News

The Rabin Assassination 20 years later - History

The Rabin Assassination 20 years later - History


We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

Tomorrow night in Tel Aviv, Rabin Square will fill with people. Today I believe that there are prospects for peace, great prospects.”

After all these years the major questions remain: What legacies have General Rabin, Ambassador Rabin and Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin bequeathed the people of Israel? and what impact has Rabin’s assassination had on this country?

The first legacy is easy to discern. General Rabin was a young officer in the pre-state army (in his case, originally part of the Palmach, the best trained of the soldiers of the nascent state.) The Palmach was the one group in Israel’s pre-state years that was fully mobilized. Throughout the War of Independence Rabin distinguished himself as a young officer. Following the war, Rabin rapidly advanced in the ranks of the I.D.F., being appointed Chief of Staff in 1964. Rabin was the commander of the I.D.F. during its historic victory during in the Six Day War, emerging from that war as a hero of Israel.

After the war and his retirement from the I.D.F. Rabin suddenly found himself thrust into the world of diplomacy, as Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. Suddenly, Rabin the war hero swiftly found himself with better access to the Nixon administration than most of the rest of the diplomatic corps. Ambassador Rabin played a key role in deepening the military ties between Israel and America.

Following the Yom Kippur War, when the Agranot Commission (tasked with investigating the war) found the political leadership culpable, and tens of thousands demonstrated against the government, Prime Minister Golda Meir was forced to resign. Rabin, who had been out of the country during the war, seemed like the natural choice for her replacement. Rabin served as Prime Minister of Israel from 1974-1977, when he was forced to resign, because his wife had failed to close their bank account in the U.S. at the conclusion of Rabin’s tenure as Ambassador. A lifelong member of the governing Labor party, Rabin suddenly found himself in the opposition, after Labor lost control of the government in 1977.

Rabin later served as Defense Minister in several coalition governments with the Likud and held that position during the First Intifadah (when he was infamously reported to have said: “we will break their bones” – omitting the second half of Rabin’s statement, which was: “so we do not have to kill them.”

The first Intifadah convinced Rabin that the status quo was unsustainable, though he did not have a clear vision of how to proceed. In 1993, Rabin ran for the position of Israel’s prime minister and won on a clear platform of change – Israelis were clearly ready for a some sort of change. That change ended up being the Olso process; a process that led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and the arrival of Yasser Arafat to Gaza in its lead (i.e. the same Yasser Arafat who was considered to be a terrorist by all Israelis.) Prime Minister Rabin was initially skeptical about the Oslo Accords (which were initially negotiated without his direct involvement), but even though he was reluctant at first – and clearly had to be prodded by President Clinton to shake Arafat’s hand– it is clear that at the end of his life Rabin embraced the peace process. Still, being a pragmatic military leader Rabin would not let the euphoria of the moment overwhelm precarious reality.

With Rabin’s assassination began the fight over his narrative. During the first days of shock in Israel there were two conflicting impulses: 1) to blame those responsible and 2) to unite the nation.

The blame was directed at the National Religious – especially the settlers, from whose community the assassin had come. Those who had directly helped Yigal Amir (the murderer) and who had been caught on the spot were dutifully arrested. However, there was no attempt at the time to truly look deeper into the tragedy. There was no attempt to investigate those who were responsible for the incitement – be they rabbis or politicians.

To this day vigorous controversy remains as to what role Prime Minister Netanyahu played in the incitement leading to Rabin’s murder. Days before the assassination, Netanyahu spoke at a rally in Jerusalem’s Zion Square, during which Rabin was vehemently attacked and posters appeared displaying Rabin dressed in a Nazis SS uniform, and in an arab kafiyah. Netanyahu denied he had any idea what was going on in the square below him. However, as a participant of that rally said to me 20 year later, “there is no way he (Netanyahu) could not have seen the signs and posters. He is simply lying.”

Rabin’s successor, Prime Minister Shimon Peres who was not a military man, did not enjoy the people’s trust in the way Rabin did. Nonetheless, Peres was certain the public would still support him, so he called for new elections. During the ensuing election campaign, Hamas, (the radical Palestinian organization who had opposed the Oslo Agreement) launched a series of bombings that persuaded enough Israelis to vote for the hawkish opposition led by Netanyahu. From that fateful election in 1995, with the exception of the two year duration of the Barak premiership, Israel’s Labor party has been out of power ever since.

With the right-wing firmly in power, efforts over most of the 20 years have been directed to molding the remembrance of Rabin into a day of reflection on political violence, in general. The deep-rooted political ramifications of the event continue to be largely ignored. Moreover, in some communities – especially among the National Religious – there have been somewhat successful attempts to convert the anniversary of Rabin’s assassination into a general day of mourning – without any reference to Rabin, or to the man who murdered him.

This year a number of right-wing intellectuals have added a new twist to the national dialogue regarding Rabin’s legacy, claiming that Rabin’s murder was actually bad for the right-wing. They contend that at the end of his life, Rabin was considering terminating the Oslo Accords. This allegation has been repeated frequently over the course of the past few weeks – totally contradicting Rabin’s own words on the night he was killed. In his final speech, Rabin steadfastly stated in the square: “Today I believe that there are prospects for peace, great prospects.”

Others set forth a less pernicious view, writing that even if Rabin had lived, the outcome would have been the same. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton does not believe that to be true. In an interview shown for the first time this week on Israeli televsion, Clinton shared: “Had Rabin lived, the Israeli leader would have been able to reach a peace deal within three years, because ‘the Palestinians trusted him’.”

It is not just the former President who believes Rabin’s stewardship over the peace process would have made all the difference. Many residents of this country share that belief. As one 38 year old, who in his youth had considered himself right-wing said: “It (Rabin’s assassination) changed our direction completely. I believe that if the Oslo process had continued we would have been transformed into a normal country.”

Stav Shafir, Israel’s youngest Knesset member and number 2 on the Labor party list was only 10 years old when Rabin was killed. When I asked her about Rabin, Shafir said:

"Yitzchak Rabin's memory means a great deal to any Israeli who truly loves Israel. The man who murdered Yitzchak Rabin tried to murder his vision for the country — his vision of a healthy society in which every child has a horizon; his vision for an egalitarian society where resources are distributed equally; and most importantly, his vision for future security.

We will continue to love Israel as Rabin did. A few days ago Prime Minister Netanyahu said that ‘Israel will always have to live on its sword’. This is the very opposite from Rabin's legacy of hope and pragmatism. A prime minister who promises his people only fear and fatalism should not call himself a leader. We deserve so much better.”

Twenty year ago, Rabin’s assassination shed light on the schisms in Israeli society that everyone knew existed, finally making them too clear to ignore. Now, 20 years later, those societal divides are deeper and even more apparent. Today, in addition to Arab-Israelis, and ultra-Orthodox Israelis, there are three very separate groups in Israel. First, there are the National Religious who make up most of the settlers - many of whom believe they are responsible for holding on to “all of the ‘Land of Israel’”. Second, are the Netanyahu faithful, who accept his view that Israel will forever “live by the sword,” and thus believe that making substantive concessions is useless, since it will make no difference. Finally, everyone else (which includes most of the residents of Tel Aviv), who agree with Stav Shafir’s view, i.e. that a nation needs hope, and needs a leader who – while he or she dare not make any guarantees, s/he is able to at least give people hope that their children and grandchildren will not forever be forced to live by the sword. Yitzhak Rabin was that sort of leader. Many in Israel continue to wonder if there will ever be another.


20 Years Later, The Question Lingers: What If Yitzhak Rabin Had Lived?

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (left), and Palestinian leader leader Yasser Arafat reach an interim agreement as President Clinton looks on at the White house on Sept. 28, 1995. Rabin was killed by an extremist Jew five weeks later. DOUG MILLS/AP hide caption

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (left), and Palestinian leader leader Yasser Arafat reach an interim agreement as President Clinton looks on at the White house on Sept. 28, 1995. Rabin was killed by an extremist Jew five weeks later.

Twenty years ago, an Israeli extremist shot dead the country's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and left the country, and people all over the world to wonder: What if?

What if Rabin, the general turned cautious peacemaker, had lived?

Rabin signed the Oslo Accords with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the White House in September 1993, launching the first full-fledged peace effort after decades of conflict between the two sides.

"We are not alone here on this soil, in this land. And so, we are sharing this good earth today with the Palestinian people in order to choose life," Rabin said at the White House in September 1995, when he signed a followup agreement with Arafat known as Oslo II.

The Oslo Accords, so named because they were originally negotiated in Norway's capital, were intended to deliver security to Israel and self-rule to the Palestinians.

The accords had their detractors and there was no guarantee they would succeed. For the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, it was a sellout. They launched a terror campaign against it.

For the Israeli right, the prospect of accommodation with the Palestinians and territorial compromise was unacceptable. At rallies they protested against Rabin's policies.

World

In Grief, A Growing Partnership: Parents Span Israeli-Palestinian Divide

Shot After A Peace Rally

Parallels

Israel, Palestinians Both Link Violence To Inflammatory Speech

On Nov. 4, 1995, Rabin, a famously tough and taciturn commander, an unlikely peacenik, took part in a large pro-peace rally in Tel Aviv.

Parallels

Proposed Cameras At Jerusalem Shrine Put The Focus On Mutual Mistrust

"Rabin was standing onstage and singing a Song for Peace with one of Israel's most famous singers," said Linda Gradstein, the NPR reporter that night. "As he walked to get into his car, a young, 27-year-old law student named Yigal Amir ran right up to the prime minister and shot him three times at point blank range, fatally injuring him and slightly injuring one of Rabin's bodyguards."

Dan Ephron, who was covering the Tel Aviv rally for Reuters, said, "The rally had ended. So I was walking away. I was a few blocks away. And I got a message on my beeper, saying, 'Shots fired near Rabin, go back.'"

Ephron has returned to the scene of that assassination with a new book called Killing a King. Rabin, he says, was a pragmatist and very much a soldier.

"Rabin was a military man for the first three decades of his life, and I think that shaped his character," Ephron says. "He was gruff, he was not good at small talk, he wasn't very charismatic. One of his family members told me that Rabin, every morning, would sit on the corner of bed and shine his own shoes."

He was also about as secular as an Israeli could be.

"That's significant in terms of what he set out to do. The idea of giving up parts of the West Bank and Gaza, to many religious Jews, is really anathema," says Ephron. "It's really a betrayal of Judaism. Rabin, I think felt none of that sentimental attachment to the land, to the territory. He was all about security. So, he talked about parts of the West Bank that Israel would need to hold onto for the sake of Israel's security, but it was never about some religious attachment to the land."

Ephron recalls Israel of 1995 as deeply divided on that score.

The shift from a national leadership of security-minded pragmatists to one of ideologues and more religious Jews had been underway, he says, for two decades.

"This was a moment, maybe the last moment for the pragmatists in terms of their ability to garner a majority in Israel," he says. "And that moment ended with the assassination. The assassination triggers a chain of events that leads to this power shift. By about six months after the murder, a young politician on the right, Benjamin Netanyahu becomes prime minister. And he really is the dominant political figure in Israel for much of the last 20 years."

Israeli workers hang a billboard of Yitzhak Rabin ahead of a rally marking the 20th anniversary of his assassination, in Tel Aviv, on Oct. 28. Oded Balilty/AP hide caption

Israeli workers hang a billboard of Yitzhak Rabin ahead of a rally marking the 20th anniversary of his assassination, in Tel Aviv, on Oct. 28.

