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.”
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.”