The most reviled politician in Israel this week—a fine distinction, that—was a young, intelligent, and accomplished member of Knesset for the Labor Party, Einat Wilf. Speaking on the eve of the 15th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, Wilf made the following controversial assertion: By idolizing Rabin as a martyr, she argued, the Labor Party—his party—was focusing on the despair that followed the slain leader’s assassination rather than on the hope his brief tenure engendered. Therefore, Wilf suggested, it was high time to take down Rabin’s gold-framed portrait from the party’s Knesset meeting room, as well as cancel the rally held each year in the Tel Aviv square where Rabin was shot. The condemnations were quick, and they came from all directions. On left and right, Israel’s political class negated Wilf’s proposal as heretical; take down the portrait, pundits argued, cancel the rally, and two or three generations down the line, Rabin’s legacy will be forgotten.
It was a rare moment of political unity, but, like nearly all moments of political unity, it obstructed a complicated and bitter reality. Speaking to Israeli reporters this week, the organizers of the Rabin memorial rally admitted that with attendance diminishing from year to year, they may not have a choice but to cancel the rally or, perhaps, move it to a smaller and less public venue. Niva Lanir, who worked for Rabin and is one of the rally’s main organizers, felt compelled to write an op-ed in Haaretz urging people to take to the streets and honor the late prime minister’s memory.
But why, really, should they? If we look soberly at the past 15 years, we’ll have little choice but to acknowledge that Einat Wilf has it just right: Rather than try to generate an energetic, creative, and inspiring vision to match Rabin’s daring, if flawed, plan, one Israeli leader after another has increasingly relied on the sort of grandiose, sophomoric, and meaningless gestures designed to appeal to the basest characteristics of our nature. This downward spiral is sometimes evident even just by looking at the same politicians longitudinally: For all his many flaws, Benjamin Netanyahu of 1998 was at least capable of engaging in creative and productive undertakings such as the Wye River Memorandum; the best Netanyahu of 2010 can do is contemplate whether or not to freeze settlement construction for short bursts of time.
I was in the square the night Rabin was shot, but, sadly, I agree that the rally commemorating his legacy has become an empty gesture. Much like that other, and more recent, call for public display of patriotism, the loyalty oath, the rally is no more than another empty move that, like all matters sound-and-fury, signifies nothing. Speeches and statements—be they pledges of allegiance or paeans to a dead leader—won’t extricate Israel from the quagmire it is in. Only deeds of real substance can do that.