Alternative Scenarios

It's impossible to say what would have been had Rabin not been shot.

Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea says even had Rabin lived, the challenge of achieving a stable peace with the Palestinians, in the thick of violent attacks, may have been just too great.

"Rabin could have lost the elections which took place only a few months after the assassination," Barnea says. "And even if he won it, I'm not sure Arafat and him could get to the point where the necessary concessions on both sides could be reached. The gap was deep and the expectations of every party was so different."

But Rabin, having fought in Israel's wars, having been military chief of staff in the Six-Day War of 1967, being a security-minded leader of Israel's center-left Labor Party, brought a stolid credibility to the process.

"People from all parties respect Rabin for what he was, but the debate that caused the assassination: What we should give and what we should get, and what the Palestinians mean, and what are the future borders of Israel. All these questions are still there," Barnea says.

He adds that the gap between the parties is even deeper and wider today than it was 20 years ago.

"You have the feeling on both sides of the wall that the Oslo process didn't bring normalization," he adds. "The Palestinians look at Oslo as a process which brought them violence and less freedom of movement. And Israelis felt that if the idea of Oslo was to bring us to a position where we are part of the Middle East, acceptable by the Arab world, especially by the Palestinians, these things didn't happen."

Not Beloved, But Trusted

Ghaith al-Omari agrees that counter-factual history is impossible to write. Omari was a Palestinian legal adviser during talks with Israel in the late 1990s. He says veteran Palestinian negotiators would yearn for the days of the straightforward Rabin.

"With the assassination of Rabin, we lost a leader who had the qualities that would have made a peacemaker," says Omari. "He had a vision — something that is rare these days. He had a good read of his public, yet he was not a leader who followed, but rather a leader who led. And he was a very trustworthy leader. He did not always tell you what you would like to hear, but what he said, you could count on. And that's why you see he had such good relations, with people like President Clinton, like [King] Hussein of Jordan."

Rabin was not a beloved figure among Palestinians. He had, after all, been fighting them much of his adult life. In response to the first Palestinian uprising, which erupted in 1987, he said Israel would break the bones of the Palestinians.

"But you cannot take this out of its historic context," Omari notes. "There was a conflict between the Palestinians and Israel. Palestinians were killing Israelis. Israelis were killing Palestinians. There was a war. And I think one thing that we see within the Israeli system, is usually the former generals, who have known the difficulty of both sending men to kill and to be killed, who understood the futility of it, are the ones who are most committed to finding a political end to this conflict."

Could things have been all that different had Rabin lived? Dan Ephron immersed himself in that question in writing his book.

"Once the slope of history changes because of a certain event, it's hard to go back and try to figure out how things would have unspooled if it had not changed," Ephron says.

"The conclusion I came to was that that moment in 1995 was probably the most hopeful moment in terms of the possibility of coming to some agreement between Israelis and Palestinians," he adds. "The most hopeful moment in retrospect, in past 20 years, and maybe even going forward. And I think the main reason for that is because that peace process was still new, it had not been poisoned yet by the years of violence and settlement expansion. So, it was a hopeful moment that I don't think the Israelis and Palestinians have achieved at any point since then."


20 Years Later, The Question Lingers: What If Yitzhak Rabin Had Lived?

Twenty years ago, an Israeli extremist shot dead the country's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and left the country, and people all over the world to wonder: What if?

What if Rabin, the general turned cautious peacemaker, had lived?

Rabin signed the Oslo Accords with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the White House in September 1993, launching the first full-fledged peace effort after decades of conflict between the two sides.

"We are not alone here on this soil, in this land. And so, we are sharing this good earth today with the Palestinian people in order to choose life," Rabin said at the White House in September 1995, when he signed a followup agreement with Arafat known as Oslo II.

The Oslo Accords, so named because they were originally negotiated in Norway's capital, were intended to deliver security to Israel and self-rule to the Palestinians.

The accords had their detractors and there was no guarantee they would succeed. For the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, it was a sellout. They launched a terror campaign against it.

For the Israeli right, the prospect of accommodation with the Palestinians and territorial compromise was unacceptable. At rallies they protested against Rabin's policies.

Shot After A Peace Rally

On Nov. 4, 1995, Rabin, a famously tough and taciturn commander, an unlikely peacenik, took part in a large pro-peace rally in Tel Aviv.

"Rabin was standing onstage and singing a Song for Peace with one of Israel's most famous singers," said Linda Gradstein, the NPR reporter that night. "As he walked to get into his car, a young, 27-year-old law student named Yigal Amir ran right up to the prime minister and shot him three times at point blank range, fatally injuring him and slightly injuring one of Rabin's bodyguards."

Dan Ephron, who was covering the Tel Aviv rally for Reuters, said, "The rally had ended. So I was walking away. I was a few blocks away. And I got a message on my beeper, saying, 'Shots fired near Rabin, go back.'"

Ephron has returned to the scene of that assassination with a new book called Killing a King. Rabin, he says, was a pragmatist and very much a soldier.

"Rabin was a military man for the first three decades of his life, and I think that shaped his character," Ephron says. "He was gruff, he was not good at small talk, he wasn't very charismatic. One of his family members told me that Rabin, every morning, would sit on the corner of bed and shine his own shoes."

He was also about as secular as an Israeli could be.

"That's significant in terms of what he set out to do. The idea of giving up parts of the West Bank and Gaza, to many religious Jews, is really anathema," says Ephron. "It's really a betrayal of Judaism. Rabin, I think felt none of that sentimental attachment to the land, to the territory. He was all about security. So, he talked about parts of the West Bank that Israel would need to hold onto for the sake of Israel's security, but it was never about some religious attachment to the land."

Ephron recalls Israel of 1995 as deeply divided on that score.

The shift from a national leadership of security-minded pragmatists to one of ideologues and more religious Jews had been underway, he says, for two decades.

"This was a moment, maybe the last moment for the pragmatists in terms of their ability to garner a majority in Israel," he says. "And that moment ended with the assassination. The assassination triggers a chain of events that leads to this power shift. By about six months after the murder, a young politician on the right, Benjamin Netanyahu becomes prime minister. And he really is the dominant political figure in Israel for much of the last 20 years."

Alternative Scenarios

It's impossible to say what would have been had Rabin not been shot.

Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea says even had Rabin lived, the challenge of achieving a stable peace with the Palestinians, in the thick of violent attacks, may have been just too great.

"Rabin could have lost the elections which took place only a few months after the assassination," Barnea says. "And even if he won it, I'm not sure Arafat and him could get to the point where the necessary concessions on both sides could be reached. The gap was deep and the expectations of every party was so different."

But Rabin, having fought in Israel's wars, having been military chief of staff in the Six-Day War of 1967, being a security-minded leader of Israel's center-left Labor Party, brought a stolid credibility to the process.

"People from all parties respect Rabin for what he was, but the debate that caused the assassination: What we should give and what we should get, and what the Palestinians mean, and what are the future borders of Israel. All these questions are still there," Barnea says.

He adds that the gap between the parties is even deeper and wider today than it was 20 years ago.

"You have the feeling on both sides of the wall that the Oslo process didn't bring normalization," he adds. "The Palestinians look at Oslo as a process which brought them violence and less freedom of movement. And Israelis felt that if the idea of Oslo was to bring us to a position where we are part of the Middle East, acceptable by the Arab world, especially by the Palestinians, these things didn't happen."

Not Beloved, But Trusted

Ghaith al-Omari agrees that counter-factual history is impossible to write. Omari was a Palestinian legal adviser during talks with Israel in the late 1990s. He says veteran Palestinian negotiators would yearn for the days of the straightforward Rabin.

"With the assassination of Rabin, we lost a leader who had the qualities that would have made a peacemaker," says Omari. "He had a vision — something that is rare these days. He had a good read of his public, yet he was not a leader who followed, but rather a leader who led. And he was a very trustworthy leader. He did not always tell you what you would like to hear, but what he said, you could count on. And that's why you see he had such good relations, with people like President Clinton, like [King] Hussein of Jordan."

Rabin was not a beloved figure among Palestinians. He had, after all, been fighting them much of his adult life. In response to the first Palestinian uprising, which erupted in 1987, he said Israel would break the bones of the Palestinians.

"But you cannot take this out of its historic context," Omari notes. "There was a conflict between the Palestinians and Israel. Palestinians were killing Israelis. Israelis were killing Palestinians. There was a war. And I think one thing that we see within the Israeli system, is usually the former generals, who have known the difficulty of both sending men to kill and to be killed, who understood the futility of it, are the ones who are most committed to finding a political end to this conflict."

Could things have been all that different had Rabin lived? Dan Ephron immersed himself in that question in writing his book.

"Once the slope of history changes because of a certain event, it's hard to go back and try to figure out how things would have unspooled if it had not changed," Ephron says.

"The conclusion I came to was that that moment in 1995 was probably the most hopeful moment in terms of the possibility of coming to some agreement between Israelis and Palestinians," he adds. "The most hopeful moment in retrospect, in past 20 years, and maybe even going forward. And I think the main reason for that is because that peace process was still new, it had not been poisoned yet by the years of violence and settlement expansion. So, it was a hopeful moment that I don't think the Israelis and Palestinians have achieved at any point since then."

Twenty years ago this week in Israel, an ultra-religious Jew killed the country's prime minister and left Israelis and people all over the world to wonder, what if - what if Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, general turned cautious peacemaker, had lived?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YITZHAK RABIN: We are not alone here on this soil, in this land. And so we are sharing this good earth today with the Palestinian people in order to choose life.

SIEGEL: That was Rabin at the White House in September 1995. He was signing an agreement part of the Oslo Accords with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The Oslo Accords were originally negotiated in Norway. They marked a breakthrough. Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization were talking to each other. The Accords were supposed to lead to peace and Palestinian self-rule.

There were detractors. The Islamist Palestinian movement Hamas sensed a sellout. They launched a campaign of shootings and kidnappings. The Israeli right protested against it. An accommodation with the Palestinians - a territorial compromise - was unacceptable. Rabin's advisers urged him to join demonstrators in favor of his policies.

And so on November 4, 1995, a reluctant Rabin, famously tough and taciturn, an unlikely peacenik, took part in a pro-peace rally in Tel Aviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LINDA GRADSTEIN: Prime Minister Rabin was standing on stage and singing a song for peace with one of his Israel's most famous singers. As he walked to get into his car, a young 27-year-old law student named Yigal Amir ran right up to the prime minister and shot him three times at point-blank range.

SIEGEL: That was our reporter that night, Linda Gradstein. Dan Ephron was covering the Tel Aviv rally for Reuters.

DAN EPHRON: The rally had ended, so I was walking away. I was a few blocks away, and I got a message on my beeper saying shots fired near Rabin go back.

SIEGEL: Ephron returns to the scene of that assassination with a new book called "Killing A King." Yitzhak Rabin, he says, was a pragmatist and very much a soldier.

EPHRON: Rabin was a military man for the first three decades of his life. And I think that shaped his character. He was gruff. He was not good at small talk. He wasn't very charismatic. One of his family members told me that Rabin every morning would sit on the corner of his bed and shine his own shoes.

SIEGEL: He was also about as secular an Israeli as one could be.

