Lesson of Rabin's death: Protest, yes; violence, no

by Uri Dromi
Fri., Nov. 4, 2005

JERUSALEM -- The 10th anniversary of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination allows us to reflect on the Israeli society from two perspectives: peace and democracy.

With the hindsight of a decade, we can ask ourselves whether Israelis have become more -- or less -- supportive of the peace process with the Palestinians; and whether the Israeli democracy, fragile even before the assassination, has suffered a serious blow, or, to the contrary, has become stronger.

Have Israelis, in the last decade, lost hope in peace? A survey carried out by Professor Asher Arian of the Israel Democracy Institute, released this week, reveals that the opposite is true.

Arian and his team examined the influence of Rabin's assassination on the individual's political leanings. They found that, in July 2005, most of the Jewish public declared that Rabin's assassination had not changed their attitudes concerning the peace process (79 percent) or their attitude concerning territorial concessions (72 percent). Furthermore, when the assassination did change someone's attitude toward the peace process, the influence was mostly in the direction of support for the process: About 16 percent of those who changed their views in the wake of the assassination became more supportive of the peace process, as opposed to about 5 percent who became less supportive of the process since the assassination.

What about the impact of the assassination on the Israeli democracy? A widespread claim in the last decade is that the Israeli democracy, even before the assassination, has been suffering from a deep legitimacy crisis owing to the decline in the status of such democratic values as tolerance, human dignity and acceptance of the democratic rules of the game. The internalization of democratic values, according to those who support them, could have prevented the assassination.

Again, this claim is not entirely supported by the finding of the survey. Immediately after the assassination, the importance of democracy for Jews vis--vis other values (peace, a Jewish state and Greater Israel) increased sharply. At the same time, support for all kinds of protest -- legal, illegal, and violent -- decreased. Support for and political tolerance of right-wing groups declined. In time, tolerance of these groups returned to the levels before the assassination and even continued to rise, alongside all our measures of tolerance. Several months after the assassination, support for legal protest again rose. These changes, as a whole, signal an acknowledgement of the price incurred through failure to sustain democratic values, in the spirit of Yitzhak Rabin's words at the demonstration where he was assassinated: ``Violence erodes the core of Israeli democracy.''

Israelis, then, internalized the lessons of their prime minister's assassination: ''Protest, yes; violence, no.'' This was clearly manifested in the recent disengagement, when the public systematically supported Ariel Sharon's decision to pull out of Gaza, while at the same time showing empathy toward the grievances of the settlers. The Israeli public wasn't willing to tolerate one thing, however, and that is violence. Therefore, in spite of the grim prophecies of bloodshed and civil war, the disengagement was completed -- with a lot of painful sights and with many forms of protest -- but without the extreme violence that everybody dreaded.

Yigal Amir, Rabin's assassin, tried to halt both the peace and the democratization processes, in which the Israeli society had invested itself. It seems that he failed: Israelis still want peace, and they cherish their democracy.

The threat to peace and democracy, however, is not over. According to the Israeli General Security Services, there are today tens, if not hundreds, of potential political assassins like Amir. The GSS has done its utmost to foil their schemes. Yet, it is up to the Israelis, by strengthening the democratic values, to pull the rug from under the feet of the new Yigal Amirs.

Uri Dromi is the director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem. Between 1992-1996 he was the spokesman of the Rabin and Peres governments.