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No Justice, No Peace: Rabin’s Legacy Under Fire

A congresswoman’s cancellation engenders questions about the fallen Israeli leader’s reputation as a peacemaker

A quarter-century ago, peace was snuffed out by an assassin’s bullet. Or so the narrative goes.

On Tuesday night, Americans for Peace Now marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin with a virtual memorial. The event features American Jewish actor Mandy Patinkin, Minnesota Attorney-General Keith Ellison, Israeli pop star Netta Barzilai and more. But, it is in the headlines more for who is not there.

US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a star of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, initially accepted an invitation to speak at the memorial. Upon being made aware via tweet of the less-than-favorable view of Rabin within much of the Palestinian community, Ocasio-Cortez promptly backed, claiming she had been unaware of the memorial’s purpose.

Her office would later tell a reporter – in what was supposed to be an off-record conversation – that Ocasio-Cortez thought the event was to be a discussion of how to advance peace, and not to celebrate Rabin’s life. And while she did not wish to “indict” Rabin’s legacy, she did not want to honor it, either, just as “she wouldn’t honor American founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and George Washington due to their complicated history as slave owners,” her office said.

Rabin’s signing of the Oslo Accords with PLO leader Yasser Arafat earned him a Nobel Peace Prize. It also led to his being murdered by a far-right Jewish gunman who felt Rabin was willing to give up far too much to the Palestinians.

The assassination led to the lionization of Rabin globally as a man who paid the ultimate price in pursuit of peace.

But peace is messy. And some say that without justice, it is meaningless.

Rabin was not a peacemaker. He was a pragmatist

“I remember two experiments to introduce justice into the political process,” Avraham “Avrum” Burg, former Knesset speaker and Israeli interim president, told The Media Line. “The first was the South African [National Truth and Reconciliation Commission] and the Rwandan [National Unity and Reconciliation Commission] experience, which did not undo the past, but it gave people the feeling of ‘Wow! Somebody cares. Somebody listens. He confessed. I suffered. We meet.’

“The second was during the 1990s. There were two individuals. One was Joschka Fischer of the Greens in Germany and the other one was the foreign minister of Britain, Robin Cook, who really tried to introduce justice as a legitimate component in world diplomacy. Cynicism defeated them,” he continued.

“There are a lot of emotions and there is a lot of hypocrisy in the relationship between us [Israelis] and the Palestinians. Let’s begin with the emotions. When my Palestinian friend comes to me and says, ‘Avrum, we had a Nakba. We had a tragedy in which 400 villages were demolished, all the history of Palestinians was erased and you kicked us out. It was really bad.’ And I tell him, ‘This is bad? Wait until you hear about my Holocaust.’ So in two-and-a-half minutes, it’s Holocaust versus Nakba, which is actually a competition of traumas. Mine is bigger. Instead of continuing and saying, ‘I’m sorry, and let’s see how we produce a better future,’ we permanently revisit the past. We always fight about whose past is more right, factually speaking,” Burg said.

There has never been peace that has been pursued for 72 years, because they have never tied it together with justice

“There has never been peace that has been pursued for 72 years, because they have never tied it together with justice,” Terry Ahwal, president of the American Federation of Ramallah Palestine, told The Media Line, speaking in her personal capacity.

“I viewed first-hand the iron fist of Rabin, ordering the breaking of bones of protesters and his shoot-to-kill orders during the First Intifada,” Ahwal said.

Then-defense minister Rabin was accused by an Israeli colonel of ordering soldiers in January 1988 to break the limbs of “Palestinian inciters.” Rabin denied the allegation, saying he ordered the army to beat rioters only to bring them under control. The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, declined to investigate.

“Rabin was one of the architects of the occupation and his policies never skewed from oppressing Palestinian people. So, he’s not a peacemaker, and to honor him as one is farfetched. I was excited about the [Oslo] peace plan, because I assumed there would be equality and a genuine peace based on justice. But, peace without justice is nothing but tyranny,” said Ahwal.