EPHRON: And that's significant in terms of what he set out to do. The idea of giving up parts of the West Bank and Gaza, to many religious Jews, is really anathema. It's really a betrayal of Judaism. Rabin, I think, felt none of that sentimental attachment to the territory. He was all about security. So he talked about parts of the West Bank that Israel would need to hold onto for the sake of Israel's security, but it was never about some religious attachment to the land.

SIEGEL: Dan Ephron recalls Israel of 1995 as deeply divided on that score. The shift from a national leadership of security minded pragmatists to one of ideologues and more religious Jews had been underway, he says, for two decades.

EPHRON: This was a moment, maybe the last moment, for the pragmatists in terms of their ability to garner a majority in Israel. And that moment ended with the assassination. The assassination triggers a chain of events that leads to this power shift. By about six months after the murder, a young politician on the right, Benjamin Netanyahu, becomes prime minister, and he really is the dominant political figure in Israel for much of the last 20 years.

SIEGEL: And Netanyahu has opposed territorial concessions. It's impossible to say what would have been had Rabin not been shot. The Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea says even if Rabin had lived, the challenge of achieving a stable peace with the Palestinians without policy literally under attack may have been just too great.

NAHUM BARNEA: Rabin could have lost the elections which took place in the few months after the assassination. And even if he wanted, I'm not sure Arafat and him could get to the point where the necessary concessions on both sides could be reached. The gap was deep, and the expectations of every party was so different.

SIEGEL: Rabin had fought in Israel's wars. He was chief of staff of the Israeli Armed Forces in the Six-Day War of 1967. He was a security minded leader of Israel's center-left Labor Party. He brought a stolid credibility to the process. But the questions that he and Arafat faced bitterly divided Israelis. Who should give up what? Where would the borders be?

BARNEA: All these questions are still there.

SIEGEL: You think the gap that separated Rabin and Arafat 20 years ago - it's still the same gap, is what you're saying.

BARNEA: I believe it is even wider and deeper because in addition to the gap, you have the feeling on both sides of the wall that the Oslo process didn't bring normalization. The Palestinians look at Oslo as a process which brought them violence and less freedom of movement. And Israelis feel that if the idea of Oslo was to bring us to a position where we are part of the Middle East acceptable by the Arab world, especially by the Palestinians - these things didn't happen. The whole reason became quite crazy, as we all know.

GHAITH AL-OMARI: What the assassination of Rabin, we lost a leader who had the qualities that would've made a peacemaker.

SIEGEL: Ghaith al-Omari was the Palestinian's legal advisor during talks with Israel a few years later. He says veteran Palestinian negotiators would yearn for the days of the straightforward Rabin.

AL-OMARI: He had a vision, something that was rare these days. Had a good read of his public, yet he was not a leader who followed but rather a leader who led. And he was a very trustworthy leader. He did not always tell you what you'd like to hear, but what he said, you could count on. And that's why you see him - he had developed such deep relations with people like President Clinton, like Hussein of Jordan because they knew they had someone there who they could trust and who was willing to do what it takes to actually lead his public towards his vision.

SIEGEL: Many Palestinians saw in Rabin not just the man who had recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization, but the chief of staff who had conquered the West Bank and Gaza, the man who, in response to the Palestinian uprising or intifada, had said, we'll break their bones - not a beloved figure among Palestinians.

AL-OMARI: Certainly not, but you cannot take this out of its historic context. There was a conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinians were killing Israelis. Israelis were killing Palestinians. There was a war. But I think one thing that we see, interestingly, within the Israeli system is usually, the former generals who have known the difficulty of both sending men to kill and to be killed, who understood the futility of it, are the one who are the most committed to finding a political end to this conflict.

SIEGEL: Could things have been all that different had Rabin lived? Well, Dan Ephron immersed himself in the politics of 1995 in writing his book "Killing A King."

EPHRON: The conclusion I came to was that that moment in 1995 was probably the most hopeful moment in terms of the possibility of coming to some agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, the most hopeful moment, in retrospect, in the past 20 years and maybe even going forward. And I think the main reason for that is because that peace process was still new. It had not been poisoned yet by the years of violence and settlement expansion. So it was a hopeful moment that I don't think the Israelis and Palestinians have achieved at any point since then.

SIEGEL: That's Dan Ephron. Tomorrow will mark 20 years to the day since Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin died by an assassin's bullet at a Tel Aviv rally for peace. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


Related coverage

Concessions to Hamas Lead to Violence Holding Firm Leads to Calm

After a deluge of dire warnings from Hamas, its mouthpiece -- Qatar’s Al Jazeera (especially in Arabic) -- most of.

Despite the pandemic, a few people were milling around, their heads bowed, taking in the scene. The silence felt enormous.

The assassin was a right-wing extremist named Yigal Amir. He remains imprisoned for life, but still haunts Israel much as Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth still haunt the United States. That he was not killed like Oswald and Booth, or executed for his crime, means he is always somehow there, a constant reminder that it happened here, and could happen again. And his shadow presence forces on us the question of the legacy of his act. Put simply, did Yigal Amir “win”?

Given that Amir’s stated goal was to stop the peace process with the Palestinians and prevent Israel from handing over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, one can make a plausible argument that he won at least a partial victory. Rabin’s death did not end the peace process, but it badly damaged it, and many of Rabin’s admirers see its eventual failure as an inevitable result of the assassination, particularly after the eruption of the Second Intifada ultimately ushered in the long reign of the right — culminating in Benjamin Netanyahu’s decade in power.

This is especially galling to Rabin’s partisans, who view Netanyahu as responsible for the killing due to his failure to condemn the incendiary right-wing rhetoric against Rabin. Did the incitement truly cause the murder? The Right vehemently denies it, but I often feel it protests too much. Not everyone on the right engaged in such incitement, but a great many — especially in the settlement movement — were happy to call Rabin a Nazi, a collaborator, a traitor and a murderer. Was Netanyahu himself culpable in this? Not entirely. He made some statements against incitement, but there is no doubt he could have done more. However, 25 years have passed, and it seems time for the Right to make amends. There is no shame in admitting that, a long time ago, it acted disgracefully. The Right can acknowledge, I think, that it sinned while still holding that its sins fell short of murder.

For the Left, however, there is also a terrible question to be faced: namely, was the Right, in fact, correct? Not in its incitement, of course, but in its essential critique of Oslo — that it would be a disaster and badly damage Israel’s security. However much many of us may want to deny it, it seems it was right. It is undeniable that in 2000, Ehud Barak offered Arafat a great deal more than Rabin would have, and the result was the refusal of peace and terrorism on a massive scale. The idea that, by some magic of personality, Rabin could have been more successful seems implausible at best.

Twenty-five years later, then, Israel seems no closer to resolving the terrible conundrum of Rabin and his death. In the end, there is no one to conclusively blame but the small, petty fanatic sitting in prison who said emphatically, “I have no regrets.” But everyone knows there is more to it than that. That there are terrible unanswered questions on that event horizon of history, the black hole of murder from which no light can escape.

Perhaps the real lesson is one that not just Israelis but the entire Jewish people must learn, especially with the ferocious divisions that still rend our people: we are not so different from everyone else. We too can be hateful, violent, fanatical, insane. We too can be assassins. We too can be murderers. And above all, we must choose not to be. This is, perhaps, the only thing that Rabin’s terrible death has to teach us. The rest is silence.

Benjamin Kerstein is a columnist and Israel Correspondent for the Algemeiner. His website can be viewed here.


Bay Area memories of Yitzhak Rabin, warrior of peace, 20 years later

On Nov. 4, 1995, moments after leaving a massive peace rally in Tel Aviv’s Kings of Israel Square, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish extremist. All Israelis who are old enough to remember that day know where they when they heard the news that stunned the world.

Now, 20 years later and with the peace process in tatters, everyone still wonders, “What if?”

A certified war hero who fought in all of Israel’s early conflicts, Rabin became a politician who was short on charisma and long on policy wonkiness. It wasn’t until his second term as prime minister, when he signed the Oslo accords in 1993, that his political courage propelled him to a Nobel Peace Prize and into the pantheon of world leaders.

His murder by Yigal Amir, a religious fanatic, shocked Israel as nothing had before. Many Israelis could not imagine one of their own would commit such an act. Others were less surprised, given the increasingly hateful rhetoric directed at Rabin by far-right extremists opposed to any accommodation with the PLO. At some protest rallies, signs depicted Rabin as a Nazi SS officer.

That their leader could die at the hands of a fellow Jew was unthinkable to Israelis, and it triggered a wave of soul-searching that has yet to fade.

Rabin will be remembered in a series of Bay Area events, including a Nov. 1 memorial at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto and symposia on Rabin’s legacy on Nov. 8 at the Magnes in Berkeley and Nov. 9 at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto.

In addition, local congregations, including Emanu-El in San Francisco and Kol Shofar in Tiburon, will host study sessions on the state of Judaism and democracy two decades after Rabin’s death.

Rabin was a well-traveled man, and his career occasionally brought him to the Bay Area. Similarly, local Jewish community leaders often traveled to Israel to meet with him throughout his careers as prime minister, defense minister, Labor Party leader and ambassador.

Here are their memories of Yitzhak Rabin, along with those of some Israelis who will never forget that fateful day in November.

Mark Schickman

In the midst of co-leading state legislators on a 1995 mission to Israel with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, Mark Schickman attended a Nov. 4 peace rally in Tel Aviv with 100,000 others, celebrating what seemed to be a rising tide of goodwill between Israel and the Palestinians.

Onstage was a who’s-who of Israeli entertainers and politicians. The San Francisco attorney watched Rabin give a stirring speech, in which he said, “I believe there is now a chance for peace, a great chance, and we must take advantage of it for those standing here, and for those who are not here.”

Schickman, standing a ways back on the square, remembers the mood as uplifting and spectacular.

“All of us thought peace was right around the corner,” he said. “The rally was part of a whole attitude that we were moving toward peace. I remember thinking Rabin gave a great speech.”

After the rally, Schickman stopped by a nearby café for a cup of coffee. As he was leaving, a motorcyclist drove by and frantically told him Rabin had been shot.

It couldn’t possibly be true.

But soon, word had spread. The 73-year-old prime minister had been shot twice in the back as he left the stage of the square. Some 40 minutes later, he died at the hospital. The shooter had been arrested.

“I went back to the hotel and stayed up half the night watching TV in shock over this,” Schickman recounted. “The next morning our group was supposed to go to Petra [in Jordan]. We said, ‘How can we go on a day like this?’ Our guide said, ‘We in Israel do not stop at a moment like this. If we stopped, we’d be stopping all the time.”

Schickman and the JCRC mission participants went ahead with their visit to Jordan.

“We’re so used to seeing the tragedy of the Palestinians destroying a moment and not closing the deal,” he added. “To have a Jew do this was one of the most heartbreaking things in the world. You wonder what is God thinking.”

Schickman had met Rabin years earlier in San Francisco. Then between government jobs, he came to the Bay Area to raise money for Tel Aviv University.

The two met again in 1990, shortly before Rabin’s second go-round as prime minister, at a gathering sponsored by the American Jewish Congress. Schickman remembers Rabin as sober, low-key and honest.

“There was very little charisma,” Schickman admitted. “Shimon Peres, who has a similar, slow guttural tone, has fives times as much charisma. If you didn’t know [Rabin], walked in the room and were told the prime minister of Israel was there, you’d have to look around. But he seemed very trustworthy.”

