Gantz likens ‘murderer’ chants last week to 1995 incitement

At Rabin memorial event, Smotrich claims Shin Bet ‘encouraged’ assassination

Sources in security agency decry ‘conspiracy theories’ that promote ‘extremist discourse’; Netanyahu strikes rare conciliatory tone, urges unity after divisive election campaign

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Religious Zionism party head Bezalel Smotrich speaks in the Knesset during a memorial ceremony marking 27 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, in Jerusalem, November 6, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/ Flash90)
Religious Zionism party head Bezalel Smotrich speaks in the Knesset during a memorial ceremony marking 27 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, in Jerusalem, November 6, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/ Flash90)

Far-right leader Bezalel Smotrich asserted Sunday that some of the blame for the 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin lay with Israel’s Shin Bet security service, claiming it had used “manipulations” that encouraged a right-wing extremist to go through with the murder plan.

The remarks were made during the official memorial ceremony at the Knesset, marking 27 years since Rabin’s assassination by Yigal Amir, who was opposed to the prime minister’s vision of peace with the Palestinians in exchange for territorial concessions.

The session also saw opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu — the presumptive prime minister after winning last week’s election — strike a rare conciliatory tone, while Defense Minister Benny Gantz likened the incitement that preceded Rabin’s assassination to chants directed at him in the run-up to the vote, allegedly spurred by right-wing election propaganda against him.

Smotrich said he had sought to speak at the event in order to ask: “Let me, let us, too, be partners in this day.” He argued that the murder had sparked “a blame factory that even 27 years later is creating more and more accusations against more than half the country, which is assigned responsibility for the murder committed by despicable murderer Yigal Amir.”

Smotrich argued that the objections to Rabin’s policies voiced at the time were the “essence of democracy,” had not amounted to incitement, and played no role in the murder.

“It is permissible to protest, to shout and to say harsh words, and not every harsh word is incitement,” he said. “It is not the harsh words that caused the prime minister’s murder — it was a despicable murderer in Yigal Amir.

“Those who failed in protecting prime minister Yitzhak Rabin,” Smotrich went on, “were not the right-wingers and the religious Zionists and the settlers who justifiably decried his government’s policies — it was the security services, which not only failed to protect him, but also used irresponsible manipulations, which haven’t been fully exposed to this day, to encourage the murderer to carry out his plan.”

A flash of gunfire as Yigal Amir fires into Yitzhak Rabin’s back, November 4, 1995. (Channel 2 screenshot)

Smotrich’s remarks referred to Shin Bet agent provocateur Avishai Raviv, codenamed “Champagne,” who joined the ranks of far-right extremists before Rabin’s murder and was indicted — and later acquitted — for allegedly knowing about Amir’s intention to kill Rabin and failing to prevent that.

Smotrich did not elaborate on that claim, and went on to argue that the anniversary of the assassination had become an annual right-left battleground “that distances us from the main goal of this day: to remember together, to educate our children, everyone, about the boundaries of democracy.

“I am standing here before you, the Rabin family, the Rabin Center members, holding out my hand and asking, 27 years later: Please let us be partners in this day. Let’s search for the common message that will make us remember together, the whole nation, left and right, religious and secular. Don’t let them turn the murder memorial into a day of cynical exploitation and political mudslinging.”

Smotrich’s remark about the Shin Bet was met by jeers from lawmakers in the plenum, and by a rebuke from unidentified sources within the Shin Bet who expressed “shock” over the comments.

“On this day of all days, an elected official has chosen to encourage conspiracy theories and slander an organization whose sole purpose is to thwart any sort of terror and to defend the state’s security,” the sources said. “Such remarks, which encourage extremist discourse, should be condemned.”

US President Bill Clinton gestures toward Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, and PLO leader Yasser Arafat shaking hands in the East Room of the White House, September 28, 1995. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak looks on behind Arafat. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

Netanyahu, who is set to become premier again this month after his right-religious bloc won a majority in last week’s election, struck an uncharacteristically conciliatory tone in his own memorial speech, calling for Israel’s ideological rivals to come together and focus on “what most of us agree on” — echoing a sentiment voiced earlier in the day by Prime Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog.

Netanyahu called Rabin’s murder “a terrible, nauseating and violent act that constituted an attack on democracy.”

“Democracy is a gift, a supreme expression of humankind’s liberty, and political murder is a horrible expression of its zealousness,” Netanyahu said. “In a democracy, we must never allow the power of the fist to replace the power of persuasion.

“Yitzhak Rabin was a patriot with many virtues in the history of the country. He loved the country, fought for Israel, represented it around the world, and was an elected leader of the State of Israel,” he continued.

“After the elections are over… we need to come out of the trenches and find how to work together,” said Netanyahu.

“Differences won’t disappear, and that’s fine. We have profound disagreements on a few subjects, which need to be managed with responsibility and consideration,” he said. “It’s okay to argue, we don’t need to agree on everything, but at the same time we need to know what we do agree on — what most of us agree on.”

