Speaking at a rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday, former U.S. President Bill Clinton paid tribute to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated this week in 1995.
“He refused to do the easy thing, which is to deny evident facts,” Clinton told the crowd of 100,000 at Rabin Square. “He wanted to solve problems, not turn away from them or deny them.”
The problem Rabin meant to solve was a still-elusive peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and a political solution to the decades-long conflict. The closest he got, before he was gunned down after a peace rally by a far-right Jewish extremist, was the signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn in 1993. Oslo was not so much a comprehensive peace deal as a framework for a future agreement. Progress would theoretically happen in phases. The major issues that fueled the conflict would eventually be sorted out. That day never came.
As Clinton told The Atlantic’s James Bennet last year, the two sides are “no less interdependent than they were when Yitzhak Rabin was alive and handed over the first big chunk of the West Bank to the Palestinians, [which] cost him his life.”
Each year, around the anniversary of Rabin’s killing, a set of tributes and counterfactuals lament what might have been. With a new wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence now underway, and yet another war and another round of failed peace talks just passed, the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s death has proven a particularly poignant moment to ask if Rabin might have brought peace had he lived—and what, if any, elements of his legacy live on.
Ahead of the anniversary, I spoke with Tzipi Livni, who is currently one of the leaders of the opposition to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In many ways, Livni’s political journey—from a critic of the Oslo Accords and a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party to a two-time negotiator in peace talks with the Palestinians and opponent of Netanyahu—reflects the divisions that have surfaced in post-Rabin Israel.
Israel in 2015 is nothing if not a country bedeviled by competing sets of what Bill Clinton calls “evident facts.” If the country maintains its control over the West Bank and its growing Palestinian population, some projections suggest that it will cease to be a democratic, Jewish state by 2020. Meanwhile, the longer the occupation of Palestinian territory carries on, the more Israel’s standing abroad suffers as it struggles to defend the positions it takes in the conflict.
“There is a huge gap between the way we feel or the way we understand the region and the way that the international community is looking at that,” Livni said.
“When we are looking at the region, we are looking from a satellite position. We are the Davids of the region, we are surrounded by all of these enemies and these lunatics—ISIS cutting heads off and all these terrorist organizations. And the world is looking from a Google Earth point of view, and what they see is the Israeli soldier and the Palestinian kid with a stone, or a tank and a stone. It’s a reverse narrative in understanding what we are facing, and Israel needs to bridge this gap. Not an easy task.”
Like many others, Livni argued that the latest surge of Israeli-Palestinian violence, much of which has emanated from East Jerusalem, is a preview of what will happen if Israel fails to institute a peace deal with or a separation from the Palestinians. “Binationalism is going to be ugly, it’s going to be violent,” she warned, referring to the de-facto political reality of a single state for Israelis and Palestinians that could soon have an Arab majority.
At the same time, Israel has now fought three wars with Hamas in Gaza, which has mostly controlled the territory since Israel withdrew from the strip in 2005. (Israeli disengagement from southern Lebanon in 2000 similarly led to war with Hezbollah.) On the Israeli side, a lack of confidence in Palestinian leaders, the ongoing violence, and what Livni calls “the historical conclusion from the disengagement from Gaza” have made a two-state solution less popular on both sides and, increasingly, a political impossibility.
Nevertheless, binationalism isn’t immediate and violence is. Seinfeld aficionados, who apparently comprise a significant bloc in Israel, may recall what happened after Jerry spoke quixotically about the harmonious coexistence embodied by the black-and-white cookie: The cookie made him sick, and he threw it up.