Former US president Bill Clinton warned on Thursday that the assassination in 1995 of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and the preceding uptick in nationalism was a “microcosm of what is coming full bloom across the world today.”
Speaking at a Brookings Institution event on the occasion of a book launch for Itamar Rabinovich’s “Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman,” Clinton said he remained convinced that if Rabin had lived, the world would be a different place today, in part because a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians would have been achieved long ago.
The former president, who campaigned with his wife, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton last year, said Rabin’s murder at the hand of a Jewish extremist on November 4, 1995 “was maybe the worst day I had in the White House.”
Yigal Amir is serving a life sentence for the assassination which he carried out after Rabin signed a 1995 peace accord — Oslo II — with then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, under the auspices of the Clinton administration.
“I remain convinced that had he lived we would have achieved a comprehensive agreement with the Palestinians by 1998 and we’d be living in a different world today,” Clinton said, adding that he never thought it would be easy.
Saying he didn’t want to do what “old guys” like him do and “sugar-coat the past,” Clinton explained that “it would have been hard [to achieve peace] but it would have been done. Because of him, because of the trust he had, he inspired not only Israelis, but also his adversaries, or at least those who were on the other side of the negotiating table. Arafat was virtually in awe of him, which always kind of tickled me.”
Rabin, he said, “was smart, he was careful, he understood the insecurities which roil through every society at every time — and instead of being paralyzed by them or trying to take advantage of them, he tried to take account and bring them along.”
Clinton recalled that when he asked the Israeli prime minister why he had signed the 1993 Oslo Accords, Rabin told him that if an agreement was not reached, “very soon [Israel] will either no longer be a democracy or no longer be a Jewish state. Either decision would violate our solemn obligations.”
In what appeared to be a reference to US President Donald Trump and other leaders who came to power following campaigns based on “identity politics” and nationalism, Clinton said that politicians who subscribe to an “us versus them” mentality often find political success and that such leaders have always existed.
“It always comes down to two things – are we going to live in an ‘us and them’ world, or a world that we live in together? If you got that, in every age and time, the challenges we face can be resolved in a way to keep us going forward instead of taking us to the edge of destruction.”
Looking back some 25 years in Israeli politics, said Clinton, when Rabin was elected in 1992, he became subject to a “relentless assault on his legitimacy, his personal legitimacy by the radical right in Israel.”
The former president reminded his audience of the campaign to “delegitimize, delegitimize, delegitimize” Rabin and the so-called religious rulings touted by two rabbinical figures justifying the killing of a Jew by another Jew “if they were no longer a good Jew, much less a good Israeli.”
A leader should always be prepared to fight, to win or to lose, even his or her life, Clinton said.
“It is worth remembering that what happened 20 years ago is a microcosm of what is coming full bloom across the world today and these things are going to have to be worked out,” Clinton warned.
Rabin “believed in the end we’d be better off sharing the future,” he said.
“In the microcosm of the Middle East, he prefigured the battle that is now raging across the world, that you see in America, you see in the Brexit vote, you see in the Philippine election, you see in the debates being held in the Netherlands and France, all over, where people who claim to want the nation state are actually trying to have a pan-national movement to institutionalize separatism and division within national borders all over the world,” he added.
Clinton said it was like the world was “having an identity crisis [all] at once – and it is the inevitable consequence of the economic and social changes which have occurred at an increasingly rapid pace.”
In another apparent dig at Trump, Clinton said: “I think if you believe that climate change is not real, if you believe that technology will give terrorists more options to kill people and basically delegitimize the whole idea of the nation state, then the idea of institutionalized internal conflict in nation after nation after nation is not the wisest strategy to pursue if you want to build a world where there is prosperity, peace.”
“We have to find a way to bring simple, personal decency and trust back to our politics,” Clinton maintained, saying it was a lesson he drew from Rabin.
After Clinton spoke, Martin Indyk, currently a vice-president at Brookings and formerly the US ambassador to Israel, joined Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, diplomat and peace negotiator, and Dalia Rabin, Rabin’s daughter, in a panel discussion.
JTA contributed to this report.