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a special plenum session to mark 27 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, at the Knesset, November 6, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/ Flash90)

Netanyahu said ideas that enjoy a broad consensus in the country include Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, the right of every Jew to immigrate to Israel, and the need to “fight terror without compromise” — vowing that his upcoming government will crush the current, months-long wave of Palestinian attacks.

He also claimed there was broad agreement that Israel must maintain security control over the entire territory west of the Jordan River, that Jerusalem must remain Israel’s unified capital under Israeli sovereignty, and that peace must be reached with more and more Arab nations.

“First of all we reach peace with the Arab realm, and then the Palestinians will come to their senses [and agree] on a deal that we can live with,” Netanyahu said. “Where it is possible, we need to aim for agreement, unity, and mutual solidarity to ensure the future of Israel.”

The speech came after the right-wing Netanyahu spent the past year and a half repeatedly lambasting his centrist, left-wing and right-wing rivals for forming a government that replaced him after 12 consecutive years as prime minister. Netanyahu led a fiery opposition campaign, avoiding being heard making any positive remarks about the government’s conduct, and refusing to back legislation proposed by it even when the subject matter aligned with his party’s ideology.

In his own speech, outgoing Prime Minister Lapid said Rabin believed Israel’s strength was built on four pillars — the rule of law, the country’s alignment with the “technologically advanced West,” democracy, and the desire for peace.

“If Israel abandons the rule of law, dismantles its democracy, reverses progress and our ties with the international community, and completely abandons the desire for peace, it will be a weaker country and Rabin’s ideas will be buried alongside it,” he said.

Lapid added: “We won’t allow this to happen.”

Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks at the Knesset plenium hall during a memorial ceremony marking 27 years since the assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, in Jerusalem on November 6, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“Rabin fought for Jerusalem [as a commander in the Jewish underground] in the War of Independence, led the IDF in the Six Day War [as chief of staff], went on to become prime minister, from there went to the opposition and then returned to be prime minister, because he knew that one’s ideas and beliefs must be fought for every day anew,” Lapid said. “It isn’t easy. The real test isn’t the successes, but the failures.”

“Rabin taught us, in life and in death… that one is judged according to whether they are willing to go [with their beliefs] all the way, all the way with what you think is right,” he added.

“I am standing here as the prime minister of Israel, and saying from here: After the murder, even after everything that has happened since the murder, this isn’t the end. Yitzhak Rabin is no more. His ideas live with us.”

Lapid also appeared during his speech to take a jab at the popular far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir, Smotrich’s close ally, who in recent months was filmed on several occasions brandishing pistols at Arab and Palestinian civilians during altercations.

“Strength doesn’t stem from pistols being brandished,” Lapid said. “That is the weapon of the cowards, of the violators of the law, and it was the weapon of [Rabin’s assassin] Yigal Amir.”

Screen capture from video of MK Itamar Ben Gvir, with a pistol in his right hand, during an altercation with Arab security guards at the Expo Tel Aviv conference center, December 21, 2021. (Twitter)

Outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz delivered a fiery speech at the session, recalling how he was heckled as a “murderer” while visiting the Western Wall the night before last week’s election.

“I got a small reminder of the unbreakable link between words and actions,” he said. “It is no secret that every time I go to the Western Wall, I place the same note with the same words, wishing peace upon us and between us.

“I made the mistake of going on the eve of elections to put a note in the Western Wall, and I suddenly found myself — a mere footnote in history compared to Rabin but with the same amount of service years and dedication — greeted by a group of people with terrible screams: ‘Murderer.’

“Those were the exact same shouts, and this is 27 years later,” Gantz said, referring to frequent chants in right-wing rallies in 1995 calling Rabin a murderer, before the assassination. “Let’s not think what led to that terrible night… but rather what, God forbid, could lead to the next night. And I am telling you that there is a connection between words and action on the fringes.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks during a special plenum session to mark 27 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, at the Knesset, November 6, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Before the election, Gantz blasted Netanyahu as a “liar” who “is incapable of saying a single true word,” after Netanyahu accused Gantz of “endangering the lives of… soldiers so as not to harm Palestinians” when he served as the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces.

Gantz’s party member Chili Tropper argued last week that the hecklers at the Western Wall were directly influenced by Netanyahu’s comments.

In his Sunday speech, Gantz said he was “convinced that my friends don’t want someone to harm me, and I’m not afraid of that, but I am anxious because words lead to actions.

“I will do everything to have peace between us. I am not disputing the election results, I accept the will of the voter, but please look 27 years into the future and look at how things can go downhill, because when they do, there won’t be a power that will be able to stop that.”

Smotrich responded to Gantz, saying: “It is apparent that your words come from the heart. The footage that came out of the Western Wall shocked me too.”

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