Like all Israelis of my generation, I remember the night of Nov. 4, 1995.
Having just heard from the news desk editor at Israel's Haaretz newspaper that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been shot, I called Palestinian officials for reaction. I was Haaretz's Palestinian affairs correspondent at the time and was on the phone with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat when I heard on Israel Radio that Rabin's spokesman was about to make a statement. As Eitan Haber hushed the crowed, I started translating for Erekat: "The government of Israel announces in dismay, in great sadness, and in deep sorrow, the death of Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Yitzhak Rabin, who was murdered by an assassin, tonight in Tel Aviv."
I was crying, and I heard Saeb's voice cracking as well. I had known him for many years, since he was the editorial writer of al-Quds, the popular Palestinian daily, and used to brief Israeli reporters on Palestinian politics while smoking on the steps of al-Quds' East Jerusalem office. Over the years, we laughed a lot together. I never imagined us crying together.
We cried because of the shock, but also because we realized that this was seminal moment, that the bullets that killed Rabin were aimed at peace, and that they may very well kill prospects for peace. Crying together was an expression of the bond, the partnership, between pro-peace Israelis and Palestinians.
At that moment — and actually ever since — Israelis and Palestinians who support a two-state peace deal have been crying together, lamenting the ever-increasing strength of the enemies of peace, the zealots on both sides.
Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir, became one of the most successful assassins in history. He killed so much more than the person he had targeted. Months after he pulled the trigger, a right-wing government took power, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, who has since been working hard to thwart Rabin's legacy and hinder efforts to resolve Israel's conflict with the Palestinians.
A lot will be said about Rabin's legacy in the coming days, leading up to the Nov. 4 anniversary. There is a sharp debate over that legacy. In retrospect, it is safe to say that Rabin left behind a country torn between two conflicting worldviews, and therefore two conflicting visions.
On one side there is an extremist Israel, an Israel that is characterized by a combination of jingoistic nationalism and religious conservatism, by ethnocentrism and xenophobia, by intolerance of dissent and disrespect for basic democratic principles. Many in this camp are motivated by a messianic vision, which hinges on the redemption of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the establishment of a Greater Israel that is biblically defined both by borders and by Halakhic law.
On the other side, there are Israelis who, both despite and because of the ever intensifying violence and tension, realize that long-lasting security will best be achieved through peace agreements, and that a peace agreement with the Palestinians is vital for Israel if it is to be a real democracy and to maintain its character as a Jewish state. This Israel sanctifies life over land, puts peace and security before settlements, cares deeply about its relations with the United States and other international allies, and yearns for Israel to be a deservingly proud and respectable member of the family of nations.
What Rabin left behind is a culture war fought between those who share Yigal Amir's worldview and who benefit from his murderous action, and those who share Rabin's worldview and are striving to make it into a reality. It's a battle over Israel's soul, its character, its future.
As this battle rages, Americans who care about Israel must take sides. It is not their right, it's their duty. If they care about Israel and cherish Rabin's legacy, they must support pragmatists on both sides — Israelis and Palestinians — and do whatever they can to not let the zealots win.
Ori Nir, a former correspondent for Israel's Haaretz newspaper, is director of communications and public engagement at Americans for Peace Now.