Israeli far-right still blocking peace 20 years after Rabin

Two decades on from assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli far-right maintains stranglehold on efforts to bring about two-state solution with Palestinians

Photo by: Public Domain
Photo by: Public Domain

Updated Feb 24, 2016

It has been 20 years since the assassination of Israel’s former centre-left Labor Party Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir, just weeks after the Oslo II Accords were signed in Taba, Egypt, between Israel and Palestine. Amir, an ultra-orthodox Jewish activist who had long been opposed to the Oslo Accords which many conservative Israelis saw as a forfeiting of Palestinian lands under their occupation, has since expressed no regret over the killing, saying he was “satisfied” and believed he was acting on the “orders of God.”

Both Yigal Amir and his brother Hagai, who belong to an ultra-conservative sect of Judaism that does not recognise the secular state of Israel, were arrested. While Yigal remains in prison, Hagai was released in 2012 after serving a 16-year prison sentence for conspiring with his brother. Hagai was arrested again on Oct. 27 after saying in a Facebook post that it was time for “[Israeli President Reuven] Rivlin and the Zionist State to pass from this world” in response to a speech by Rivlin a day earlier in which he said Yigal would not be released from prison.

Rabin, who was by no means lenient in his approach to the Palestinians, served as Israel’s defence minister and was the spearhead of the infamous “Iron Fist” crackdown on Palestinian nationalism during the first intifada [Palestinian uprising]. The policy saw the violent dispersal of Palestinian protests and the mass arrests and beatings of Palestinian activists campaigning against the occupation of Palestinian lands in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel seized in the Six-Day War of 1967.

It was only after the US took the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) off the terror list following the Madrid Conference in 1991 and recognised it as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people" that Israel followed suit, signing the first Oslo agreement in 1993. The commencement of the Oslo process, however, earned Rabin a number of enemies in the Israeli right-wing, including current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party, who in 1995 led protests against the peace process in which demonstrators held posters of Rabin dressed as a Nazi.

Nonetheless, the Oslo Accords failed to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and escalating tensions led to renewed efforts in the US-brokered 2000 Camp David negotiations between then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party and PLO head Yasser Arafat. The negotiations likewise failed to secure an agreement, and a year later, Likud’s Ariel Sharon, whose visit to the Al Aqsa Mosque compound had triggered the second Palestinian intifada, was elected as Barak’s replacement. The intifada continued until the death of Arafat in late 2004, with it officially being declared over by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in February 2005 when talks resumed.

However, over a decade on from the end of the second intifada, a new generation of Palestinian youth, having grown frustrated by the absence of a solution to the conflict, are intensifying their protests against the Israeli occupation, as analysts indicate the new uprising could be a third intifada.

The recent spike in incidents comes after Israeli police stormed the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in East Jerusalem in September, clashing with Palestinian worshippers as they cleared the site to make way for ultra-orthodox Jews wishing to mark the Jewish new year holiday of Rosh Hashanah. The Al Aqsa Mosque, referred to by Jews as the Temple Mount, is a significant symbol for Palestinians and one of the holiest places in Islam. It is also sacred for Jews as it is believed to have once been the site of the ancient Temple of Solomon, which was destroyed by the Babylonians 2,000 years ago. According to international agreements, the site is administered by the Palestinian Al Waqf foundation, which is supervised by Jordan.

One of the most prominent figures standing against Israel's settlement policy and its policies relating to the Al Aqsa Mosque, Raed Salah, who is the leader of the 1948 Islamic Movement, said that he expects the outbreak of a third intifada in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem if abuses of Al Aqsa mosque by Jewish settlers and police continue. Likewise, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned Israel to avoid any risks that will result in “new Palestinian intifada.”

Following the raid, Abbas also told the 193-nation United Nations General Assembly in New York that Palestinians are "no longer bound" to the Oslo Accords if they are not "internationally protected" from Israel. Responding to Abbas' speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said Abbas' statements were "deceitful and [encourage] incitement and lawlessness in the Middle East."

In the escalating violence, over 70 Palestinians and a dozen Israelis were killed in the month of October alone. Around half of the Palestinians casualties reportedly occurred while they were attacking Israelis. Among measures introduced to quell the violence, Arab sectors in the Israeli occupied East Jerusalem were sealed off, while Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat called on Israelis to carry firearms with them at all times.

