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…
More with Menachem Begin.
And he wrote a book. (The Prime Ministers.)
Yes, I saw the book.
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.