After Rabin’s death, the Oslo agreement slowly but steadily fell apart. Today, with the spate of knife attacks and terror in Israel, the heady days of Rabin may seem like a half-remembered dream. Schickman, however, takes the long view.

“We’re closer today to achieving peace than we have been for most of the last 3,000 years,” he said, “though we’re further away than we were 20 years ago. I’m not happy about the trend. It’s hard to find points of optimism. But give me 15 years of teaching [Palestinian] kids that coexisting with Jews is the thing to do, and we’re in a different world.”

Rabbi Doug Kahn

Doug Kahn, executive director of the JCRC, watched in real time the famous signing of the Oslo accords on the White House lawn and the even more famous handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, as President Bill Clinton beamed.

Kahn watched the proceedings that bright morning in September 1993 at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel on a large TV. Beside him were gathered other leaders of the Bay Area Jewish community as well as members of the Arab American community, who clutched olive branches.

“It was a moment of great optimism,” Kahn recalled. “The sense of somebody who had been a giant among the defenders of the State of Israel coming to this moment was extraordinarily powerful. A lot was made of the handshake, but the visual of the three leaders is etched in the mind of anyone who saw it.”

Like Schickman, Kahn had met Rabin a few times, the first in the early 1980s after the launch of the first Lebanon War. He was part of a San Francisco Friends of Israel delegation that met with Rabin, then serving as defense minister.

He remembers Rabin as an iconic figure.

“He was brilliant,” Kahn said. “Social settings did not seem to be his favorite way to spend time, but he was very willing to meet with the group and share his perspective on Israeli military matters. It certainly left a profound impression.”

His second encounter came shortly before Rabin’s second term as prime minister, which began in 1992. This time the meeting took place in San Rafael when Rabin came to the Bay Area for a discussion about the state of Israeli-American relations.

The Israeli leader by then seemed to some like a fading figure whose political life had come to an end. That didn’t factor into Kahn’s impression of the man.

“I remember thinking we were in the presence of somebody whose life was totally wrapped up in the history of the State of Israel,” he said, “a giant militarily and politically. I was very impressed with his remarkably keen mind and his passion for peace.”

That passion pushed Rabin to take a chance on the Oslo accords, the secretly negotiated peace deal that would open the door to the PLO and Arafat, returning to the region after years of exile.

Kahn was in Israel co-leading a JCRC delegation the day Arafat returned to Gaza in July 1994. Later that night, while walking around Jerusalem, Kahn stumbled on a protest rally in Zion Square. Tens of thousands of Israelis showed up to denounce the changes, with Rabin taking the brunt of it. People were chanting, “Traitor, traitor!”

Two days later, in a meeting with Ariel Sharon, Kahn asked the Likud Party leader about the hate speech he heard at the rally.

“I asked about the possibility that it would spin out of control,” Kahn recalled. “I was not thinking of assassination at the time. [Sharon] found it distasteful but said this was a group of hotheads and not representative of mainstream sentiment. Not to worry. Reading accounts of how that rally was a pivotal moment in planting the seeds of the assassination, it was clear it was something way beyond the usual foment.”

On that fateful day in 1995, Kahn shared the shock and grief of the world. Even today, he says he cannot accept the notion that one man with a gun could extinguish a dream of peace. He prefers to think of it as a dream deferred.

“It was a loss of innocence for Israeli society,” he said. “The notion that the perpetrator could come from the Jewish community is so repulsive that one almost wants to think it’s inconceivable. One could speculate about what would have happened [had Rabin lived], but there were still many hurdles to climb. The important thing is to retain a belief in achieving a just and lasting peace.”

John Rothmann

Yitzhak Rabin had a little nickname for Rothmann: Nixon.

Rothmann, a San Francisco native who has spent much of his life working for Jewish and political causes, first met Rabin in September 1972 at a private home in Los Angeles. Rabin, then Israel’s ambassador to the United States, was a close friend of Nixon’s and made no secret of his support for the Republican president in his upcoming re-election bid.

Rothmann, a Democrat, supported candidate George McGovern. “He would say, ‘Nixon!’ ” Rothmann recalled with a laugh, “and I would say, ‘McGovern!’ ”

“[Rabin] reminded me of Nixon in a way,” said Rothmann, who had done a turn as field director for the 37th president. “They were both taciturn, inwardly directed, and though politics was their profession, they were not the garrulous, backslapping people you would expect in politicians.”

Rothmann met Rabin several more times. He shmoozed with him at David’s Deli in San Francisco, and he attended a small San Francisco gathering in support of Israel Bonds. Rabin, at the time between government jobs, was the guest speaker. Rothmann remembers him opposing recognition of the PLO and the creation of a Palestinian state.

“I saw a man who loved Israel,” Rothmann said. “That was the key. He loved his country, he loved Jews, and he wanted Israel to be secure. His flexibility was the key to his success. This was a man who bitterly opposed Yasser Arafat. He called him a murder. Yet when he saw a gleam of hope, he seized it.”

On the Saturday of the assassination, Rothmann and his toddler son were in the park across the street from their Laurel Heights home. When they returned home, the phone started ringing. It was still Shabbat in California, so Rothmann did not answer.

It would not stop ringing.

Eventually he felt compelled to pick up the phone, and that’s how he learned Rabin had been assassinated. Rothmann cried, he said, “not just for Rabin, but for Israel, for all of us who had hope.”

A few days layer, organizers went ahead with a scheduled Kristallnacht memorial in San Francisco. Rothmann attended, and instead of the 50 or so expected, a throng of more than 1,000 showed up, turning the event into a Rabin memorial as well. The community, Rothmann said, needed a place to go and remember.

In the years since his death, Rabin has been lionized, something Rothmann fully understands. But he also takes a historian’s view when assessing the Israeli leader’s career.

“When he died he was already disillusioned with Arafat and the peace process,” Rothmann said. “How he would have coped with it is the great unanswered question.”

Amos Giora

Ever since Rabin’s assassination, scholars and pundits have pondered its impact on history. Many focus on the crushing blow it dealt to the Oslo accords and the prospects for peace.

For Amos Giora, an Israeli-born professor of law, the most important lesson is the context of extremism and incitement, and Israeli society’s willingness to tolerate them.

“The events leading up to the assassination are tragically classic examples of the limits of free speech,” said Giora, who divides his time between classrooms in Israel and the University of Utah. “What is acceptable speech and unacceptable speech?”

Giora will appear in Berkeley and Palo Alto as part of the Nov. 8-9 symposia, sponsored by Lehrhaus Judaica and the JCRC. He will discuss the climate of extremism that precipitated the assassination.

Like Kahn, he well remembers that Jerusalem rally where protesters carried signs with Rabin’s likeness as a Palestinian terrorist. He also remembers who was on the stage: leaders of the right-leaning Likud Party, including future Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“They saw the crowd with the placards and signs and people screaming Rabin is a traitor,” he said. “The only one who left the balcony was [former Foreign Minister] David Levy. The rest, including [Netanyahu], stayed. That for me is the epitome of the danger of unlimited speech, and as much as I understand the principles, there are limits.”

For months, Yigal Amir had plotted to kill Rabin, often conferring with his brother on the best time and place. His goal was to kill the Oslo accords along with Rabin, and Giora believes the case could be made that he succeeded.

Twenty years on, he noted, the peace process is not in the best of shape. But he does think Rabin’s legacy is secure.

“What makes him an extraordinary figure is that he makes the transition from being a great war hero to someone for peace,” Giora said.

That transition was indeed striking. During an outbreak of terror, Rabin was famously quoted as urging Israeli soldiers to “break their bones.” In less than five years, he was breaking bread with Arafat.

“Rabin going into the peace process probably kicking and screaming is a reflection of his understanding that occupying another people was untenable. His antipathy toward Arafat was well known, but he realized that for the sake of Israel the only way was to sign the agreement.”

On the night of Nov. 4, 1995, Giora, then serving in the Israeli army, was home watching a soccer game. His wife had planned to attend the big peace rally but stayed home instead. He remembers her shouting at one point, “Oh my God, what’s happening?”

“I remember like it happened yesterday,” he said. “It was an event, for any of us who lived in Israel at the time, beyond traumatic.”

Andy David

Every time he watches a replay of the 1993 handshake between Rabin and Arafat on the White House lawn sealing the Oslo accords, Andy David can clearly sense the Israeli prime minister’s discomfort.

“That split second of a hesitation when he had to shake Arafat’s hand,” David observed. “You could see he hated that moment. I think his bones were hurting! But [signing] was the greatness of a leader.”

As consul general of the S.F.-based Israeli Consulate, David oversees his nation’s interests for much of the Western United States. He says he would not have gone into the foreign service had it not been for Rabin.

Only days before the 1995 assassination, David received his license to practice dentistry. On the night of Nov. 4, he was home in Jerusalem watching television when the news broke.

“It was a shock that Rabin, who was so present in our lives, was suddenly gone,” he remembered. “He was the father figure. He was present on our TV screens almost every evening. There was this void, a feeling that nobody can fill.”

Besides his horror over a fellow Jew committing the crime, David was amazed to see the reaction among Israeli youth. Almost immediately, teens and young adults filled the streets and squares across Israel, lighting candles, singing songs and holding vigils for peace.

The life and death of Rabin, as well as that heartfelt grassroots response, eventually inspired David to change careers.

“As a dentist you help one person at a time,” he said. “I needed to take another path, one that might be more difficult, less clear, more risky, but one that had the potential to scale up the way one helps his country.”

With time and perspective, David has come to see Rabin’s strategic thinking as one of his greatest talents.

For most of Israel’s existence, the Soviet Union, as the chief arms dealer to the neighboring Arab countries, provided counterweight to Israel’s military deterrence. David noted that the collapse of the Soviet Union, along with its military aid to Egypt and Syria, opened the door for peace.

“Before, we had wars with our neighbors and destroyed the armies, but the Soviet Union could replenish them in a month or two. He understood the collapse as a different ballgame. The Russians backing the Arabs was over. So [Israel] could take bigger strategic risks in the form of land for peace. He also said we have a window of about 20 years before the Russians are back.”

Rabin’s prediction proved to be on target. Twenty years later, Russia is in Syria, backing the dictator Bashar Assad and dropping bombs on the rebels.

Visionary that he was, Rabin did not fully appreciate the grave danger far-right extremists posed to him. David draws the analogy of Rabin as a ship’s captain, staring out at the horizon but failing to see the waves crashing against the hull.

A decade later, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon learned a lesson from the assassination, according to David, laying the groundwork so the Israeli public would be ready for the wrenching disengagement from Gaza. By the time the action took place in 2005, most Israelis supported it.

Many people rank the Oslo accords as Rabin’s greatest achievement, but given their collapse, David likes to remind people of Rabin’s other triumph: the signing of a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. “People tend to forget that,” he said. “It proved that at the end of the day things can turn around overnight if you have right leadership.”

Added David, “[Rabin] is someone I think of often. Not about ‘what if?’ but simply because I liked him. I appreciated him.”

Rabbi Brian Lurie

Brian Lurie met with Rabin so often, it became a running joke.

When the Israeli leader entered a room and saw Lurie, who headed United Jewish Appeal in the early 1990s, he’d tease, “Brian, what are you doing here again?”

The two had known each other since the 1980s, when Rabin served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States. But once Lurie, a former CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, became head of UJA (now part of Jewish Federations of North America) and Rabin was sworn in for his second term as prime minister, the frequency of their meetings increased.

