leader of the left,” Gitai explains. “Rabin was a patriot who understood that at the center of the complexity of this region is our relationship with the Palestinians, which is a compromise because they belong to this land.” Rabin, he continues, “was a simple person, who spoke clearly, in sharp contrast with the current politicians who manipulate the media for their own interests and bring Jews against Arabs, and often European Jews against Jews in the Middle East.”
It’s an opinion shared, at least in part, by the Palestinian analyst Hamada Jaber, of the Palestinian Center for Policy & Survey Research.
“For us, Rabin is not a symbol of peace as he is for you in Europe or for the Israelis,” he says. “Rabin for the Palestinians was an iron fist during the first intifada (1987-93), the minister who ordered an armed response to Palestinians who were throwing stones. And the Oslo Accords, which were very contested by our people, changed only partly the image that Rabin had among the Palestinians.”
At the same time, Jaber stresses the difference between the approach toward Palestine 20 years ago under Rabin and the current Israeli political leadership. “It’s also a matter of political stature. Rabin was a true leader for his people, just as Yasser Arafat was for ours,” he says. “Perhaps together they could have reached different results from those we see today on the ground. But that is only a hypothesis, and, in sum, the Oslo peace has proved disastrous for us.”
Gitai’s story of the last hours of Rabin serves as a warning bell about the ultra-nationalist tilt in Israeli society, which threatens mainly Palestinians, those in Occupied Territories with Israeli passports and even artists’ freedom. In recent months, the minister of culture, Miri Regev, has repeatedly attacked Israeli artists, accusing them of not being in line with the “national consensus.”
“There are still problems for freedom of expression,” Gitai says. “Perhaps that’s the most serious problem at the moment: the continued pressure on younger artists to force them to conform, to conform to the official line. Minister Regev is an uncultivated person who boasted of never having read Chekhov. With her in that position, the risk is sanctions against those who choose not to align. In any case, the mission of a good artist is that of carrying out deep, critical, analytical work. To use their talents in literature, painting, sculpture or film to tell it like it is. It is the only weapon an artist has to push others to think, to reason.”
Gitai’s cautious optimism clashes with the nationalist-religious “revolution” taking place in the country at every level, from politics to society, from the security forces to the media. The revolution has its standard-bearers: Regev; the leader of The Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett; his partner in the party and justice minister, Ayelet Shaked; the deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely; Uri Ariel, the agriculture minister and advocate for construction of the Third Temple on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount; and Netanyahu himself, who is keen to present himself as an expression of the secular right.
Important also is the penetration of nationalist rabbis into the rabbinical courts and the entry of ultra-nationalists to the top of the security services. The new police chief, Roni Alsheich, is just the latest religious Zionist entrusted to lead the security sector, a process that began a few years ago with the appointment of Yaakov Amidror as head of the National Security Council and continued with his successor Yossi Cohen, who could take over Mossad.
The journalist Yoaz Hendel argues, however, that there is no Zionist revolution. “When there is a vacuum,” he explains, “there is always someone or something that goes to fill it.” There aren’t more religious nationalists in the halls of power, says Hendel, only an Israeli left that’s becoming increasingly less visible.
In short, the left is disappearing, and the right has taken its place.