“The first thing is to recognize the atrocity, including expelling 750,000 people. To start peace, you must recognize your wrongdoing. You bring two sides to the table, not through coercion and bribes, and look at facts on the ground and come to a solution. Justice is defined by the recognition that Palestinians have been wronged,” she said.

For Ahwal and others, peace cannot come through simply drawing borders on a map, without a full accounting of the past.

What is justice? There is never a case where everyone gets exactly what they want. There are many in American progressive life and in pro-Palestine circles working for peace. But, peace has to be mutually agreed upon, and peace is made with enemies. You can negotiate peace in a lot of different ways. Justice is much more difficult to come by

“What is justice? There is never a case where everyone gets exactly what they want,” Hadar Susskind, president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now, told The Media Line. “There are many in American progressive life and in pro-Palestine circles working for peace. But, peace has to be mutually agreed upon, and peace is made with enemies. You can negotiate peace in a lot of different ways. Justice is much more difficult to come by,” Susskind said.

“Rabin was not a peacemaker. He was a pragmatist,” Burg told The Media Line. “To elevate him to the level of peace sainthood is a little bit of exaggeration. I am not at all sure that there was ever a liberal progressive-left peace camp in Israel.

“Even the Labor Party [of which Burg was a member] was never a real left party. It was a kind of national socialist one, but it was about building the nation rather than doing universal justice or whatever it is and I can show you the history of how we are thought about it from the point of view of an average Arab: Who led ’48 [the Israel War of Independence], ’56 [the Suez War], ’67 [the Six-Day War]? You name it, it’s all Labor. October 2000 [violent protests in which Israeli police killed 13 Palestinian Israeli citizens]. It’s all Labor and Labor was never there as a real peace movement,” he continued.

“In Israel, there is an illusion. When you say somebody’s a lefty, it’s only because he or she supports a kind of a political deal with the Palestinians, but he or she might be a neo-con economically, patronizing socially, discriminating ethnically. But, they’re left because they want peace with the Palestinians,” Burg said.

“It doesn’t work this way. We never had a real comprehensive social democratic, forget about Bernie Sanders-style, [party]. Not even a mainstream Joe Biden[-style party], which says I’m all for secularization of the public space, fairness in the distribution of public resources, equality between all citizens, and constitutional rules of the game. When you say this in America, you’re a mainstream Democrat, right? I mean, that is a boring mainstream Democrat. When you say this in Tel Aviv − forget about in Jerusalem − you are a no-goodnik; you are poison. So, there was never a real left here. And, therefore, there was never a real comprehensive, progressive peace approach to the issue,” he said.

“Furthermore, all of those like Rabin and like [the late prime minister Shimon] Peres and even like me for many years of my life, had an illusion which is as follows: ‘Hi, Palestinians. Come over, we’d like to talk to you.’ Always to you, never with you. ‘We’ll give you ’67 [the territory Israel took in the Six-Day War], so you’ll give up on ’48. That’s the deal. That’s Oslo. And I say a real peace takes the whole history and says, ‘Yalla [Come on], let’s reshuffle, restart, reset, maybe not everything, but at least let’s put it on the table. Let’s see what happened in ’48 and what can be done about it, what happened in ’67 and what can be done about it. But the concept that you can politically persuade the other side to give up their tragedy is hollow,” said Burg, now a member of the Arab-Jewish, anti-Zionist Hadash party.

Arafat broke down in tears after learning of Yitzhak Rabin’s death, according to the US consul general in Jerusalem, who conveyed the news.

All these years, another intifada and a broken peace process later, few Jewish Israelis would shed a tear for Arafat, considered by most of them to be an archterrorist.

And as the familiar cry of “No justice, no peace” rings out through pro-Palestinian protests in America and elsewhere, Rabin’s nearly universal status as a peacemaker will continue to be challenged.