Marking 27 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, outgoing premier Yair Lapid, who lost in last week’s elections, warned that political polarization and hatred were at a critical juncture.
“We have to decide now, at this moment, where the country is headed,” Lapid said at a state ceremony commemorating Rabin’s murder, held at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl cemetery.
“We are close to the point of no return, but it is still in our hands. We can still change course,” he added, standing next to the late leader’s grave. “An absolute majority of Israeli citizens are not willing to let hatred to run their lives.”
Tuesday’s national vote capped a rhetorically fiery election period, during which the outgoing big tent coalition painted its right-religious rivals as would-be destroyers of Israeli democracy, and, in return, was accused of being weak, incompetent, and beholden to Arab enemies of Israel.
Rabin was murdered in 1995 by a Jewish extremist opposed to the prime minister’s vision of peace with the Palestinians in exchange for territorial concessions. While the prospect of a peace deal has faded in the decades since, passions have been inflamed by other issues, including judicial reform, attitudes toward Arabs and Palestinians, the status of religious affairs, and minority rights.
President Isaac Herzog called on Israelis to “lower the flames and to show responsibility” following incendiary language and isolated incidents of violence in the run-up to the election, which paved Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s path back to the premiership.
Addressing a somber crowd gathered to commemorate Rabin — who, like Herzog once did, led the center-left Labor party — Herzog said that “alarming signs of incitement and indignation are seen in Israeli society, of violence that erodes the foundations of democracy.”
“Even 27 years since the murder, it seems that not much has changed, not enough has changed,” he added.
Citing mutual accusations among Jewish politicians of Nazi-like behavior, as well as inflammatory language on social media, Herzog said that the state of discourse “indicate[s] a deep, fundamental difficulty in our ability to manage disagreement, in our ability to overcome and navigate our country and our lives together.”
While most of the election season attacks were verbal or over social media, activists came to blows in some cases.
Far-right Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir, who is expected to be a cabinet minister in the incoming right-religious government, has been a major political lightning rod.
Thrilling some and terrifying others with his ultra-nationalist views, Ben Gvir first appeared on the national radar when he was filmed with a stolen accessory from Rabin’s vehicle, bragging that he and his associates could “get to” the soon-to-be murdered prime minister as well.
Despite their warning, both Lapid and Herzog worked to assuage the nearly half of Tuesday’s voters whose preferred parties will not be in the next coalition.
Addressing Israelis who “thought and said that this is the end of the country” after hearing Tuesday’s election results, Lapid said they were wrong, while Herzog told them that “the country is not finished and not destroyed,” reminding them that “the democratic decision must be respected.”
Lapid, who said that he accepted the election results that bumped him from the office he inherited in July, said that “Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by someone whose violent incitement made him believe that he should not accept the voter’s decision.”
Regarding his political future, Lapid said there was no chance his centrist Yesh Atid party would join Israel’s next government, which is expected to be formed from right-wing, far-right, and ultra-Orthodox parties under Likud chief Netanyahu.
“There is no scenario and no situation under which we will enter the new government,” said Lapid on Sunday, in his first address since congratulating Netanyahu on his electoral success.
“The government I head lost last week’s elections. I don’t intend to waste my life hating those who won,” he said. “I don’t intend to turn my back on those who didn’t vote for us. Whoever believes in Israeli democracy when he wins also has to believe in it when he loses.”
While committing his party to the opposition, Lapid said it will support measures promoted by the incoming government that are “good for the citizens of Israel.”
“We will be an opposition to the government, but we will never be an opposition to the nation,” he said.
Seated next to Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut, Lapid said that “the war of our time” is over democracy, in which he included the independence of the courts, “human dignity” and equality for all of Israel’s citizens.
Leaders of the expected incoming coalition have advocated far-reaching judicial reform, including giving politicians the power to overrule the Supreme Court’s legislative oversight and ultimate control over judicial appointments.
Advocates for the measures accuse the judicial system of overreach, calling it “sick” and in need of “reform.” Detractors say the reforms would neuter the court’s effectiveness as a check on politicians.
Other members of the expected incoming government, most prominently from Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit alliance, hold homophobic positions and have pushed for the deportation of “disloyal” citizens and Palestinians who attack IDF soldiers.
Herzog echoed Lapid’s sentiments, sending a message to the Jewish Diaspora as well as to Israelis that “we are all committed to the fate of the State of Israel, we are all committed to its definition as a Jewish and democratic state that maintains the rule of law, human and civil rights, and respect for all minority groups within it. We will continue to protect our foundations as a people, as a society and as a country.”
Lapid’s Yesh Atid won 24 seats on Tuesday’s election, second to Likud’s 32. In all, Likud and its partners earned 64 seats at the ballot box, securing a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
Rabin’s family took part in Sunday’s ceremony, but for the first time since his assassination, declined to speak during the services, citing a desire to stay out of the political fray.
Days before the November 1 election, the Labor party held a separate memorial for Rabin, which his family declined to participate in, also citing politicization.
“Out of respect to the democratic decision… and for the sake of preserving the memory of the head of our family who was murdered, we have decided to avoid being dragged into the political discussion these days and not to speak,” a representative of the family told Army Radio on Sunday.