Lawmakers from Israel’s left and center responded furiously Saturday evening to comments by coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud), who said earlier in the day that the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin 21 years ago by a Jewish extremist was not politically motivated.
“This was not a political murder, and it had nothing to do with politicians. It was a murder committed by one individual who wanted to stop the (peace) process,” Bitan said during a gathering in Holon.
Zionist Union MKs Tzipi Livi and deputy Knesset speaker Hilik Bar hit back at Bitan, charging that a hostile political environment led to Rabin’s assassination, and is very much alive today in Netanyahu’s right-wing government.
“Though [Rabin’s killer’s] Yigal Amir didn’t have a Facebook page that we can examine at the time, you don’t have to be the deputy speaker of the Knesset to understand that it was a politically motivated assassination in every way possible,” Bar said.
“The murder was preceded by an organized campaign of propaganda, hatred and persecution by the extreme right, complete with calls of ‘traitor’ and the marking of targets,” he added.
“That same hatred, persecution, incitement and the marking of targets still exists today — against journalists, judges and officials who express an opinion different from that of the government,” Bar said. “It’s because of this that people must come to the square tonight and fight for democracy.”
Livini said the best response to Bitan’s remarks and his denial of ongoing political persecution of “anyone who thinks differently” than the Likud government was to attend Saturday night’s rally.
“Only then can change take place,” she said.
Former Labor prime minister Ehud Barak also lashed out at Bitan for his remarks, and indicated that Netanyahu was responsible for downplaying the role the 1995 peace accords played in Rabin’s assassination.
“Who wants to stop the peace process? It’s not Bi-Tan, its Bi-Bi — the messenger and the sender,” he said in a tweet referring to Netanyahu by his popular nickname.
Bitan’s remarks came hours ahead of the annual Tel Aviv memorial ceremony for Rabin, which the Likud MK stressed he would not be attending. Bitan added that he believed the ceremony should be funded by the state. “If it was up to me,” Bitan said, “I would have the state fund the event, and have an official state event, not a left-wing event.”
On Friday, when family members and friends gathered at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl national cemetery to commemorate the 1995 killing, Rabin’s daughter Dalia warned that the schisms that divided Israel at the time are still in evidence in Israel’s public discourse. “This murder was terrible. It is an open wound for us in the family, but it is also an open wound for our nation,” she said at the ceremony. “The incitement from before has not ended. Parts of the nation are still in denial and find ways to argue that maybe it was good to murder him,” she said.
Last week, Labor chairman Isaac Herzog, who heads the Zionist Union faction of which his party is senior leader, said Labor would assume responsibility for the event, after the usual private organizers of the event had originally announced its cancellation due to lack of funds. Herzog’s announcement allayed concerns that the event would be nixed for the first time since Rabin’s assassination 21 years ago.
The ceremony is held every year in the square where Rabin was gunned down by Yigal Amir, an extremist Jew, during a rally on November 4, 1995, amid national tensions over peace efforts with the Palestinians. The rally at the square that is now named for Rabin typically draws tens of thousands of people from all over the country.
Rabin served as Israel’s chief of staff during the Six Day War in 1967. He was later ambassador to the US, defense minister and twice prime minister. In 1994, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with then-foreign minister Shimon Peres, who died last month, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, for his part in signing the Oslo Peace accords a year earlier.
Each year, tens of thousands of Israelis gather at the plaza where Rabin was murdered to pay tribute to the slain prime minister. In previous years, Rabin memorial rallies have denounced racism and extremism in Israel, and have publicly called on the Netanyahu government to lead the country into a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Last year, the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s murder, some 100,000 gathered in the heart of Tel Aviv for the commemoration. Addressing the crowds were a handful of Israeli lawmakers, President Reuven Rivlin, former US president Bill Clinton and current US President Barack Obama (who spoke via video).
Tamar Pileggi contributed to this report.