“He absolutely adored UJA,” recalled Lurie, now president of the New Israel Fund. “When we asked him to speak, he would give us time and energy. We had missions where he sat through meetings, listening to people announce their gifts, and he never left. He was impressed with the generosity of the American Jewish community.”

Though the two had a good relationship, Lurie readily admits Rabin was not a “warm fuzzy” guy. He could talk endlessly about policy Lurie remembers a convention in Denver when Rabin’s wife, Leah, gave her husband the finger-across-the-throat sign to get him to stop talking.

But Lurie considered the Israeli leader a practical visionary. Rabin championed bringing young Jews to Israel as the best way to cement ties. When Lurie floated an advocacy program that would bring young adults to the Jewish state on a free trip — a precursor to Birthright Israel — Rabin approved, though at first he did not want Israel to kick in any money.

As for peace, the Oslo accords were not Rabin’s idea. Knesset member Yossi Beilin and Peres, then the foreign minister, worked that out in secret, and at first Rabin was not enthused.

“Rabin could easily have stopped it,” Lurie said. “This is where his greatness came forward. He saw the need, he was totally committed to it, and he paid for it with his life.”

Upon hearing the news of the assassination, Lurie immediately flew to Israel to attend Rabin’s funeral. He joined President Clinton, Jordan’s King Hussein, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and many other world leaders who came to say “Shalom, chaver” (Goodbye, friend).

Lurie was crushed by Rabin’s death and said he still hasn’t fully gotten over that terrible day 20 years ago. Lurie is one who asks, “What if?”

“Here’s a case where a man makes history and history doesn’t make the man,” he said. “If he had lived, there’s a good chance we would have had some kind of two-state solution. Not that everything would have been wonderful. It’s too contentious an area.”

“But,” he added, “once he bought into it, the man was a warrior for peace.”

Local events to remember Rabin

The Bay Area will host several events honoring the memory and legacy of Yitzhak Rabin. Details and more information can be found in the calendar on page 25.


20 years after the assassination, Dalia Rabin ponders what might have been

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Israel on Sunday evening began a series of official ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary, in the Hebrew calendar, of the day that one of its Jewish citizens assassinated its prime minister. (The English anniversary is on November 4.)

Yitzhak Rabin had been a central figure in the development of the modern state since before it was founded — a teenage recruit into the ranks of the pre-state Palmach fighting force a career soldier who was IDF chief of staff at the time of Israel’s stunning Six Day War victory Israel’s ambassador to the United States, who then built a second career in politics a prime minister, defense minister, and prime minister again who, at the time of his murder, was attempting to forge a lasting peace with the duplicitous Yasser Arafat and was warming Israel’s relations with Russia, China and hitherto unthinkable parts of the Arab world.

Then came two bullets in the back, at the end of a peace rally in central Tel Aviv, and that lifetime at the beating heart of Israel was over.

Twenty years later, nobody can know how Israel’s history would have played out had Yitzhak Rabin lived. Whether the Oslo process, hemorrhaging support with every new act of Palestinian terrorism, could have been salvaged. Whether Israel could have overcome the vicious internal divisions out of which his killer emerged. Whether Rabin’s reordered domestic priorities would have produced a more vibrant economy and better internal Jewish-Arab relations. Whether he would even have held power for much longer, facing an imminent election campaign against one Benjamin Netanyahu.

Nobody can know, but his daughter Dalia — herself a former Knesset member and deputy minister of defense — might be expected to vigorously assert that much would have been different, better, if only Yigal Amir had been thwarted. If only a different climate had prevailed back then. If only…

And while Dalia Rabin does indeed believe that much about Israel might have been better had her father been able to continue leading the state, her post-Yitzhak Rabin narrative is not exactly what you might expect. The respect and admiration she feels for her father is absolute. So, too, her conviction that this “thorough, methodical” man was remaking Israel’s domestic priorities. And her sense of loss — personal and national — is overwhelming.

But there are fewer certainties when Dalia Rabin is asked to think about what might have been. Clinically dismissive of Yasser Arafat, she’s anything but adamant that the Oslo process would have worked if only her father had lived. She is as humbled as the rest of us by the sheer horrifying unpredictability of the wider Middle East. And she is nuanced and thoughtful and strained when it comes to Netanyahu.

Importantly, though, Dalia Rabin doesn’t actually inhabit the world of “what if.” In an interview (in Hebrew) in her office at the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, which she established and directs in his memory, it was her interviewer who took her back 20 years, emphatically not the other way round. Her office is filled with books, paintings, photographs and other mementos of her murdered father, but her immediate work area is functional there are computer and phones, not history, at her fingertips. Dalia Rabin is not gazing bleakly backward, but pushing ahead — determinedly using the center as a focal point for dialogue across the fevered Israeli political spectrum, organizing programs and gatherings aimed at producing a more tolerant, insistently democratic Israeli society, reducing the ills that culminated in that killing and that still scar and threaten Israel.

The Times of Israel: I want to ask you, 20 years later, about how things might have unfolded with the Palestinians had your father lived. Would things have turned out differently?

Dalia Rabin: In terms of the Palestinians, it’s very hard to give accurate assessments. Because from the very beginning they were not easy partners. They were not definitive.

There was a feeling that some kind of connection of trust was built between Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. Which was all in all something very fragile. Because if you are looking at the big picture, Arafat in 1995 was thought to be someone who could “supply the goods” if he wanted to, and could have stopped Hamas, but he didn’t do it! We had the revolving door policy (of prisoner releases by Arafat of terrorists). And the waves of terror hit the peace process, undoubtedly. And that increased the internal opposition among us, and the feeling that this process was costing us blood.

Now, it didn’t deter Yitzhak Rabin, but I have the feeling that he wouldn’t have let it continue. There would have been a stage where he would have decided: We’re in a phased process. Let’s evaluate what we have achieved and what the price has been. He wouldn’t have stopped Oslo, but he would have done what Oslo enabled him to do: to look at it as a process and assess whether it was working.

So it’s hard to say what would have happened with the Palestinians. Could this personal Rabin-Arafat connection have brought Arafat to decide to do more, to stop the terror? And could it have increased the feeling that there is a chance for this process?

At the same time, there was a kind of a public buzz that we (in Israel) were on our way to a change — due to the whole internal process due to the social revolution that accompanied all these things. After all, Yitzhak Rabin wasn’t only working to make peace with the Palestinians. That path opened a lot of horizons that were previously closed. And there was a feeling that we were on our way to something new .…

You are talking about other countries warming relations?

There was a reordering of priorities. First of all, (the government) stopped investing in (settlements in) the territories. And the funds that were previously invested in the territories were transferred to education. The education budget was more than doubled. There was unprecedented investment in infrastructure, in industry and in research. He believed in the “human resource” and believed in creating a good life here. A life of quality. And that this should be a country that’s good to live in, not a place to come and die for. It wouldn’t be “good to die for our country,” but, rather, good to live for it.

He saw the trends among Israeli youth, who really don’t want to fight their whole lives. He saw my own children. He saw to a certain extent the cracks in Israeli society, and the ebbing will to be martyrs forever. They want to live. The children are connected to Western culture. The world has become a global village, and we want to be a part of it.

Without any doubt, too, the world opened up towards us (at that time). They were playing Hatikvah in the Kremlin. (Warming ties with) China. What was showered upon us from Europe and the United States. It was unprecedented.

There was a feeling that we were investing in the right things. Roads were being planned. Schools were being planned, a long-term investment in education. This wasn’t just on a populist level, it wasn’t just talk.

We were investing in the Arab-Israeli sector. At the beginning, that met with a lot of resistance (from that community), due to the intifada. But Arab Israelis saw that he was the only one who helped them with improving their infrastructure and their education. He promised funding, and he delivered it.

I have no doubt that the face of Israel would have been different, despite the demographic problem (of a domestic shift to the right): If we look at the 1992 elections (which brought Rabin back to power, defeating Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir), the Labor party indeed won 44 seats, but the victory was very, very narrow. Built on fractions of percentages and surplus vote agreements. The coalition wasn’t a big one.

As for the peace process, look at what’s happening now in the Middle East. Look at how many changes are unfolding. Syria, Egypt. It’s not the same world any more. And Islamic State. These are not processes that we control.

He always said, ‘We have a window of opportunity.’ And he saw this window of opportunity from a regional, global and internal analysis. He saw Israeli demography changing. He saw some kind of opportunity in the Middle East. He saw that the Soviet Union had fallen apart and could no longer be a strong counterforce. And he always said, “We need to make peace with our neighbors before Iran goes nuclear.” He said it from the 1990s. I remember him talking about it.

Are you angry with Arafat? Did you speak to him?

No, I didn’t speak with Arafat. I can only say that in the week when my mother passed away (in November 2000), it was the fifth anniversary of father’s death. According to the Hebrew calendar, she passed away some two days from the date of his death. We made contact with Arafat through certain secure channels, and we asked him to stop the (Second Intifada) terror for a week, as a gesture to mom. He didn’t reply.

I’m not angry at him. He doesn’t owe me anything. I certainly don’t see him as a person that I have a love-hate-anger connection to. He didn’t “supply the goods” at the time. I see him as one of the factors that strengthened the very, very violent opposition to the process, and eventually brought the murder.

And his successor? Do you have any contact with Abbas?

No. I met him a few times. We have been running a project at the center for the last seven years, where we bring professors from the fields of political science, Middle East studies, and public administration from all over the United States, and it expanded to Chinese and European professors. Every year we bring delegations of professors in order to deal with the “campus problem,” the anti-Israel atmosphere on international campuses.

As part of the week that we plan for these professors during their stay, we expose them to the entire spectrum, and among other things they go for a day to Ramallah. And up until a year ago, they used to meet with the entire top level of the Palestinian Authority, sometimes including a meeting with Abbas. Not always. When I joined them, he always invited me to the Muqata to meet with him.

There was an ambassador who passed away recently, Yehuda Avner, who worked with your father and…

And he wrote a book. (The Prime Ministers.)

There is an interesting footnote: Avner says Rabin made clear to him that he wasn’t at all sure it would work out with Arafat, but he was very worried about the rise of radical Islam. He thought one needed to try and do something with the secular leadership, however uphill the struggle. Is there anything to that?

Yes. This was a part of what he saw as the components of the “window of opportunity.” The [Israeli security establishment] saw the rise of radical Islam in the form of suicide attacks. They carried out an in-depth analysis of the entire situation, trying to look at how to cope with the willingness of fanatics to blow themselves up. They didn’t come up, back then, with an overall solution, of how to defuse this. It was clear that it was a part of the rise of radical Islam, a part of their traditions.

A lot was said about that. A lot regarding the “window of opportunity” to conclude the agreement, and make maximum use of the possibility (of an agreement), while there was someone to talk to, a secular leadership, and not a Hamas leadership.

Where did Netanyahu enter the picture, when you look back? You spoke of the Palestinian terrorism as a factor that changed our society, and heightened opposition, and ultimately caused what it caused. It made it possible for the radicals among us to find a comfortable environment…

So where is Netanyahu in this picture?

So where is Netanyahu? Netanyahu rode this wave of opposition by nationalist religious Zionism, and took it under his wing. They have this divine command of not giving up any inch of the holy land, that they see as sacred, and put the value of an inch of land higher than that of human life. He took that under his wing and made politically cynical use of it. And it was painful to see the demonstrations against Yitzhak Rabin, night after night.

