No people have their fate so starkly determined by the international words and actions of their elected head of government as Israelis. Their prime ministers, who head the precariously assembled coalition governments of a still-unfinished state, hold unique power, far beyond their limited domestic role, to determine their country's basic identity, its role in the world, its level of violence and even its physical shape.
We should be acutely aware of that unique power and its consequences this year. Not just because Israel faces an election this month, or because Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister, made headlines this week by attempting to disrupt U.S. politics and international nuclear-weapons negotiations with Iran in an apparent effort to engineer a stronger standing in that election. Above all this, because it is 20 years since prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a member of his country's religious right.
This is not just the distant anniversary of one country's political tragedy; it remains a current event. Mr. Rabin's death is very much still taking place in Israel. The country's current politics was forged in its aftermath, in large part by Mr. Netanyahu himself as a reaction against the political geometry embodied by Mr. Rabin's coalition and the emerging national reconciliation that was taking shape before the assassin's bullets ended it.
The political challenge that existed in 1995, as it does today, lies in finding a way to resolve the one created in 1967. That year, Israel successfully and rightly defended its legal borders against military threats from neighbouring Arab states so successfully that its ceasefire lines extended far beyond the borders established, and internationally recognized, in 1948. By leaving this territory ambiguous and stateless for a quarter of a century, its people, the Palestinians, became a source of violence, enmity, fear and reprisal. By 1992, most Israelis recognized that theirs could not be a normal state as long as they were forced to half-govern and sometimes battle this population beyond their borders. They elected Mr. Rabin to bring things back to pre-1967 normalcy.
Mr. Rabin, who like Mr. Netanyahu was a native-born Israeli military hero, assembled the basic recipe for peace and stability that remains the foundation of all peace attempts today. In 1993, the Palestinians recognized Israel as a legitimate state for the first time. In turn, Israel was to recognize the Palestinians' national ambitions and negotiate a border based on the 1967 lines, beyond which Israeli populations would not extend. Both parties would share Jerusalem and renounce violence. It was a solution based on mutual compromise, ratified in the Oslo accords of 1993 and 1995.
The murder of Mr. Rabin and his replacement by Mr. Netanyahu, the first prime minister elected to succeed him, has had the effect of destroying this path to Israel's normalization.
First, because it made extremism an integral part of politics. The assassination was a triumph for extremist groups in Palestine, who unleashed a sickening wave of suicide bombings, and in Israel. Mr. Rabin had assembled a coalition of centrist, left-wing and Arab-Israeli parties, the groups necessary to reach a stable agreement with the Palestinians. But Israel's dark post-1995 politics have seen mission-driven coalition governments replaced with power-maintaining "survival combinations," in the words of Ben-Gurion University scholar Lev Grinberg. In these recent coalitions, even those led by Mr. Rabin's Labour Party, Israel's Arab population has been excluded, their role taken over by the ultra-Orthodox parties and other groups determined to build settlements beyond Israel's borders. As a result, the settlements have not only grown but have become government-subsidized and encouraged politically.
Second, because it replaced the politics of negotiated compromise with the politics of preordained absolutism. Negotiated green-line deals have been replaced with absolute red lines. That was vividly apparent in Mr. Netanyahu's 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech, in which he declared that a Palestinian state would only be allowed to exist if it had no access to Jerusalem, no defence authority and growing Israeli settlements in its midst; in other words, if it were a dependency. This was not a starting point of negotiations, but an absolute demand for holding them. Mr. Netanyahu adopted the same position toward a nuclear deal with Iran this week in his speech in Washington: No negotiated path to safety and security, only absolute, unreachable conditions.
Israel's March 17 election won't resolve either problem. What's needed is for the post-Rabin era to end and be replaced by a new leadership based not on fear and provocation but on painful compromise and the creation of tough, distant pathways to normalcy. It's worth keeping an eye on what was taking place 20 years ago to remember what might be regained.