A turning point

Dan Ephron examines the context and aftermath of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

A girl lays a red rose on the grave of slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl (photo credit: REUTERS)
A girl lays a red rose on the grave of slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In October 1994, about a year after leaders of the government of Israel signed the Oslo Accords with the PLO, and soon after an attempt to rescue Cpl. Nachshon Wachsman, who had been kidnapped by Hamas, had failed, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin expressed his frustration to reporters.
Rabin acknowledged that Israel’s security agencies could not prevent every abduction of a soldier and every suicide bomber determined to kill civilians. And he declared that his country had to come to terms with relinquishing some of the land it had conquered in 1967.
“I am prepared to fight them [Hamas] to the finish,” he said, “because they are the enemies of Israel and the enemies of peace. But I must also consider, what next? What is the solution? Should it be separation between the Palestinians and Israel, or a continued blurring of the line – and continuing to create the conditions that led to fanaticism among the Palestinians [in the first place].” A little more than a year later, with his questions still unanswered, Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, a 25-year-old law student who believed that the Oslo peace process – and withdrawals from the settlements – constituted a betrayal of the Jewish people.
In Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel, Dan Ephron, the former Jerusalem bureau chief of Newsweek, draws on police reports, interviews and court records to provide a suspenseful narrative of the stalking of Rabin, the blunders of security officers, the assassination and its aftermath, set in the context of domestic politics and the Middle East peace process.
Ephron agrees that the murder of Rabin was a turning point in history of Israel.
Undergirding his meticulously detailed account is his conviction that the prime minister was making huge strides in moving “closer to his objective: ending the corrosive military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza and forging peace agreements with all of Israel’s neighbors” – and that his murder cast doubt on whether the country could “bridge the chasm between its pragmatists and messianists, between the people who viewed Israel as a secular nation-state and those who saw it as the realization of a biblical prophecy.”
Killing a King documents how intractable the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has been. During his first two years in office, for example, Rabin reduced housing starts in the settlements by 79%, a significant concession. But he authorized the construction of a large network of roads (many of which would end up in Palestinian territory when a permanent agreement was reached), that would allow settlers to bypass towns under Yasser Arafat’s control. The sight of Israeli bulldozers, Ephron writes, didn’t inspire confidence among Palestinians in negotiations that were supposed to result in sovereignty for them. The decision did not help the relationship between Rabin and Arafat, which already suffered from a manifest lack of chemistry and trust. Within a few years, Ephron adds, the roads helped transform previously “isolated colonies into bedroom communities easily accessible from Israel’s main cities.”
In the wake of Rabin’s assassination, Ephron reminds us, polls indicated overwhelming support among Israelis for the peace process and for then-prime minister Shimon Peres. That support, however, proved to be shallow and short-lived.
Negotiations with Syria went nowhere.
Hafez Assad may never have intended to conclude any kind of a deal with Israel and refused even to set a date for a meeting.
Peres’ decision to proceed with the scheduled hand-over of West Bank cities to the Palestinians “restored the political realm to its fractious self.” Acts of violence by extremists on both sides, moreover, poisoned the well, and allowed Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud Party, “to exploit the increasing vulnerability Israelis were feeling.”
The bumper sticker “Shalom Haver” (“Goodbye Friend” – from the eulogy for Rabin delivered by then-US president Bill Clinton) that had appeared on thousands of cars was replaced by a new sentiment, “Shalom Haverim” (“Goodbye Friends”), a reference to Israeli citizens killed in terrorist attacks. In a televised debate on May 27, 1996, Netanyahu proclaimed the impending election a referendum on peace deals, the status of the West Bank and Gaza, suicide bombings and the security threats they posed. In 15 minutes of airtime, he used the word “fear” more than a dozen times.
Two days later, Netanyahu narrowly defeated Peres. At Rabin’s murder site, Ephron tells us, someone left a sign that read: “Rabin died on November 4. Peace was killed on May 29.” Hagai Amir, Yigal’s brother, celebrated the results in his diary “It’s nice to see Peres, the evil one, fall. Gali [Yigal] saved the country.”
These sentiments were, perhaps, exaggerations.
And Ephron may well be too sanguine in suggesting that the draft agreement negotiated in secret by Yossi Beilin and Mahmoud Abbas (and scuttled by the election) “might have resolved the conflict with the Palestinians for good.”
He is not alone, however, in continuing to ask “What is the alternative?” 
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.