I remember that there was a big argument as to whether it was necessary to highlight (the fierce anti-Rabin protests), in order to raise awareness, in order to raise the opposition to it. (Rabin) stood there pretty much alone against those crazy attacks. If you look at Zion Square, at the kids that stood there and shouted “In blood and fire, we’ll banish Rabin,” it was obvious that they didn’t really know what they were saying. But their eyes radiated hatred. It was an indoctrinated crowd. And this was utilized politically. It was very grave.

Netanyahu was here at the center just now, for the first time (when he visited the Rabin Center’s exhibition on the Entebbe rescue). Were you here on that day?

How is it, 20 years later…?

Look, the fact that he came here is something new. But he’s been prime minister for, what, ten years? (Six in this stint three in the late 1990s — DH.) So every year, on the anniversary (of the assassination), there’s a sort of a tradition, of doing a ceremony at the Prime Minister’s Office. And before the ceremony, the family enters the prime minister’s room and is supposed to have some kind of a conversation with him.

These parts aren’t easy. I mean, you need to rise above many things because he is the prime minister, and he is soon to speak at the grave and then he’ll speak at the Knesset. I was raised to respect positions no matter who fills them… Like my father behaved towards (Ezer) Weizman (who was president in the 1990s). We stand there very politely and well dressed. And we don’t show emotion. And it’s not easy for us. But we were raised to respect the flags and symbols of the state of Israel.

I decided that the Rabin Center has to be a national entity and not a private entity. With a prime minister and defense minister who was murdered when he was serving as the democratically elected leader, the state of Israel must take a role in his commemoration. So the building was funded from donations, while all the maintenance, salaries and projects are funded by the state. We had ups and downs on this matter. But all in all, the state has acted responsibly, to a great extent with Bibi’s backing during the past few years.

I want this center to work. I have invested many years of my life in this, together with my amazing staff. Truly, I’m blessed with people who have a unique level of commitment. We’ve built something exemplary here, and we do what we believe to be the right work that honors Yitzhak Rabin and his memory.

‘He is portrayed as a hawk who became a dove. He wasn’t a hawk and he wasn’t a dove… He was pragmatic’

So, to get back to your question, we must respect the institutions, the institution of prime minister among them. It was important for me that (Netanyahu) would come and see what we are doing here. I had reminded him several times (that he hadn’t been). Now, during the Entebbe commemoration and exhibition, and his being Yoni’s brother, he didn’t have any choice (chuckles), and he came. And he also came to see the museum. I think that he greatly appreciated what we’ve done here.

It actually happens to everyone who enters the museum: People (erroneously) look at us as the “Peace Center” and the “Oslo Center” and don’t really understand what we are doing here. But when you step into the museum, you suddenly understand the scope and intensity of what we are trying to do.

There’s this image of Rabin as a man who won the Nobel Prize for peace, Arafat, left wing. But that’s inaccurate?

He wasn’t. He is portrayed as a hawk who became a dove. He wasn’t a hawk and he wasn’t a dove.

In 1967, when he thought we had to go to war, because if we didn’t make the preemptive strike they’d destroy us, he did it. With great courage. Taking upon himself unimaginable responsibility. Entebbe is minor compared to ‘67, in my opinion. Despite criticism from (David) Ben-Gurion, (Moshe) Tzadok, Moshe Nissim, he took responsibility and recommended to the government that we go to war.

It’s true that he received reinforcement when they brought in Dayan (as defense minister). But when did Dayan step in? Four days before the war. Who prepared the army for the war? Yitzhak Rabin. Ever since the conclusion of the War of Independence, he had vowed: never again. He called in all his friends from the Palmach, and together they built a serious army. He built the training framework and the arms procurement framework. He worked on every item meticulously. He was astonishingly meticulous.

And in ‘67 he thought this war was necessary. And the day after ’67, he writes in his biography, “Now I take off the uniform, and I’m going to Washington to turn the outcome of this war into peace.”

So you see, he didn’t transform in one day from a hawk to a dove. He understood that we need to get rid of these territories. And he understood that peace must be made, first with Egypt, and he worked very hard on it in Washington, and the documents from that period are now slowly being released.

And at some point when he thought that the military government was necessary in the territories, he was in favor of the military government, although it was very hawkish. Later, when the Intifada broke out (in 1987), he thought that it needed to be dealt with forcefully. Later, he thought that the Palestinian leadership in the territories doesn’t know how to deliver the goods, because they would run to (Arafat in) Tunisia for every detail. So he said, Okay, we’ll bring Tunisia over, and we’ll try to speak with Tunisia. We are strong enough, and we are not afraid.

He understood that we need to get rid of these territories

He was pragmatic, and he wasn’t naïve. Not one drop of naïveté. He wouldn’t be dragged into anything. He checked everything thoroughly.

And when (as prime minister from 1992) he thought that there was a chance to lower the flames and create a sort of a breakthrough, keeping in mind the circumstances of the time, he went for it. And he understood very well that it also put him at risk of losing power. There was so much resistance, so it was clear that he would pay for it with Knesset seats (in the next elections in 1996). He didn’t think they would kill him. But he thought that he would have to pay a political price.

He wasn’t sure that he would win the upcoming elections?

He didn’t think they would kill him. But he thought he would have to pay a political price

There was quite a drop in his popularity, because there was terror. He didn’t think he was going to lose in 1996, but he knew it wouldn’t be an easy fight.

If there had been another leader in the opposition in our state, a more responsible leader, do you think things would have turned out differently?

I don’t want to get into that. Because there was Ehud Barak and it didn’t work (with Arafat in 2000).

No, I’m talking about the murder. If someone more responsible had been the leader of our opposition, would the public atmosphere have been different? Would the outcome have been different?

This is a question that I don’t know how to answer. It’s a hard question that I really don’t want to answer.

I don’t think Bibi sent Yigal Amir. And I don’t think Bibi thought that someone would murder the prime minister.

He understood one thing: that Yitzhak Rabin was standing in his way to becoming prime minister. But I don’t think it ever entered his mind that there could be a murder. This “pulsa denura” (death curse) comes from the darkest realms of religion – where Bibi has not been. I don’t think he ever connected to them. That is where it came from — from those rabbis that preached, preached openly, that Yitzhak Rabin had to be killed because he was going to bring upon us annihilation and disaster. And those people still say it. Not that he had to be killed. They are against murder. But they say that they felt that this man was bringing disaster upon us.

I can’t say whether or not a responsible opposition leader would have known to restrain those forces, which completely don’t heed the democratic imperative. Bibi is, after all, a leader chosen through a democratic majority and abides by the democratic laws. There, it’s some kind of a different world.

That still exists, in your opinion?

So, if anyone else will try to relinquish territory?

This hard core of these rabbis still exists and still thinks the way it does. Why would they have changed their minds? They succeeded! They succeeded in scaring off territorial moves.

Look, when Arik Sharon did his thing (withdrawing unilaterally from Gaza in 2005), he also was threatened by a public that saw him as a traitor to them, because they had seen him as one of them. And the opposition to the unilateral withdrawal was very harsh. But there wasn’t such a militant opposition. The (Labor) opposition supported him.

‘To say that the murder succeeded is too hard for me. But there is no doubt that it achieved certain results’

This is a terrible question, which I have to ask you, which you probably ask yourself as well: Did the murder succeed? Yigal Amir wanted to stop the process, and one can really claim that he succeeded.

The question is what you mean by “success.” It’s true that the process to a large extent was stopped. But many things remained of the process that no one speaks about. There is still cooperation in the military field that has its infrastructure from Oslo. The whole issue of financial cooperation, also with Gaza, the Paris agreement.

To say that the murder succeeded is too hard for me. But there is no doubt that it achieved certain results, and in particular, there was something paralyzing in the murder: it froze the ability to have an in-depth discussion on the meaning of the murder and its implications for the Israeli society.

That we as a society have yet to deal with it?

Everyone says, Yes, we all condemn the murder. But it paralyzes the going beyond it, and the looking into what the factors were, and what the atmosphere was. Both sides of the political map refrain from doing that.

What would you have wanted?

(Sighs) That is what we are now trying to set in motion on the 20th anniversary: To start a more open discourse with the people who claim that we blamed them, who feel as if they are being blamed. Although I don’t know when I have ever blamed anyone. I want to try and create an environment for more and more dialogue, and to develop this dialogue. I don’t really know how to do it, but that’s the aim.

Including to try and make programs in schools?

Yes. To step further out of the circle of the places we’ve reached so far. There are some very harsh phenomena in Israeli society that need to be dealt with. And part of it, in my opinion, results from not coping with that (murderous) act of violence.

We are a very divided society. I don’t know which difficulties you have when trying to initiate things. I assume that people on the other side think that you are so angry with them. And they probably also feel some guilt. So when encounters actually occur, is there a will and readiness?

There’s readiness to talk. There was a group here and one of them, from the hardcore of the National Religious Zionism camp, stood up at the end of the visit and said, I walked around the museum and I didn’t feel accused.

The question is really if they wish to open up a little. They are so locked now. It might be that the reactions of the Peace Camp, after the murder, had something to do with this. I don’t know. It might be that they were pushed into a corner. I never felt that I was doing that. But there were other elements that did it. And I can only believe them, that this is the way they felt. I don’t doubt that they feel a bit guilty, because after all, we saw who participated in these demonstrations.

Changing the subject, how would Rabin have dealt with Iran, in your opinion?

Oh, I don’t know. I can’t speak on his behalf.

He was such a serious and meticulous man. I assume that first of all the relations with the US would have been in a different place.

With a president who is very, very difficult? You don’t have to answer that.

Nixon was not easy. Johnson was not easy. They were not easy presidents. Nixon was not an easy president for Israel. Rabin swept them off their feet there. So the question is how to do what, and how not to spoil relationships.

And finally, if he is looking down at us, I don’t know what you believe in at all.…

I do believe that he is looking from above.

That there is something after death?

I don’t call it a name, but in some place, I still talk to them. So I believe that they hear. They don’t answer me, but I believe that they hear.

Do you rely on The Times of Israel for accurate and insightful news on Israel and the Jewish world? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:

  • Support our independent journalism
  • Enjoy an ad-free experience on the ToI site, apps and emails and
  • Gain access to exclusive content shared only with the ToI Community, like our Israel Unlocked virtual tours series and weekly letters from founding editor David Horovitz.

We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.

That’s why we come to work every day - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.

So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.

For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.


Remembering Rabin 20 years later

On Yom Kippur, I reflected on my experience in Israel 20 years ago when the country went through the trauma of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. While Rabin’s yahrzeit already passed several days ago, this week marks the secular anniversary on November 4. Furthermore, President Bill Clinton in his eulogy of Rabin cited the very Torah portion that we read today, Parashat Vayera. President Clinton said:

This week, Jews all around the world are studying the Torah portion in which God tests the faith of Abraham, patriarch of the Jews and the Arabs. He commands Abraham to sacrifice Yitzhak. “Take your son, the one you love, Yitzhak.” As we all know, as Abraham, in loyalty to God, was about to kill his son, God spared Yitzhak.

Now God tests our faith even more terribly, for he has taken our Yitzhak. But Israel’s covenant with God for freedom, for tolerance, for security, for peace — that covenant must hold. That covenant was Prime Minister Rabin’s life’s work. Now we must make it his lasting legacy. His spirit must live on in us.

The Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for mourning, never speaks of death, but often speaks of peace. In its closing words, may our hearts find a measure of comfort and our souls, the eternal touch of hope.

“Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’ase shalom aleinu, ve-al kol Israel, ve-imru, amen.”

On this twentieth anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, official memorials are taking place, including one tomorrow in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv at which Bill Clinton will be present. Yet, it seems that reflections on the Rabin assassination is rather subdued in the Jewish public square. Yehudah Kurtzer of the Hartman Institute suggests in an op-ed three reasons for the muted commemorations:

  1. If Rabin’s assassination was a cautionary tale on the dangers of Jewish fundamentalism, its message has not been sufficiently heeded, particularly in the last year in which Jews have carried out horrific acts of violence.
  2. Rabin’s political legacy is complex. We will never know what would have happened if he had lived. Given where we are now, it seems Pollyannaish that he would have completed a peace deal and brought about the elusive two-state solution.
  3. The biggest obstacle to Rabin’s memory is that many Jews very reasonably have little appetite right now for the self-flagellation involved with a commemoration of Rabin. As Israel’s citizens are under attack, many of the country’s supporters feel that Israel’s primary enemies are from without and not from within. They argue that empathy with a society under attack dictates solidarity with the people rather than the bitter surfacing of a memory that signaled that society’s failure. If remembering Rabin is about signaling that we can be our own worst enemies, that message is hard for us to hear today. Rabin’s legacy, in other words, is hijacked both by the complicated political reality he left behind, and by the dominant lesson of his death as a warning about Jew-on-Jew violence. Rabin’s memory may be lost because it arises at an inconvenient time, or because it is thought to be a failure.

Just as Bill Clinton framed Rabin’s legacy 20 years ago through the lenses of Parashat Vayera, we can do the same. The portion continues the story of Abraham and the dramatic accounts of how the father of our nation welcomed angels into his tent, argued with God over the justice of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, the birth of Isaac in his and Sarah’s old age, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and the binding of Isaac. We see Abraham as a great hero, yet one with human flaws. He and the other patriarchs and matriarchs are at once larger than life and very approachable. For centuries, people have attempted to get inside the minds of our ancestors and speculate on the details of their experiences and what they must have thought at the time. The art of Midrash is the attempt to have a conversation with the Biblical narrative and to imagine ourselves in the situations described.

Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet who died in 2000, completed his last collection of poetry shortly before he died in a book titled “Open Closed Open.” Though he identified as a secular Israeli, much of his poetry, particularly in this volume, discusses Biblical figures and religious issues. Abraham and the story of the Binding of Isaac appear multiple times. The following poem is an example of the poet’s attempt to enter the minds of our ancestors and imagine them reflecting with nostalgia on the traumatic events of the Akeidah.

Taken from “Open Closed Open” by Yehuda Amichai

Every year our father Abraham takes his sons to Mount Moriah, the same way that I take my children to the Negev hills where my war took place.

Abraham walks with his sons: this is where I left the servants, that’s where I tied the ass to the tree at the foot of the hill, and here, right at this spot, you asked me, Isaac my son: Here is the fire and the wood but where is the lamb for the sacrifice? A little further up you asked me again.

When they reached the top of the mountain they rested awhile and ate

And drank, and he showed them the thicket where the ram was caught by its horns.

And when Abraham died, Isaac took his sons to the same spot.

“Here I lifted up the wood and that’s where I stopped for breath, this is where I asked my father and he replied, God will provide the lamb for the sacrifice, and that’s where I knew that it was me.”

And when Isaac became blind his sons brought him to that same Mount Moriah and described to him in words

All those things that he may already have forgotten.

In this poem, Abraham behaves like we might behave visiting a historic site while on vacation, particularly while visiting places of battle. The poet likens Abraham to generations of Israelis who would often visit battle sites with a sense of nostalgia. We also see the contrast between generations. Abraham has his set of memories when he revisits the site with Isaac. But when Isaac takes his sons there, he remembers things differently. He acknowledges that while Abraham did not fully answer his question about where was the sacrifice, he understood that he was the intended sacrifice. Then, Isaac revisits the site years later when he is blind, perhaps a symbol of blocking out a memory that was too painful for him.

Amichai’s interpretation of the Akeidah is told from different perspectives. Similarly, this week we approach the memory of Yitzhak Rabin from different perspectives: what was, what is and what might have been. I believe many of us hold all three of these thoughts and memories of Rabin simultaneously. Abraham and Isaac were not perfect, and neither was Rabin.

On this 20 th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, I yearn for religious and political leaders who, like Rabin, are willing to take risks for positive change and who continue to envision a better future with both sincerity and pragmatism. This is how I choose to remember Rabin twenty years later.

To conclude, the Psalmist says (122:6):

ו שַׁאֲלוּ שְׁלוֹם יְרוּשָׁלָם יִשְׁלָיוּ אֹהֲבָיִךְ: זח לְמַעַן־אַחַי וְרֵעָי אֲדַבְּרָה־נָּא שָׁלוֹם בָּךְ: ט לְמַעַן בֵּית־יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֲבַקְשָׁה טוֹב לָךְ:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem they who love the Lord shall prosper…For the sake of my brothers and sisters, I will now say Peace be within you. For the sake of the house of the Lord our God I will seek your goodness.


20 Years Later, The Question Lingers: What If Yitzhak Rabin Had Lived?

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (left), and Palestinian leader leader Yasser Arafat reach an interim agreement as President Clinton looks on at the White house on Sept. 28, 1995. Rabin was killed by an extremist Jew five weeks later.

Israeli workers hang a billboard of Yitzhak Rabin ahead of a rally marking the 20th anniversary of his assassination, in Tel Aviv, on Oct. 28.

Twenty years ago, an Israeli extremist shot dead the country's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and left the country, and people all over the world to wonder: What if?

What if Rabin, the general turned cautious peacemaker, had lived?

Rabin signed the Oslo Accords with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the White House in September 1993, launching the first full-fledged peace effort after decades of conflict between the two sides.

"We are not alone here on this soil, in this land. And so, we are sharing this good earth today with the Palestinian people in order to choose life," Rabin said at the White House in September 1995, when he signed a followup agreement with Arafat known as Oslo II.

The Oslo Accords, so named because they were originally negotiated in Norway's capital, were intended to deliver security to Israel and self-rule to the Palestinians.

The accords had their detractors and there was no guarantee they would succeed. For the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, it was a sellout. They launched a terror campaign against it.

For the Israeli right, the prospect of accommodation with the Palestinians and territorial compromise was unacceptable. At rallies they protested against Rabin's policies.

Shot After A Peace Rally

On Nov. 4, 1995, Rabin, a famously tough and taciturn commander, an unlikely peacenik, took part in a large pro-peace rally in Tel Aviv.

"Rabin was standing onstage and singing a Song for Peace with one of Israel's most famous singers," said Linda Gradstein, the NPR reporter that night. "As he walked to get into his car, a young, 27-year-old law student named Yigal Amir ran right up to the prime minister and shot him three times at point blank range, fatally injuring him and slightly injuring one of Rabin's bodyguards."

Dan Ephron, who was covering the Tel Aviv rally for Reuters, said, "The rally had ended. So I was walking away. I was a few blocks away. And I got a message on my beeper, saying, 'Shots fired near Rabin, go back.'"

Ephron has returned to the scene of that assassination with a new book called Killing a King. Rabin, he says, was a pragmatist and very much a soldier.

"Rabin was a military man for the first three decades of his life, and I think that shaped his character," Ephron says. "He was gruff, he was not good at small talk, he wasn't very charismatic. One of his family members told me that Rabin, every morning, would sit on the corner of bed and shine his own shoes."

He was also about as secular as an Israeli could be.

"That's significant in terms of what he set out to do. The idea of giving up parts of the West Bank and Gaza, to many religious Jews, is really anathema," says Ephron. "It's really a betrayal of Judaism. Rabin, I think felt none of that sentimental attachment to the land, to the territory. He was all about security. So, he talked about parts of the West Bank that Israel would need to hold onto for the sake of Israel's security, but it was never about some religious attachment to the land."

Ephron recalls Israel of 1995 as deeply divided on that score.

The shift from a national leadership of security-minded pragmatists to one of ideologues and more religious Jews had been underway, he says, for two decades.

"This was a moment, maybe the last moment for the pragmatists in terms of their ability to garner a majority in Israel," he says. "And that moment ended with the assassination. The assassination triggers a chain of events that leads to this power shift. By about six months after the murder, a young politician on the right, Benjamin Netanyahu becomes prime minister. And he really is the dominant political figure in Israel for much of the last 20 years."

Alternative Scenarios

It's impossible to say what would have been had Rabin not been shot.

Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea says even had Rabin lived, the challenge of achieving a stable peace with the Palestinians, in the thick of violent attacks, may have been just too great.

"Rabin could have lost the elections which took place only a few months after the assassination," Barnea says. "And even if he won it, I'm not sure Arafat and him could get to the point where the necessary concessions on both sides could be reached. The gap was deep and the expectations of every party was so different."

But Rabin, having fought in Israel's wars, having been military chief of staff in the Six-Day War of 1967, being a security-minded leader of Israel's center-left Labor Party, brought a stolid credibility to the process.

"People from all parties respect Rabin for what he was, but the debate that caused the assassination: What we should give and what we should get, and what the Palestinians mean, and what are the future borders of Israel. All these questions are still there," Barnea says.

He adds that the gap between the parties is even deeper and wider today than it was 20 years ago.

"You have the feeling on both sides of the wall that the Oslo process didn't bring normalization," he adds. "The Palestinians look at Oslo as a process which brought them violence and less freedom of movement. And Israelis felt that if the idea of Oslo was to bring us to a position where we are part of the Middle East, acceptable by the Arab world, especially by the Palestinians, these things didn't happen."

Not Beloved, But Trusted

Ghaith al-Omari agrees that counter-factual history is impossible to write. Omari was a Palestinian legal adviser during talks with Israel in the late 1990s. He says veteran Palestinian negotiators would yearn for the days of the straightforward Rabin.

"With the assassination of Rabin, we lost a leader who had the qualities that would have made a peacemaker," says Omari. "He had a vision — something that is rare these days. He had a good read of his public, yet he was not a leader who followed, but rather a leader who led. And he was a very trustworthy leader. He did not always tell you what you would like to hear, but what he said, you could count on. And that's why you see he had such good relations, with people like President Clinton, like [King] Hussein of Jordan."

Rabin was not a beloved figure among Palestinians. He had, after all, been fighting them much of his adult life. In response to the first Palestinian uprising, which erupted in 1987, he said Israel would break the bones of the Palestinians.

"But you cannot take this out of its historic context," Omari notes. "There was a conflict between the Palestinians and Israel. Palestinians were killing Israelis. Israelis were killing Palestinians. There was a war. And I think one thing that we see within the Israeli system, is usually the former generals, who have known the difficulty of both sending men to kill and to be killed, who understood the futility of it, are the ones who are most committed to finding a political end to this conflict."

Could things have been all that different had Rabin lived? Dan Ephron immersed himself in that question in writing his book.

"Once the slope of history changes because of a certain event, it's hard to go back and try to figure out how things would have unspooled if it had not changed," Ephron says.

