Photo: Rachael Warriner /
AOC ignites a debate about Yitzhak Rabin

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez abruptly withdrew from an event honoring Rabin, sparking debate about his complicated past.

Progressive New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez found herself in the middle of another Israel-related controversy this week. She had agreed to appear at a memorial for former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, shortly before the 25th anniversary of his assassination in 1995 by a Jewish extremist.

AOC, as she is often called, began reconsidering her appearance after a tweet from journalist Alex Kane highlighting Rabin’s sordid past with regard to treatment of Palestinians. And after many Palestinians and supporters voiced their displeasure at AOC’s planned appearance, her office announced that she was canceling her appearance at the event.

It seems likely that AOC or her staff didn’t investigate the event deeply enough, or perhaps someone didn’t grasp the highly divergent views of Rabin held by Israelis, Palestinians, and the supporters of each around the world.

The current leader of Rabin’s Labor party, Amir Peretz, typified the pro-Israel response, tweeting, “It would behoove our friends around the world to know: to be a Zionist, a patriot and a supporter of peace is not a contradiction, but whole values that complete each other.” A wide range of Israeli tweets echoed that view.

Many Jewish people voiced support for AOC’s decision, while Palestinian voices were overwhelming in their initial criticism of the congresswoman’s attendance at the event, and, later, in support of her withdrawal.

Time will tell what this means politically, as AOC risked the ire of both right-wing and liberal supporters of Israel to avoid offending Palestinians and their supporters. That is a remarkable step for a rising star in the Democratic party from New York City, and it has provoked a deeper examination of Yitzhak Rabin’s place in history.

The divided view of Rabin

The popular image of Yitzhak Rabin for Israelis as well as most people in the United States and Europe is that of a one-time soldier who changed his outlook and became a peacemaker. That is a superficial image, but even those who look deeper come out with disparate views of the man.

For liberal Israelis who want to see the occupation end with a Palestinian state, Rabin was a man who braved the furor of right-wing Jewish fanatics to shake hands with Yasir Arafat and try to usher in a new future for Israel where they were not depriving millions of people of their rights. They see a man who turned his back on decades of war, tried to make peace, and was killed for his efforts. By now, 25 years later, even much of the pro-Israel right has co-opted that image of Rabin for their own purposes.

But to Palestinians, Yitzhak Rabin was the man who, in 1948, ordered the town of Lydda to be emptied of Palestinians. This act of ethnic cleansing was followed by years of military activity, including his prominent role in the capture of East Jerusalem in 1967, his years as Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, and other military and political roles, up to his two terms as Israel’s Prime Minister.

Rabin’s role in the 1993 Oslo Agreements won him part of the Nobel Peace Prize that year. But Oslo did not improve the lives of Palestinians and in his eagerness to mollify the infuriated Israeli right-wing, Rabin allowed a huge expansion of settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza.

When, in 1987, the Palestinian people rose up against Israeli rule, Rabin — then the Minister of Defense — responded to that intifada by famously ordering Israeli security to break the bones of demonstrators. Later, in 1993, Rabin, in his effort to convince the Israeli public of the utility of the Oslo Accords, said publicly that Arafat could better keep control of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza because he could operate “without the High Court and without B’Tselem,” a reference to the prominent Israeli human rights group. That quote was particularly illustrative of the divided image Rabin projected.

Rabin was telling the Israeli people that Arafat and the new Palestinian Authority could police the Palestinian masses without the annoying constraints of legal due process and human rights groups that could publicize incidents of abuse to the Israeli public. Security measures against Palestinians remained popular, even among Rabin’s supporters, and this seemed to promise a way to maintain those measures with fewer legal and political problems for Israel.

Palestinians, naturally, saw this very differently, and it was a key reason that Palestinian faith in the Oslo process faded so quickly after it was implemented. While Rabin shook hands with Arafat on the White House lawn and shared cigarettes with King Hussein of Jordan, Israeli settlements were expanding faster than ever, and human rights abuses against Palestinians — now being carried out by both Palestinian and Israeli forces — worsened.

Israelis in the Labor and Meretz parties, meanwhile struggled to fend off right-wing attacks against their government and against the deal with the PLO that seemed to promise a future of greater peace, security, and prosperity. Politically, it was often a difficult fight. The right wing was passionate and frantically afraid that Rabin was going to abandon the West Bank and Gaza to the PLO. The government Rabin headed was a fragile one, dependent on the whims of the Sephardi ultra-orthodox Shas party, and support from outside the governing coalition from the communist Hadash party and the Arab Democratic Party.

The political struggles were intense, and the split between the left and right wings of Israeli society were greater and more acrimonious than ever. When they culminated in Rabin’s murder, it was natural to read the event as Rabin having sacrificed his life for peace.

But again, Palestinians saw a different picture. “While he was purportedly ‘seeking peace’ he continued to build Israeli settlements,” tweeted former PLO spokeswoman Diana Buttu, “and when a settler massacred Palestinians in Hebron in 1994 instead of removing settlers he fortified them. He had choices: he chose apartheid.”

In the wake of Rabin’s death, the assumption that he had intended to move gradually toward an independent Palestinian state next to Israel became, for many, a certainty. U.S. President Bill Clinton and most of the American, Israeli, and European media bolstered this image. But Rabin never committed to that goal.

Some Palestinians did mourn Rabin, seeing some short-term gains with Oslo. And most certainly expected that matters would get worse under Benjamin Netanyahu, who was elected mere months after having been widely blamed for inciting Rabin’s murder.

Overall, Rabin’s death was greeted in the Palestinian territories with apprehension. He had not been a friend to the Palestinians, and the things that had made him a hero to Israelis were not, overall, experienced the same way among Palestinians. It was this ambiguity that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unwittingly stepped in this week.

But, as politically difficult as it might have been for her, it will be helpful if we can all get a clearer, fairer picture of Yitzhak Rabin, who, like most of us, was a complex figure who needs to be understood in the fullness of his actions, which affected different people in very different ways. 

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