LONDON — On November 4, 1995, 24-year-old law student Yigal Amir assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by firing three bullets into his back.
The Bar Ilan University student was a long-time associate of the most radical advocates of fundamentalist Land of Israel messianism. Reportedly, he had made up his mind to murder Rabin back in September 1993 while watching the prime minister sign the Oslo Accords on the White House Lawn, with United States president Bill Clinton and Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat.
In the aftermath of Rabin’s assassination, a shell-shocked Israeli public attempted come to terms with how — and more importantly, why — this tragic event could have unfolded? How had the Jewish state become so divided and toxically embittered from within?
According to Rabin-era insider Itamar Rabinovich, who has just recently published “Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman,” the rapid post-assassination political transformation that took place in Israel, spearheaded by current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ensured that the necessary soul-searching of the Israeli public never actually took place — or was hijacked by a right-wing Knesset.
Rabinovich, who served as chief negotiator for Israel with Syria from 1992 to 1996, and also as Israel’s ambassador to the United States in the 1990s, says he doesn’t view Rabin’s assassination as one isolated event. Instead, it was part of a series of events that took place over a six-month period: from the murder itself in November 1995, to Netanyahu’s Likud national election victory in the spring of 1996 when Rabin’s Labor party, now under Shimon Peres, was defeated.
The 75-year-old Israeli, who is currently the president of the Israel Institute and Distinguished Global Professor at New York University, claims the center-left establishment in Israel from this period must take some responsibility, too. It essentially handed the vestiges of political power to the radical right on a platter.
“The [Labor] government from this time was wrong in not prosecuting the inciters [of hatred],” says Rabinovich. “The policy was to try and build a big tent in Israeli politics, and bring everyone in, and not to go after those who had incited the hatred. The result is that 20 years later, the radical right that opposed Rabin’s policies is now in government, and they dictate national policy.”
‘The [Labor] government from this time was wrong in not prosecuting the inciters [of hatred]’
If one wants proof of this, just take a look at recent events in Israel concerning the issue of settlements, Rabinovich insists defiantly: “Take the [recent] vote on the expropriation of Palestinian land, for example.” On February 6, 2017, the Knesset passed the controversial Regulation Bill, which paves the way for Israel to recognize some 4,000 illegally built settler homes.
The Likud, Rabinovich insists, has over the last two decades since Rabin’s death, notably been taken over by people who ideologically speaking, are closer to the National Religious Gush Emunim movement than to the traditional Likud base.
“I can draw a direct line from those six months [after Rabin’s murder] to present day developments in Israel,” says Rabinovich.
As Rabinovich writes in his latest book, in Gush Emunim’s world view— and in the theology of their rabbis— the Land of Israel is superior to the State of Israel, and no Israeli government has the authority to give away any part of it. Any government willing to do that, is, by Gush Emunim’s definition, illegitimate.
In 1976, Rabinovich recalls, Rabin had expressed his contempt for the hardcore settlers political movement. In an off-the-record interview, he called it a “cancerous entity” in Israeli politics, and also referred to it as “one of the gravest threats to the State of Israel.”
‘Rabin was worried as a political statesman about a messianic movement operating in the West Bank and in Gaza’
Rabin’s disdain was two-fold, Rabinovich explains when this topic comes up in conversation.
“Firstly, Rabin was worried as a political statesman about a messianic movement operating in the West Bank and in Gaza. And particularly of its influence percolating across the Green Line into Israeli brackets. In [retrospect] this seems amply justified, given today’s current developments with regards to this subject.”
Secondly, says Rabinovich, “Rabin believed there should be a territorial compromise over the West Bank — preferably with Jordan.”
“Rabin did want Israel to stay in greater Jerusalem, in the Jordan Valley, but not in Samaria,” Rabinovich claims. “He thought Samaria would have to be conceded.”
“Of course Gush Emunim was determined to settle in Samaria, precisely in order to foreclose the prospect of an [Arab peace] settlement. And Rabin began to speak in very strong language to Gush Emunim at the time about the safety, future, and security of Israel,” says Rabinovich.
The West Bank and the Gaza Strip are seen by many Jews on the right, particularly Gush Emunim, as the historic “Greater Land of Israel.” The debate over the disposition of these territories has divided Israeli society for the past 50 years, says Rabinovich.
Indeed, Rabinovich points out, no irony is lost in the fact that it was Rabin — as chief of staff of the IDF, as a serious military strategist, and above all, the chief architect of Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War — who played a huge role in capturing those territories.