"The conclusion I came to was that that moment in 1995 was probably the most hopeful moment in terms of the possibility of coming to some agreement between Israelis and Palestinians," he adds. "The most hopeful moment in retrospect, in past 20 years, and maybe even going forward. And I think the main reason for that is because that peace process was still new, it had not been poisoned yet by the years of violence and settlement expansion. So, it was a hopeful moment that I don't think the Israelis and Palestinians have achieved at any point since then."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

FEATURED PODCAST

San Diego news when you want it, where you want it. Get local stories on politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings. Hosted by Anica Colbert and produced by KPBS, San Diego and the Imperial County's NPR and PBS station.


Rabin’s Assassination Twenty Years Later

“And I wish to add one more thing, if I can.
The Prime Minister died a happy man.//
Farewell to the dust of my Prime Minister,
husband and father, and what’s rarely said:
son of Rosa the Red.” (Dalia Ravikovitch, translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld)

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, shaking hands with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, with U.S. President Bill Clinton in the center at the Oslo Accords signing ceremony, Sept. 13, 1993. (Vince Musi / The White House)

On November 4 of 1995, the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin– “the beautiful son of the Zionist utopia” — was assassinated by Yigal Amir, a 25 year old law student and Jewish zealot. The assassin wished to thwart the peace process, led by Rabin, between Israel and the Palestinians. Twenty years after the assassination, the word “peace” seems to have evaporated from Israeli discourse as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promises his people will “forever live by the sword.” It is now crucial to reexamine the murder and its effect on the course of history, on the Arab-Israeli conflict and particularly on Israeli society. What role, if any, did the murder have on “the triumph of Israel’s Radical Right,” as the title of UT’s Professor Ami Pedahzur’s last book suggests?

Yitzhak Rabin, commander of the Harel Brigade, c. 1948. Via Wikipedia

Rabin became Prime Minister in 1992 with a promise to achieve peace between Israel and the Arabs. But for most of his life he was not a man of peace. In his teens, he joined a pre-state Jewish militia and later played a significant role in the Independence War of 1948. In his memoir, he writes frankly about the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs from the newly established Israel and his role in it. Rabin served another 21 years in the Israeli Army, becoming its Chief of Staff in 1964. He thus has a crucial role in Israel’s most famous military victory—the 1967 Six Day War, in which Israel occupied territories three times its original size.

Hence, for most of his life, Rabin was the ultimate embodiment of the Zionist ethos, a real Sabra—native born, socialist-secular educated, from Ashkenazi origins he was a dedicated settler and a brilliant combatant. Later he would serve as ambassador to the United States, a member of the Israeli Parliament, Prime Minister, and Defense Minister. Beside the political ramifications of his assassination, the event also carries great symbolism. No leader represents the values of the old Zionist elite more than Rabin. His murder, in retrospect, symbolized the decline of liberal Zionism and the rise of a new radical elite.

The Israeli delegation to the 1949 Armistice Agreements talks. Left to right- Commanders Yehoshafat Harkabi, Aryeh Simon, Yigael Yadin, and Yitzhak Rabin (1949). Via Wikipedia.

Although a small coterie was responsible for the murder, it came after a long campaign inciting violence against the Prime Minister, run by the political right and directed at Rabin, Shimon Peres, and the peace process. The writing was literally on the wall and I remember seeing it daily, with slogans like “Rabin is a traitor,” or “Death to Rabin.” Thousands of right wing demonstrators set fire to photomontages of Rabin wearing an “Arab” Kafyyia or dressed as an SS officer. The abuse of Holocaust discourse was especially common and obviously loaded. Historian Idith Zertal notes that “central Israeli political figures and parties, including two individuals who were later, as a direct or indirect consequence of the assassination, to become Prime Ministers [Netanyahu and Sharon], and past and present cabinet ministers, played an active role in these demonstrations.” Yet, to this day, the Right has managed to disassociate itself from the assassination.

At the funeral, Rabin’s widow refused to shake Netanyahu’s hand and told the press: “Mr. Netanyahu [the head of the Opposition] incited against my husband and led the savage demonstrations against him.” It is here where the story revealed itself as a biblical, or Shakespearean, tragedy. Seven months after the murder, Netanyahu came to power and systematically destroyed the already-broken peace process. In the aftermath, many Leftists (such as Rabin’s widow) invoked the biblical story of prophet Elijah telling King Ahab: “Thus saith God, Hast thou committed murder, then also hast thou inherited?”

A poster of Rabin proclaiming him a traitor to Israel.

Zeev Sternhell, a world expert on fascism, wrote: “Israel was the first democratic state—and from the end of the second World War, the only one—in which a political murder achieved its goal.” Amir did not murder Rabin out of personal hatred. In Amir’s own words, “It wasn’t a matter of revenge, or punishment, or anger, Heaven forbid, but what would stop the Oslo [Peace] Process.” Yet politicians from the Right have managed to de-politicize the murder. They now depict the assassin, along with his colleagues and their mentors — the very rabbis who “sentenced” Rabin to death—simply as “bad apples.”

Since any peace agreement would necessitate at least some withdrawal from the occupied territories, both the secular and religious Right fiercely oppose such plans. The moderate right-wing, led by Netanyahu, argues that such a withdrawal endangers Israel’s security the religious also perceive any territorial concession to Arabs as a betrayal of God’s Divine Plan. Beyond Israeli objections, the Oslo Peace Process was rightly criticized by many Palestinians for promising them only autonomy, not statehood. An agreement that fell short of satisfying the needs of the Palestinians also far exceeded what the Jewish Right-wing could tolerate.

Under the Oslo Agreement, Israel has (partly and slowly) withdrawn from some parts of the biblical, Greater Eretz Israel. For many religious and messianic Jews, this meant a secular attack on God’s plans. Rabin’s murder, writes philosopher Avishay Margalit, “was not confined to a direct assassin or assassins. The murder of Rabin… was a statistical question – who will actually commit the deed.” And yet, the forces that abhorred any partition of the Holy Land have gained a historic victory.

Netanyahu observing one of the most violent demonstrations against Rabin. He has since said that he did not hear the shouts of the demonstrators nor did he see their slogans.

There is no guarantee that Rabin could have achieved a just peace. Waves of Palestinian terror attacks eroded public support of the peace process already prior to Rabin’s death. There is also no guarantee that Palestinians would be satisfied with the very limited gains the Oslo Agreement guaranteed them. What we do know is that under Netanyahu’s first premiership (1996-1999) and under his successors, the peace process was utterly sabotaged. A new cycle of violence, the Second Intifada, began following the final collapse of peace talks in 2000. For many Israelis, the Second Intifada vindicated the right wing. The so-called “Peace Camp” — supporters of the two state solution — virtually disappeared.

Twenty years after Rabin’s assassination, Israel is run by the most right-wing government in its history. The victory of the right-wing Likud party in 1996, the evaporation of the Zionist-Left since 2000, and the ongoing de-politicization of Rabin’s death have empowered those against peace with Arabs. The assassin’s brother told the media last week that he is very pleased with the results of their deed. The ongoing attack by the Likud government on what is left of the Left might turn the Israeli ethnocracy, which privileges Jews, into a theocracy, which will represent the values and politics of the extreme right.


20 years after Yitzhak Rabin's death, a gulf wider than ever

Israelis lit candles at the Yitzhak Rabin memorial in Tel Aviv on Monday to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the former prime minister's assassination by a rightwing Jewish extremist who hoped to derail the landmark 1993 Oslo Accords inked wit

An Israeli Jewish Orthodox man walks past a billboard bearing a portrait of late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, ahead of a memorial rally marking the 20th anniversary of Rabin's assassination in Tel Aviv on Oct. 29, 2015. Aviv by a Jewish right-wing extremist. (Photo: JAJack Guez, AFP/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — The upcoming anniversary of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination 20 years ago by a Jewish extremist may also mark the death of Israel's peace movement.

Two decades later, Israel appears further away from the prospect for peace than ever. Quite a change from the time Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn with Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat in 1993 and signed the Oslo Peace Accords, giving Palestinians limited self-governance over parts of the West Bank and Gaza.

Since then, Israel has moved to the right politically and no one is talking about an independent Palestinian state happening anytime soon. A small but vocal group of young Israeli extremists have built nearly 100 unauthorized settlement outposts and initiated confrontations with Palestinians.

And just this week, Hagai Amir, the brother of Rabin's assassin, was arrested in Tel Aviv for posting alleged threats to Israel's president on Facebook.

Rabin, a hawkish general-turned prime minister, was gunned down in Tel Aviv on Nov. 4, 1995, during a pro-peace rally in what's now called Rabin Square. He was 73. A ceremony to honor him will be held there Saturday night, and guests will include former president Bill Clinton, who brokered that handshake with Arafat.

Although peace talks have continued since Rabin was slain, “there was no one in Israel with Rabin's combination of political will, the political clout, defense credentials and the courage to stand up to all the opponents of peace,” Ephraim Sneh, a former government minister and close confidant of Rabin, told USA TODAY.

Rabin’s daughter, Dalia, said this week, “There is no peace process. We are facing terrorism. Blood is being shed again. I have no other country, and my country has changed.”

Dalia Rabin speaks during a memorial ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the assassination her father, Yitzhak Rabin, in the Mount Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem, on Oct. 26, 2015. (Photo: Debbie Hill, AP)

Five years after Rabin was killed, Palestinians launched the Second Intifada, or uprising, and a third one may be unfolding with the near-daily series of stabbings and clashes across Israel and the West Bank since mid-September. In the past decade, Israel fought a war with Lebanon and three wars with Hamas militants that rule Gaza.

Relations between Israelis and Palestinians have deteriorated to the point where Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday that negotiating an interim peace deal with Israel would be futile.

Abbas also repeated threats he made in September at the U.N. General Assembly that Palestinians are no longer bound by the Oslo accords if Israel does not honor its commitments.

Speaking at a Rabin memorial this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there is no peace because the Palestinians “are not prepared to recognize the nation-state of the Jewish people. They are not prepared to end the conflict once and for all."

Whether Israelis and Palestinians would have achieved peace if Rabin had lived “is an agonizing question,” said Arie Kacowicz, a Hebrew University political scientist. “It's clear something very deep died with him."

Kacowicz said that from 1993, when the Oslo accords were signed, until the assassination two years later, “Rabin and Arafat had developed a real working relationship. Arafat trusted Rabin, and the kind of cooperation they achieved was never replicated, not by Shimon Peres and not by Benjamin Netanyahu,” Rabin's immediate successors.

Yariv Oppenheimer, general director of Peace Now, a left-wing Israeli advocacy group, said, "Within the peace camp, the assassination created an unspoken fear that if you supported a two-state solution and confronted the right wing, you could pay with your life."

Oppenheimer said that fear allowed the radical right to grow bolder and establish more settlements.

Even today, he said, “Netanyahu incites the public's fears to gain political power. During this last election (in March), he told his constituents, 'The left wing is bringing the Arabs to vote in buses' in order to get the right wing to get out and vote.”

Moshe Arens, a former minister of defense, believes there can be no peace with the Palestinians “until they become a functioning entity with the authority and capability to sign and enforce a peace agreement.” He said even if Abbas did sign a peace treaty, “it would soon be rejected by other Palestinians, including Hamas.”

Kacowicz agreed that the prospects for peace are extremely slim right now.

“There is an almost complete loss of hope in finding a political solution in the foreseeable future, but I personally believe we shouldn't give up hope," he said. "Conflicts are not earthquakes. Eventually they can be resolved.”