(photo credit: Courtesy)
Where were you on the night of November 4, 1995? If you can't answer that question you are probably either very young or so old your memory is going. Or you weren't in Israel.
Anyone in the country of a certain age remembers what they were doing the precise moment they heard that prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated. And if the phrasing of the question makes you feel you need to come up with a police alibi, you probably belong to that half of the population that spent the days and weeks after the murder soul searching - faced with accusations that the religious and right-wing were responsible for Rabin's death because of the incitement that had preceded it.
I remember exactly what I was doing on that night 12 years ago. I was having a rare quiet evening at home, off-duty as the Post's parliamentary reporter, watching the movie Crocodile Dundee on television. As soon as titles came up announcing there would be a news flash, I turned on the radio to hear what warranted such a dramatic interruption. My beeper remained strangely silent.
It was like the silence between a terrorist's bomb exploding and the start of the screaming of ambulance sirens.
Within minutes I was struggling to cope with updates and trying to make phone calls for cross-party political responses while the telephone network basically collapsed. The whole country seemed to be calling each other with the terrible news. Rabin was dead. Shot by a Jew. An Israeli.
How could we be expected to take in what this meant? One minute you're sitting at home in a democratic country with a glass of wine laughing at a comedy; the next minute, the prime minister is dead, democracy is wounded and there is nothing to laugh about.
I FINISHED the glass of wine at about 2 a.m. I needed it. Like many other reporters in those days before security had to be stiflingly tightened around the country's leaders, I had had the privilege (and sometimes the pleasure) of seeing the prime minister close up, as a person.
While watching the footage of what were to be Rabin's last minutes in life - in abnormally good spirits, giving Shimon Peres, his long-time rival, a hug - I recalled the Rabin I had known. Rabin signing the First Oslo Accord, recognizing the PLO, in a tense and extraordinarily modest ceremony in his office early one Friday morning in September 1993, a very different affair from the stage show that later took place on the White House lawn. Rabin, joking in an unusually relaxed mood at the Labor faction meeting just days before his murder. The Rabin who took his wife and grandchildren with him on a tour of Petra in Jordan during which - talented amateur photographer that he was - he stopped to take shots of the rose-red splendors of the Nabatean city as Leah Rabin nagged him in that wifely way to drink more.
There was also the Rabin I saw with Jordan's King Hussein, at ease as old friends, showing the chemistry of two men who've been through a lot together and no longer need words to express how they feel about each other.
Above all, I remembered a tour of the newly renovated Mandate-period Illegal Immigrants Camp at Atlit in 1993 in which Rabin nostalgically recalled his experiences as the deputy commander of a Palmah operation which helped 201 immigrants break out one night. The Palmahniks had to get the newcomers - most of them freshly arrived from the horrors of the Holocaust - up the mountain to the safety of Kibbutz Beit Oren. He picked up a two-year-old, sat him on his shoulders and set off as fast as he could. "Halfway up I thought, 'I'm really sweating,'" Rabin recalled. "Then I realized the warm, wet trickle down my back was coming from the toddler. But this is just one of the things I had to do to serve my country," he added, with his trademark half-smile.
THESE MEMORIES came back last week, too, as Israel - a very different Israel - marked 12 years since the Hebrew date of his assassination.
This year, as every year, the issue of incitement again raised its ugly head. This year, however, media attention moved from Rabin's legacy - or what is left of it - to the future of his murderer and the assassin's about-to-be-born child.
Left-wing politicians and activists, those whose camp had no problem shouting "murderer" outside the window of prime minister Menachem Begin in the First Lebanon War, again tarred an entire community. The Right again raised the conspiracy theories that inevitably are born with any political assassination.
The accusations remain, and so - indeed - do some of the questions. Rabin is dead. Yigal Amir is in prison. But where, for example, is Avishai Raviv, Amir's close friend and the head of the extremist Eyal group who seems to have acted as an agent provocateur for the Shin Bet (Israel's Security Agency) itself?
Last week saw the launch of a nationwide "Free Amir" campaign, led by supporters of Rabin's assassin who call themselves - presumably with intentional irony - the "Committee for Democracy."
In what smacks of a counter move, footage from the police interrogation immediately following Amir's arrest was also suddenly released. It shows nothing we didn't already know but is shocking nonetheless. When asked if he had any regrets, Amir responded "God forbid" and added that his aim was to kill Rabin and "silence him politically."
A spokesman for the group released a statement arguing that if Israel is prepared "to release terrorists for peace, they must release Yigal Amir."
A flurry of Knesset motions and statements followed in which politicians from both Left and Right made it clear that they believe that Amir should "rot in jail until his dying day." Not that Amir, demanding rights to see his child be born, seems to be wasting away.
Liberal sentiments on reforming prisoners and the intrinsic equality of all men tend to disappear with one look at Amir's grinning face. But if Amir succeeds in making the country seek vengeance rather than security, he will have succeeded in his basic goal: using a bullet to deflect democracy from its natural course.
More than a decade later, one wonders what Rabin would have made of it all. More used to public attack, one imagines the modest Rabin would find his standing as a legend, at the heart of discussions of this nature, bemusing at best.
That secondary school students, teachers' strike notwithstanding, still met last week on the Hebrew anniversary of his death to commemorate him might have drawn another of those ironic half-smiles to his lips. The voyeuristic discussions surrounding the conception and birth of Amir's child he would likely have dismissed with one of those characteristic waves of his hand.
But some things can't be dismissed and should not be forgotten. Heaven help us if we choose to ignore how Rabin - the politician and the person - was cut down. For that will be the day that democracy dies.
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