Former US president Bill Clinton addressed some 100,000 people in Tel Aviv on Saturday night at the memorial rally marking 20 years since the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, giving a rousing speech about Rabin’s legacy and Israel’s way forward. He urged Israelis to complete Rabin’s work by making peace with the Palestinians, saying Rabin knew that the risks of peace were less “severe” than the risks of walking away from peace.
Current US President Barack Obama later addressed the rally, in pre-recorded remarks in which he told Israelis that peace was “necessary, just and possible.”
Clinton was introduced to the crowd by Dalia Rabin, the daughter of the late prime minister.
In heartfelt remarks recalling many personal moments with Rabin during the peace process that led to the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Clinton urged Israeli society to choose peace and to pursue Rabin’s legacy. He said the day of Rabin’s assassination was probably the worst in his eight years as president.
“Rabin’s legacy in one way is clear and untouchable,” Clinton said at the rally. “He risked his life to create and defend Israel. He spent his life serving Israel to advance your values and your interests. and he gave his life so that you could live in peace.”
“What does it all amount to? Now that is up to you,” he said, adding that “all of you now must decide when your leave here tonight… how to finish the last chapter of his story.”
He also said that Rabin did not want to “see Israel come to a democratic crossroads where it has to decide whether it is a Jewish state or a democratic state.”
Rabin knew, Clinton said, that “the risks of peace are not as severe as the risks of walking away from it.”
“Those who loved him and love your country are praying that you make that decision. May God bless this country,” he said.
Speaking of the late prime minister’s leadership, Clinton compared Rabin to the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and to Mahatma Gandhi, who were both killed by their respective fellow countrymen for pursuing policies their assailants opposed.
Rabin, said Clinton, knew the risks and he was aware that he could be killed by a fellow Israeli. At the same time, he added, Rabin “knew who he was, he knew what he believed, he knew why he loved Israel, he believed that democracy and freedom and peace were essential” to its people and to the people in this audience.
“You must decide how to finish his legacy, the last chapter must be written by people he gave his life for,” Clinton charged.
Former president and prime minister Shimon Peres, who was not allowed by the organizers to speak at the rally — which was aimed to be non-partisan politically — told Army Radio that his message would have been, “We must make peace on the basis of two states.” He said that goal “unifies” Israel’s right and left. It was crucial, he added, that Israel maintain both its Jewish majority and its democracy.
Most speakers at the rally maintained a relatively non-political tone, but Rabin’s grandson Yonatan Ben-Artzi urged from the stage that “Israel must recognize a Palestinian state.”
The speakers addressed the crowd from behind a bullet-proof glass screen, organizers said, days after Hagai Amir, brother of Rabin assassin Yigal Amir, had posted on Facebook that Rivlin would soon “depart the world.” Hebrew media reports said the screen had been installed at the last moment, at the request of American security officials, and that Israel’s Shin Bet security agency had no objections.
At the memorial site where Rabin was gunned down, behind the square, his Labour Party held a small ceremony of its own earlier in the evening. At that event, current Labor and Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog said “most of the Israeli public” now shared Rabin’s vision, including “separation from the Palestinians and greater social justice, and vowed to fight for the causes Rabin espoused.
Clinton arrived in Israel on Friday and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin.
Earlier Saturday, Rivlin gave the opening speech at the event, warning that Israel would not be cowed by violence and extremism.
He welcomed Clinton’s address, saying “welcome, chaver [friend],” a sort of homage to Clinton’s famous words at his eulogy for Rabin at the state funeral in Jerusalem following the assassination, during which Clinton memorably ended with the words “Shalom, chaver,” or “Goodbye, friend.”
President Barack Obama later also addressed the 100,000 people gathered at the Saturday event in a pre-recorded speech.