Will Sharon Share Rabin’s Fate?

Nov. 4 marks the ninth anniversary of the single-worst moment in Israel’s history: the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. With hindsight — although many recognized it at the time — it is clear that the Rabin murder achieved the goal of its perpetrator.

The assassin, and those who encouraged him, wanted to end the Oslo process. They understood that Rabin was uniquely equipped to achieve the exchange of the West Bank and Gaza Strip for security and peace. They believed that unless he was stopped, the old warrior would take Israel out of the territories, a Palestinian state would arise there and Israel’s isolation (an isolation the extremists welcome) would be over.

So they murdered him and, within a very short time, the peace process was in tatters while Israel’s control of the West Bank and Gaza — and over the lives of nearly 4 million Palestinians — was stronger than ever. Mission accomplished.

This pattern — an assassin eliminates his target and thereby alters fundamental policies — is not common. President Kennedy’s murder traumatized America (perhaps permanently) but the policies he pursued were implemented by his successor, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ never missed an opportunity to say “let us continue” or to invoke his martyred predecessor as a means of building support for their shared policies.

Unlike Rabin’s, Kennedy’s murder was not political. He was, most likely, murdered by a single unbalanced individual whose agenda, if he had one, remains unknown. He was probably not trying to thwart Kennedy’s programs and the assassination had no such effect. In fact, it had the opposite effect.

It was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s assassination that foreshadowed Rabin’s; he was murdered by Islamic extremists who opposed peace with Israel. They hoped that Sadat’s successor, Vice President Hosni Mubarak, would repudiate the peace treaty and Sadat’s legacy. They were wrong — 22 years have passed and Sadat’s policy is firmly in place.

There is a certain irony here. Until Rabin’s assassination, and the ensuing collapse of the peace process, a staple of the pro-Israel argument was that Israel had to be very cautious about signing treaties with undemocratic Arab nations like Egypt. After all, it was argued, a single bullet could eliminate Sadat and leave Israel in a situation where it relinquished territory only to have some radical new leader repudiate the treaty and revert to the war policies of the past. It was only in a democracy like Israel that continuity between governments was guaranteed.

It didn’t turn out that way. Egypt’s policies were unchanged by an assassination while Israel’s were up-ended.

The lesson is that in Israel assassination can achieve what politics can not.

So it is no surprise that so many people in Israel are worried that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon might be assassinated to stop the withdrawal from Gaza. Shimon Peres, leader of the Labor opposition, said this week that the atmosphere in Israel today resembles the period just prior to Rabin’s murder. “I am very fearful of the incitement, from the grave things that are being heard,” he said. “I hope the defense establishment … is keeping a close eye on Sharon.”

There is no doubt that it is keeping an eye on him. But Sharon will be in danger right up to the moment that the last settler has left Gaza, because the Rabin precedent demonstrates that eliminating just one man can eliminate the policy.

The fact is that withdrawing from Gaza should not be a big deal. The overwhelming majority of Israelis want out. Even before Oslo, most Israelis said that they would happily give Gaza to the Palestinians. Unlike the West Bank, Gaza is of no religious significance and, in contrast to the West Bank with its 200,000 settlers, only 7,000 Jews live in Gaza. It should not be hard to get them out, once a prime minister has decided to evacuate.

And that is precisely why a Sharon failure to achieve implementation would be so significant. If Sharon is unable to get out of Gaza, imagine how difficult it would be for a future prime minister to get out of the West Bank.

The resistance to Gaza withdrawal — with its threats on the prime minister and calls on soldiers not to follow orders — suggests that the very idea of Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank could become moot.

Even without the assassination threats, the hysteria provides ample evidence that a minority of Israelis who love the “Land of Israel” more than the “State of Israel” are ready to block territorial compromise using any means they can.

Sad to say, some American Jews are joining them. Morton Klein’s right-wing Zionist Organization of America (always ready to fight to the last Israeli) not surprisingly opposes Sharon’s plan, but even the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations has refused to formally back it.

For some supporters of the peace process, Gaza withdrawal seems far from earthshaking. It’s only Gaza and it does not solve Israel’s demographic problem or end the war with the Palestinians.

But Sharon’s enemies know that everything is riding on it. They understand that Sharon’s success in getting out would not make Israeli-Palestinian peace inevitable but only possible. But they also understand that stopping the Gaza withdrawal would preclude any possibility of peace, perhaps forever. After all, if compromise over the West Bank is foreclosed as an option, Palestinians will have nothing to negotiate about. That is why the extremists will stop at nothing to thwart Sharon. They will do virtually anything to prevent negotiations that would result in compromise.

None of this makes Sharon a dove. He is who he always was: a man of the right, probably as unwilling to get out of the West Bank as his opponents. Nevertheless, all those — Israeli, Palestinian, American — who want to see Rabin’s dream realized have no choice but to hope that Sharon prevails. And survives.

M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy analysis for Israel Policy Forum, is a longtime Washington staffer and former editor of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Near East Report.