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Middle East

In Israel, unclear legacy of assassinated Premier Rabin

Hawks and doves wonder: Would the late Israeli Prime Minister Rabin pursue peace today? Daniella Cheslow reports from Tel Aviv on the anniversary of the politician's assassination.

Twenty years after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Likud Knesset member Sharren Haskel said Rabin would have long abandoned his efforts to end Israeli rule over the West Bank and Gaza Strip had he survived.

"He would have probably acted completely differently," Haskel said. "He was a Zionist and he loved Israel and the security of Israel, and the land of Israel was deeply engrained in his heart and being."

As Israelis marked Rabin's murder amid a stalemated peace process and renewed violence with Palestinians, the legacy of the man is unclear.

Rabin and Arafat shake hands under the eyes of then US President Bill Clinton

Rabin and Arafat were awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for their peace efforts

Yitzhak Rabin was a commando who fought Israel's War for Independence and later became chief of staff, but was convinced as prime minister that Israel needed to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip to maintain its Jewish democratic character. In 1994 Rabin, Shimon Peres and the late chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, received a joint Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to make peace.

On November 4, 1995, Rabin spoke to a 100,000 Israelis in the Tel Aviv square that today bears his name and urged his countrymen to support the Oslo Accords, an interim agreement that would pave the way to a two-state solution. "The path of peace is preferable to the path of war," Rabin said. As he headed to his car, Rabin was shot twice at close range by ultra-nationalist assassin Yigal Amir. He died in hospital.

Israel shifts to the right

At the time of Rabin's assassination, Israelis were divided nearly in half between liberal and hawkish camps. Today, only 15 percent of the country defines itself as left.

A poll conducted by Tel Aviv University in October found that nearly half of Jewish Israelis and more than half of Arab Israeli citizens believe the two-state solution is dead. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are more dejected, according to a poll conducted in September by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. Two thirds of respondents said a two-state solution was impossible, and 51 percent said they opposed the idea.

Rabin's rally, an annual event, this year took place amid a spate of Palestinian stabbing and shooting attacks on Israelis, which has left 11 Israelis dead and at least 68 Palestinians killed, including 42 Israel claims are assailants. This round of violence was sparked in September as Palestinians claimed Israel wants to expand the Jewish presence at the Al Aqsa mosque, regarded as the third-holiest site in Islam and revered by Jews as the spot where the first and second Temples stood. Israel denies the claim, but senior government members have supported Jewish activists pushing for prayer rights on the site.

Haskel said that when Rabin was alive, she identified with the peace camp.

Gaza's harbor

Gaza is off limits for Israelis now

"It was a completely different time," said Haskel, 31. "My father took me with him to Gaza to go and pick merchandise for his shop, a furniture shop."

Today, Gaza is an isolated enclave run by the Islamist group Hamas and blockaded by Israel and Egypt.

Haskel was in high school when the second Intifada began as Palestinians violently protested Israeli rule. Twice, she narrowly missed being a victim of bus bombings in her hometown of Kfar Saba, a suburb of Tel Aviv. She enlisted in the Israeli Border Police, where she raided the homes of terrorism suspects in their homes, guarded home demolitions and patrolled demonstrations in east Jerusalem.

Haskel said she sometimes recognized old Peace Now friends at the protests she guarded.

"To me a lot of the time it feels naive. They believe in a kind of dream that is not possible."

Pessimism sets in

Anti-settlement activist Hagit Ofran said Rabin's legacy was the two-state solution.

"Nothing changed," said Ofran. "Israel is still occupying all the Palestinians … And the only solution that doesn't involve endless bloodshed is two states."

Ofran directs Settlement Watch, which tracks construction in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. In 2011, Israeli vandals sprayed graffiti on her Jerusalem home, reading "Rabin is waiting for you."

Dennis Ross, who served as US Ambassador to Israel during Rabin's administration, told DW that during the time of peace negotiations, he watched Rabin and Arafat negotiate issues with a smile and a handshake. Ross recently published "Doomed to Succeed," chronicling the US-Israel relationship from Truman to Obama.

"There was a sense of possibility that not only we had but that the Israelis and Palestinians had," he said. "Today there's no sense of possibility on both sides. It's the same in the US."

Political ambivalence

Israelis marked Rabin's assassination Saturday night with a rally in the square where he gave his last speech. Police said 100,000 people attended the rally, headlined by former US President Bill Clinton, who became a close friend of the late Rabin when both were in office.

Rabin's rally in Tel Aviv this year

One hundred thousand people attended the rally this year

"He risked his life to create and defend Israel," Clinton said. "He spent his life serving Israel to advance your values and your interest. And he gave his life so that you could live in peace. What does it all amount to? Now that is up to you."

The ambivalence in Israel was mirrored in the event's branding. Organizers called it "Remembering the murder, fighting for democracy," and omitted any reference to a two-state solution or to peace. No elected members of Benjamin Netanyahu's government attended, and President Reuven Rivlin skipped the two-state solution in his speech against incitement.

Psychology student Shiri Stern, 22, attended the event with the religious Bnei Akiva youth movement. She said she did not believe in creating a Palestinian state.

"The thing we need to learn from [Rabin's] death is we need to be against violence," she said.

Michael Gomel, 39, a dovish event producer, said he felt uplifted by the record number of participants.

"It fills me with positive energy," he said. "With positive energy you are boosted to think everything is possible and there is still hope indeed, that we'll reach some peace sometime."

Doron, an Israeli business developer who lives near the square, said he attends the rally each year with a sense of dread.

"Unfortunately I don't see anything that will be changed in the near future," said Doron, 48. "It is depressing. But that's the fact. Nothing will be changed here. Everything is getting worse."

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