LONDON — Shimon Sheves didn’t want Yitzhak Rabin to address what proved to be the fatal peace rally in Tel Aviv at which the prime minister was assassinated, 20 years ago.
The former kibbutznik, who rose to become director-general of Rabin’s office, had a healthy distrust of politicians who stuck to the secular, metropolitan bubble of Tel Aviv, and he thought that for Rabin to speak at the rally was sending the wrong sort of message.
But Rabin was persuaded to attend. And, when speaking recently with The Times of Israel in London where he has lived for the last nine years, Sheves was plainly transported back to those hours as though they had happened yesterday. The two men, as Sheves tells it, had an extraordinary relationship over the 12 years in which they worked together.
“We were together 24/7,” says Sheves. “Though he was 32 years older than me, we became really close friends. We talked and argued all the time, every day. We were like a couple. Sometimes we would discuss something and I thought I was right, but in the end, he was right more than me – and in those cases, my job was to make happen what he wanted.”
The two men were such close friends that Sheves even got to play tennis with Rabin, “not in Israel, but in Washington, DC. In Israel he had his guys that he played with, doubles,” Sheves laughs. “He was always a better player than me, now I am a better player than him.”
The biggest argument they had was over the now notorious handshake with PLO head Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn to mark the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. As Sheves tells it, Rabin didn’t even want to go to Washington.
‘In a way, that made me the creator of Rabin’s death’
“I told him, if you want to implement any program of reforms with the Palestinians, you have to do it [to go to the US] because you have the trust of the people of Israel. If you send someone who doesn’t have that trust, you are going to lose the case. This was my argument. I was right [to persuade him] to go,” says Sheves, “but in a way, that made me the creator of Rabin’s death.”
Sheves had been working for Rabin since he was 31, first at the Ministry of Defense and then moving to build a nucleus within the Israeli Labor Party which swept Rabin to victory in the June 1992 elections.
That victory effectively allowed many in Rabin’s immediate circle to write their own ticket. Sheves and Rabin decided that he would run the prime minister’s office in order, he says, “to navigate the domestic stuff” for Rabin.
“He gave me a long wire, a free rein, to do what I had to do,” he says. “He empowered me to deliver the goods.”
Rabin, says Sheves, was “shy and tough at the same time”, and “very sensitive to making changes in Israeli society.” He went to the Knesset immediately after his election victory with a list of priorities to change in the country: economically, socially, in education, in helping those below the poverty line. It was Sheves’ job to make those things happen.
By the time the peace rally was held, in November 1995, Sheves had moved sideways, out of the director-general’s office. Rabin was hoping to call early elections in May or June of 1996, and asked Sheves to run his new election team.
‘He said I was someone he was happy to argue with’
“He made a party for me in the summer. The plan was for me to become a minister of state in the prime minister’s office in the next government. I had to move because I couldn’t do what was planned as a civil servant. He spoke about our relationship at this party, and I was really moved. He said I was someone he was happy to argue with.”
But on this last, terrible occasion, Sheves lost the argument. Once Rabin had decided to attend the rally, he felt he had to comply with his boss’s wishes.
“I was at the rally, but I wasn’t on the platform. I had hurt my foot and so the police had allowed me to bring my car really close, so that I didn’t need to walk. I was at the foot of the platform, and after Rabin finished his speech I went to my car. I was standing with [former Health Minister] Haim Ramon and with my wife; it was my son’s birthday and we were waiting for him to come from the youth movement he was involved with. It was while we were standing that I heard about the bullets.”
Sheves did not know that it was Rabin who had been shot.
“My assistant called me and said, there is shooting and it is next to Yitzhak. I saw Rabin’s car, that it was moving very fast. I had a bad feeling and I left everyone and went straight to the hospital, I arrived almost at the same time.”
“It was devastating. After he passed away I came with Leah Rabin and Shimon Peres and his kids to say goodbye to him [in the hospital]. And his face was clean, he was really relaxed. His face is still with me for the last 20 years.
“You know, I’d only spoken to him at 6 pm that evening – he was going to America to speak at the GA, and I was going with him, to spend time with him in New York. And the night before, he wanted to speak to me about some problem, so I went to his office and I stayed with him until 9 pm. Even my wife called me, she said, ‘Where are you! It’s Shabbat?’”
In the immediate aftermath of Rabin’s death, Sheves went on Israeli TV and announced: “My country is finished.” An angry president Ezer Weizman called him and asked him why he had said such a thing.
“I told him,” Sheves recalls today, “your country may not be finished, but my country is.” With Rabin’s death, he says, all the hopes and dreams of a different kind of Israel died.
‘This extremism is still an ugly open wound in Israeli society’
He has nothing but bitterness for those in the Attorney-General’s office whom, he says, refused to take adequate notice of the warnings about Jewish extremists, before the assassination. He calls such extremists today “Jewish Hamas” and says he cannot even bear to wear the striped kippah of the Modern Orthodox, preferring a black skullcap instead. “I cannot forgive them.”
And what if Rabin had not been killed?
“If Rabin had not been assassinated 20 years ago,” says Sheves, “we would not be in this situation [of present day violence]. This extremism is still an ugly open wound in Israeli society.”
It’s not just his instinctive antipathy to the right wing but a deep disappointment in the current leaders of the Left. Damningly, Sheves says of Isaac Herzog, the Labor leader, “He’s best to be number two but there is no number one.” And this is his assessment of a man he says is his good friend.
He is also livid with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for having — as he sees it — sought to undermine the American president by his address to Congress.
“If Rabin had heard what Bibi did — before and after the election — with his talk about hordes of Arabs, he would prefer to be where he is.”
“Rabin: The Last Day,” a new film about Rabin’s death conceptualized by Amos Gitai and Shimon Sheves will be screened in Israel next month.