Meanwhile, the Israeli far-right has been calling for a return to the policies enforced during the second intifada, with Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party, both ministers in Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition, organising demonstrations outside the prime minister’s residence on Oct. 5. Ministers Zeev Elkin, Yariv Levin and Haim Katz and opposition Yisrael Beitenu party head Avigdor Liberman were also in attendance along with 10,000 Israelis.

Today, Netanyahu, like his late predecessor Rabin, is caught in a dilemma regarding his domestic and international obligations. While under pressure by the international community to cooperate in the peace process, the Israeli far-right, to whom he is indebted for his re-election as prime minister this year, continues to bang the drums of war against the Palestinians.

Having only won 30 of the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament in March, Netanyahu was able to prevent Likud’s main rival, the centre-left Labor Party, from coming into power by merging a coalition with the centrist Kulanu Party [10 seats], the ultra-orthodox United Torah Judaism party [7 seats], the Shas Party [6 seats] and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home [8 seats] in a last-minute deal, securing a narrow majority of 61 seats in total. Many of the right-wing parties had told their supporters to vote for Likud, the most popular right-wing party, in order to prevent Labor, which won 24 seats, from forming a coalition of their own which might have included the Israeli Arab party, Joint List, which won a significant 13 seats in the parliament.

The right-wing parties also encourage the continuation of the illegal settlement building in the occupied West Bank. In July, 300 new settler residences in the Beit El area of the West Bank were ordered alongside the granting of planning approval for another 504 settler homes in occupied areas of East Jerusalem. Also in July, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announced plans to “legalise” Jewish settlements in the West Bank through the formation of a new committee. Consequently, plans were then drawn up by the Israeli military to grant building permission for 1,065 settlement units in the West Bank. According to a report released on July 23 by Israeli settlement watchdog group Peace Now, the plans include building permission for 541 new homes, the “legalisation” of 228 existing homes, and the approval of infrastructure for the construction of a further 296 homes.

Approximately 400,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank in settlements that are largely condemned as being illegal by the international community, which sees settlement building as undermining international efforts to reach a two-state solution. Israel walked out of talks after Palestinians announced the formation of a joint government with the Hamas political party, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007. Hamas is deemed by Israel to be a “terrorist” organisation. The collapse of talks led to a brief war between Israel and Hamas in the summer of 2014, which killed over 2,200 Palestinians - mostly civilians, including 504 children. Meanwhile, 72 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were also killed. The unity government was later dissolved in June 2015.

Netanyahu, who himself was once leading Likud’s protests against Rabin, in a special session of the Israeli parliament on Oct. 26 praised him as a man who "knew how to fight terrorism without making concessions." But current Labor Party head Isaac Herzog slammed Netanyahu, saying Rabin had been labelled as a traitor by the right-wing for supporting a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. Herzog was subsequently booed off the platform by right-wing lawmakers. Such speeches by Netanyahu are also condemned by the Palestinians, with Palestinian Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat recently telling Al Jazeera’s Up Front programme that the Israeli prime minister “wants to dictate rather than negotiate” in the peace talks.

At the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem on Oct. 20, Netanyahu went as far as absolving Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler of the Holocaust by blaming then-Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini, for giving Hitler the idea of exterminating millions of Jewish people during World War II. His comments were not only denounced by the Israeli opposition and the Palestinians, they were also rebuked by the West, with Germany reaffirming its responsibility for the Holocaust. Although Netanyahu later denied trying to absolve Hitler, the damage had already been done.

Nevertheless, with such rhetoric Netanyahu continues to appease the increasingly restless Israeli far-right at the expense of the peace process and Western creditors. Two decades ago, Rabin was assassinated because he had prioritised Israel’s standing in the international arena over the protests of his right-wing critics. Even right-wing Likud’s Ariel Sharon, who was the Israeli defence minister during the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinians in 1982, was threatened by Hagai Amir after he ordered the pull-out of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005. As a result, Hagai Amir’s sentence was extended by 12 months in 2006. As analysts continue to debate whether the recent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis amount to a third intifada, a separate intifada within the Israeli right-wing has seemingly hijacked the peace process, which they have been trying to derail since it began over 20 years ago.

Author: Ertan Karpazli