It’s been twenty years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
Political assassinations can be unpredictable events, just as likely to achieve the goal of the killer, if he had one, or result in some unforeseen consequence.
The JFK murder resulted in great national soul searching which LBJ used to push his Great Society and civil rights programs. Lincoln’s killer certainly changed reconstruction.
Rabins’ murder seemingly put an end to any hope of peace which is exactly what his killer wanted. It has turned out to be one of the most effective political murders of modern times.
Yigal Amir, an “extremist”, murdered Rabin. We call them terrorists unless they are “extremists;” I guess it depends on whose side they are on. Amir walked around for months openly telling friends that Rabin should be killed and he wanted to be the one to do it. Unfortunately, Israel’s security forces did not spend much time on domestic terrorists; twenty years ago it was inconceivable that a Jew would kill another Jew for not being Jewish enough. Only Muslims did that.
Two years earlier, Rabin, setting aside a lifetime of enmity, appeared on the White House lawn with Yasir Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a former terrorist, to agree to a framework for limited Palestinian self-rule in the occupied territories; the next year, somewhat less painfully, he returned to the White House, with Jordan’s King Hussein, to officially end a forty-six-year state of war. Within months of Rabin’s death, Benjamin Netanyahu was the new Prime Minister and the prospects for a wider-ranging peace in the Middle East, which had seemed in Rabin’s grasp, were dead, too. Twenty years later, Netanyahu is into his fourth term, and the kind of peace that Rabin envisaged seems more distant than ever.
Rabin was 73 when he died; born in British mandated Palestine to secular socialist immigrants, He spent most of his life fighting Palestinians. His mother Rosa was one of the most important female Zionist leaders of her time. As a teen, he joined Palmach, a commando unit of the Haganah and he was 25 when the U.N. voted to partition Palestine into two states.
The partition plan demarcated the boundaries of Jewish and Arab territories; the U.N. envisioned a two-state solution from the start. This led, in May, 1948, to the founding of Israel, which prompted a full-scale attack by the armies of the surrounding Arab states. In battle against the Arabs (and, before that, the British), Rabin proved himself to be a daring and courageous fighter. But he also took part in the expulsion of some fifty thousand Palestinian residents from the towns of Lydda and Ramle, situated between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Several hundred villagers were shot during that operation, part of a wider exodus of Palestinian Arabs from the Jewish state.
After independence, Rabin focused on building the I.D.F.; and like that of many Israeli leaders since felt that was that peace would be possible only when Israel achieved military superiority over any combination of Arab foes. He became a national hero after the Six Day War which left Israel in possession of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, parts of Syria, and more than a million Palestinians.
Did he speculate over the possibility of a broader peace? Who knows. The Labor Party back then was just as responsible as Likud would be for settlements in the West Bank. He called the P.L.O., responsible for hijackings and bus bombings “Liars and bastards.” Yet there appears to be general agreement in hindsight that after the First Intifada he came to the conclusion that ruling a couple of million Palestinians by force was not sustainable policy.
The breakthrough came with the Oslo Accords which offered withdrawal of troops from the largest cities and limited self-rule through the election of a parliament – the Palestinian authority.
Looking back on it now, the audacity of the deal was breathtaking and it was supported by a majority of Israelis. Rabin was able to carry the day precisely because he was not viewed as dovish; much like Nixon’s opening to China.
It was a happy story without a happy ending. Hamas began a bombing campaign to inflame the Israeli public and the right wing settler group came out in open opposition concerned that they would be forced to leave the West Bank and East Jerusalem. While many of the deal’s opponents invoked religious justifications for maintaining Israel’s hold on the territories it acquired in the Six-Day War, a large number of the opponents were secular. What united the two groups was their rejection of the notion that any conquered territory should be turned over to the Palestinians, even in the interests of peace.
Yigal Amir was not a settler; he was a law student from the coastal city of Herzliya, the son of ultra-orthodox Yemeni parents. He became convinced that Rabin was selling out Israel, particularly the settlers. He began organizing settler demonstrations in the occupied territories and tried to start his own militia. He moved rapidly from disgruntled right winger to murderous fanatic. After his trial it was revealed that a number of persons had heard Amir vow to kill Rabin; no one turned him in.
In the weeks leading up to Rabin’s murder, three extremist rabbis from the West Bank issued a written opinion suggesting that it would be acceptable to kill Rabin, on the ground that he had betrayed the Jewish people. Netanyahu was at a rally, about a month before Rabin’s murder, where crowds spent two hours chanting, “Death to Rabin.” Netanyahu did nothing to discourage them.
Rabin almost missed the demonstration in Tel Aviv where he was killed; he was concerned that the turnout would be embarrassingly small. Instead over 100,000 screaming for peace turned out to welcome him. Security kept it’s eyes open – for Arab suicide bombers. Amir easily walked passed the guards to Rabin and shot him twice in the back. After his arrest he asked for a glass of schnapps to toast the death of Rabin. He said he was doing God’s work.
Would anything be different if Rabin had lived? Who knows. He was probably committed to giving up the occupied territories to a Palestinian state but that would probably not have brought peace. The Oslo Accords brought more bloodshed than peace.
More important, a deal with the Palestinians, even one that included substantial withdrawals from the occupied territories, would have done little to alter the demographic trends that have been reshaping Israeli politics and society; that is, the growth of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities. In the twenty years since Rabin was killed, Israel has become more religious, more conservative, more “messianic.” Rabin would have found himself increasingly among people to whom he had very little to say.
However slim the chances for a comprehensive peace agreement were in the nineteen-nineties, today they are effectively zero. Talk of the two state solution is empty prattle. Meanwhile the Palestinian population combined in the West Bank and Israel itself will exceed the number of Jews as soon as 2020.
There are now 400,000 settlers living in the occupied territory; religious fanatics determined to own it all, rebuild the Temple and greet the coming Messiah. Meanwhile American Christian fanatics support them looking forward to bringing on the Apocalypse and the rapture.
What will Israel do with it’s two million Palestinians? Is there a final solution to the Palestinian question?