However, says Rabinovich, like many Israelis, Rabin came to see that the initial euphoria and sense of national pride following those territorial gains was quickly overshadowed by stark reality. The newly expanded Israel — three times larger in size — was an albatross around the state’s neck.
The conquest of the West Bank in particular brought back to the surface in Israeli society ideas and sentiments that had been dormant since 1948. This messianic wave transformed some arms of Religious Zionism from a moderate wing of the Israeli political system into a radical nationalist party and movement.
And so, ironically, the responsibility would eventually fall to Rabin decades later, when called upon by the Israeli voters and the wider international community, to grapple with what Rabinovich calls this “mixed blessing.”
And ultimately, the prime minister paid for this political responsibility with his life.
“Rabin’s role in 1967 propelled him further on [in his career], and in the long-term perspective,” Rabinovich explains. “But the war put under Israel’s control the Sinai, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank.”
“Rabin believed originally that Israel should give up part of these territories. I don’t think he believed early on in full withdrawal. But he did believe in territorial compromise in order to consolidate Israel’s resistance,” he says. However, “It would be erroneous to draw a line between June 1967, and the Oslo Accords in 1993,” says Rabinovich.
“But Rabin was never a supporter of the idea of the Land of Israel movement: holding onto every inch captured in 1967. He always believed in making a compromise for the sake of achieving peace, or at least a diplomatic settlement,” he says.
Rabinovich’s new book recalls the key moments leading up to Rabin’s assassination. In the final chapter, Rabinovich spends considerable time lambasting Netanyahu, saying the prime minister is reluctant to distance himself from those on the radical right who incited hatred in the lead-up to Rabin’s assassination.
Following the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Rabin was continually accused by his political opponents as being a traitor for negotiating with the Palestinians. The accusations and name calling were widespread and varied at the time, Rabinovich recalls.
He cites, for example, how Rabin was depicted on some public placards wearing Arab headgear. Phrases like “Holocaust, Judenrat, and SS officer” — among a host of other vicious insults — were casually thrown about by the right wing establishment.
In his book, Rabinovich also recalls an incident in March 1994, near the town of Ra’anana, north of Tel Aviv, where a protest march was organized by extremist Kahane Chai. The hard-line Israeli militant group advocates for the expulsion of Arabs from the biblical Land of Israel. Netanyahu was seen in front of the Kahane Chai protest; behind him, a coffin was carried inscribed with the words, “Rabin is causing the death of Zionism.” (In the book, Rabinovich translates the coffin’s inscription as “Zionism’s Murderer.”)
Then on October 5, 1995, the day of the Knesset vote on Oslo II, Likud’s leadership organized a mass 100,000-strong rally in Jerusalem’s Zion Square. The rally turned into a mob scene and the crowd chanted, “death to Rabin,” says Rabinovich. By failing to rein in the crowd, he asserts, Netanyahu in no uncertain terms endorsed their ecstatic, violent, messianic euphoria.
‘Netanyahu’s incitement at the time crossed the line’
“Netanyahu’s incitement at the time crossed the line,” says Rabinovich. “If you want to make comparisons to today, imagine, for example, the center-left in Israel staging demonstrations calling Netanyahu a traitor, [holding] a casket and so on.”
“Netanyahu stood on the balcony in Jerusalem at the time in that infamous demonstration when others, like David Levy, walked away. Because they couldn’t stand the crowd. Netanyahu, however, stayed,” adds Rabinovich.
The author, former diplomat, historian, and outspoken politico, concludes our conversation about Rabin by drawing attention to what he believes are misinterpretations by some Israelis about the leader’s ideological beliefs.
While those on the right in Israel often labeled Rabin as someone who was too soft, others on the left too — mistakenly, in Rabinovich’s opinion — refer to the slain prime minister as “dovish.”
“Rabin was not a man of the left,” Rabinovich makes clear. “Nor was he a [peacemaker].
“But he believed that in order to secure Israel’s existence, it had to come to terms with its immediate neighbors. Namely, the Syrians and the Palestinians. And [he thought] that the real dangers to Israel lay in the east: in both Iran and Iraq,” he says.
Strategically speaking, Rabin believed that Israel had to consolidate its position in its immediate environment to contain the existential threat from the east, says Rabinovich.
“I don’t think that Rabin believed that Israel could ever enjoy peace on a level comparable with, say, Scandinavia,” Rabinovich concludes. “But he wanted Israel to be a finished state. Presently, Israel does not have [fixed] boarders. And so Rabin wanted to complete the task of building a state with borders, and enjoy international legitimacy.”