Opposition leader Isaac Herzog launched a bitter attack on Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night, telling tens of thousands of Israelis who turned out in Tel Aviv to remember slain leader Yitzhak Rabin that incitement by the prime minister and his associates has to end. Herzog also swore that he would not join a unity government under Netanyahu.
“Twenty-one years on, the incitement is the same incitement and the leader is the same leader,” Herzog told a packed Rabin Square as Israel marked the late prime minister’s November 1995 murder. Rabin was gunned down at the end of a peace rally in the same square by right-wing extremist Jew Yigal Amir, amid national tensions over then-peace efforts with the Palestinians.
“We can no longer let anyone, not a bully nor a leader, continue to incite — not a Knesset member, not a minister and not the prime minister,” Herzog said. “All red lines have been crossed,” he charged.
Herzog was responding to comments by the coalition chairman, Likud MK David Bitan, who said hours before the start of the rally that Rabin’s murder was not a political assassination.
“The talk of a unity government is over,” Herzog said. “When the chairman of Netanyahu’s coalition did not hesitate to say today that the murder of Rabin was not a political murder, he (Netanyahu) sat at home and kept quiet.”
Tonight, vowed Herzog, “is not a night for mournful speeches… It’s the night we go to war for the state.” Addressing the murdered prime minister, Herzog declared: “Yitzhak, I promise you from here that I won’t let any leader destroy our democracy.”
Herzog was one of several speakers highlighting concerns for Israeli democracy and citing what they said were efforts by various members of the right-wing coalition to constrain the activities and freedoms of human rights groups, journalists, the army, the judiciary and more.
Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni also took aim at Netanyahu, telling the crowd in Rabin Square that “no one will tell us what Zionism is.”
“We came here to say in clear voice that Israel will not be a place where you single out artists and journalists and IDF commanders and judges … because of their political opinions,” Livni said. “This is the time to get out of the corner, to go from defense to offense and say enough!
“We say yes to democracy, to moderate Judaism, yes to peace, yes to the values that established this country. This is the biggest fight that we have, more important than any person or party,” said Livni
To chants of “Bibi, go home” from the crowd, Livni added: “We in opposition are not afraid and do not apologize. You can call us what you want prime minister — that we forgot to be Jews. But … no one will tell us what Zionism is. Zionism is equality… Zionism is defending minorities… Zionism is peace from a position of strength… security for the State of Israel and not isolated settlements… Zionism is the most moral army in the world, that makes peace with the Arab world, that separates from the Palestinians in peace.”
Rabin, she said, paid with his life for championing these values. “A bi-national state with no Jewish majority and no democracy is the most unZionist thing there is,” she added.
The head of the left-wing Meretz party, Zehava Galon, also lambasted Netanyahu over Bitan’s comments.
“The murder was the result of a propaganda machine. The prime minister who was then on the balcony and the incitement continues to this day,” she said, referring to a virulently anti-Rabin rally in Jerusalem ahead of the prime minister’s assassination, which then-opposition leader Netanyahu watched from a nearby veranda.
Galon said this incitement was directed “against the Supreme Court, defenders of the law, human rights groups, Arab citizens and the Left.”
Referring directly to Bitan’s remarks, the Meretz leader added: “Rabin was a political leader who was murdered for political reasons, by a political person — because he believed in putting an end to the occupation dividing the country.”
Rabin’s son, Yuval, said shortly before the start of the memorial that the 1995 assassination was a preview to the “nightmare” of life in Israel today, and warned that such a killing could happen again.
“Here, a Jew drew a gun and shot our father. You cannot reconcile with that. It happened after a long period of incitement and you cannot blur that out,” Yuval Rabin said in Rabin Square.
“It was a gun that shot the trailer for the nightmare we are now living in,” he said at the spot in which his father was gunned down. “Who knows if there isn’t someone sitting not far from here right now, who is reloading his gun.”
Yuval Rabin was speaking at a memorial organized by a group called Commanders for Israel’s Security, made up of former senior officials in the defense establishment who believe Israel must reach a peace deal with the Palestinians.
He was echoing a message delivered by his sister, former Labor MK Dalia Rabin, who on Friday told family members and friends gathered for a memorial ceremony at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl national cemetery that the schisms that divided Israel at the time are still in evidence in the nation’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,” Dalia Rabin 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.
This year’s Tel Aviv event was nearly cancelled because of a lack of funding, but the Labor Party agreed this week to step in.
“The rally was always the responsibility of private, external bodies,” Herzog said. “But as we are talking about the assassination of our leader, the head of the Labor Party… we insist on holding a rally.”
In previous years, Rabin memorial rallies have denounced racism and extremism in Israel, and speakers have publicly called on Netanyahu’s government to lead the country into a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
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.
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).