TEL AVIV — Tens of thousands of Israelis filled a central square here Saturday night to mark the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, shot in the back by a Jewish extremist who wanted to derail the peace process with Palestinians.
There was folk music, Scout troops and political speeches — a celebration of an Israeli commando who became a general, helped found a nation, and overcame deep mistrust to forge historic agreements with the Palestinians. Rabin and Shimon Peres won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 alongside their antagonist, Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat.
Although the crowds were large, many Israelis confessed fatigue. “Nothing ever changes,” said Ari Yakov, 49, who drove from Jerusalem to attend. Asked whom he blamed, Yakov said: “All of us. But mostly the leaders.”
A final peace deal, even a minor advance, has eluded the players for decades. Israelis find themselves again the targets of deadly knife attacks and violent demonstrations by Palestinians, who despair of ever having sovereignty over the land they want for a future state.
In Sunday’s newspapers, Israeli columnists mostly described the annual commemoration in gloomy terms, as a respectful gesture of remembrance that has become, if not exactly hollow, then something exhausted.
Israeli editorialists called it a “rally of despair,” a “rally to nowhere” and another “beautiful, sad rally.”
They pointed out that Israel’s old left comes out to mourn Rabin and the early promise of the Oslo Accords, while the country’s ascendant right mostly ignores the anniversary.
Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor members of his government attended.
Rabin’s daughter, Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, said that Israel is consumed by “an unbridled incitement, the same incitement that created the impression that it was allowed and possible to shoot a prime minister.”
The highlight of the evening, judging by the applause, was an address by former U.S. president Bill Clinton, who told the audience that he loved Rabin.
The leaders were negotiating the implementation of the interim peace deal when Rabin was gunned down. It was a political murder that Israelis often compare to the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Clinton said that Rabin signed the Oslo Accords because he never wanted to see Israel forced to choose whether it would be a Jewish or democratic state, given the military occupation that leaves Palestinians with stunted civil rights and limited self-rule. (Rabin, according to historians, never publicly endorsed the idea of a Palestinian nation but spoke of an independent entity.)
Clinton recalled that even as they worked to hammer out a deal with the Palestinians, there were terror attacks against Israel. “Whenever there was a terrible incident here I would call him and he would repeat what we referred to in the White House as ‘Rabin’s law’ — that Israel will fight terror as if there are no negotiations, but negotiate as if there is no terrorism.”
Clinton called Rabin’s legacy “clear and untouchable. He risked his life, gave his life, so that you could live in peace.”
Then he asked, “What does it all amount to? That is up to you.”
In the months before his assassination, Rabin was the subject of intense anger from opponents of territorial concessions, especially the idea that some Jewish settlements could be abandoned. He was vilified as a traitor and portrayed in posters with photos altered to depict him wearing a Nazi SS officer’s uniform.
Recently, fans of Jerusalem’s national soccer team enthusiastically chanted the name of Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir, alongside the usual call of “Death to Arabs.”
These days, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is a target. The conservative Likud member is opposed to a Palestinian state but speaks often of the need for peaceful coexistence. He has been branded an Arab-lover by his critics and vilified on social media as a Nazi.
As the Rabin assassination anniversary approached, Rivlin announced that as long as he was president, he would never release Amir, who is serving a life sentence. “May my right hand wither if I ever sign a pardon for that wretched man,” he said.
Last week, Amir’s brother and co-conspirator, Hagai Amir, who was released after serving 16 years, posted on his Facebook page his hope that Rivlin would soon die.
“It’s time for Rivlin and the Zionist state to pass out of existence, just like Sodom for the crimes committed against their own people,” Amir wrote. He was sentenced to brief house arrest and fined for incitement.
“To those who seek to silence, threaten — who clench their fists, create pictures of the SS, or threaten parliamentarians, judges, ministers, or prime ministers — I want to tell you: We’re not afraid of you,” Rivlin said Saturday.
In the Maariv newspaper, the columnist Eyal Levy pointed out the incongruity of Rivlin saying these words while standing behind “armored glass capable of stopping even a terrifying burst from a machine gun.”
At a meeting in Israel’s parliament last week, Netanyahu brushed aside speculation of what would have happened if Rabin had lived. “It’s irrelevant,” the prime minister said. He blamed radical Islam instead for the violence, a movement that has “nothing to do with us.”
Netanyahu said that Israel must control all of the occupied territory “for the foreseeable future.”
In answer to the opposition, Netanyahu said, “You think there is a magic wand here, but I disagree. I’m asked if we will forever live by the sword? Yes.”