My word: The Rabin I remember

Twenty years since his assassination, it is vital to recall that the prime minister was a human being.

L'ancien Premier ministre Itzhak Rabin (photo credit: REUTERS)
L'ancien Premier ministre Itzhak Rabin
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If you don’t know where you were on the night of November 4, 1995, you were either too young or you weren’t in Israel.
In an echo of the Kennedy assassination, everybody in the country of a certain age remembers what they were doing when they heard that prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had been shot at a peace rally in Tel Aviv. They also recall the horror when they learned that it was a Jewish assassin, Yigal Amir, who had fired the bullets.
Unfortunately, a huge part of the population feels that it needs to have an alibi for their whereabouts that night: The shock at Rabin’s fate quickly turned into anger with accusing fingers pointed in the direction of every member of the Orthodox or right-of-center community, and at “settlers,” although Amir came from Herzliya.
I was The Jerusalem Post’s parliamentary reporter at the time, with a closer-than-average view of Rabin’s last week including a Labor Party faction meeting in which he was in an unusually good mood a few days before his death. I also felt the mourning that engulfed the House and had a front-line place observing world leaders pay their last respects next to the flag-draped coffin at the Knesset.
Among the many politicians I spoke to then was former Knesset speaker Dov Shilansky, who was devastated by Rabin’s death. I was surprised: Not only were they ideological opposites, but Shilansky, a former Irgun Zva’i Leumi fighter, had arrived in Israel on board the Altalena, the ship that Rabin had fired on and sunk under David Ben-Gurion’s orders to prevent arms from reaching paramilitary groups unwilling to be part of the nascent IDF. Shilansky told me they had made their peace when Rabin paid him a condolence call after his son Yosef was killed while performing reserve service in 1974.
Among my memories is reporting on Rabin initialing the First Oslo Accord – recognizing the PLO – in a tense ceremony in his office one Friday morning in September 1993. The ceremony, without the Palestinians, was so modest that the press noted he used an ordinary Pilot pen to sign the document. The stage show took place on the White House lawn at a later date.
I also covered the far more popular peace talks and treaty signing ceremony with Jordan, and later saw Rabin taking his wife and grandchildren on a tour of Petra during which – a keen amateur photographer – he stopped to take shots of the stunning Nabatean city as Leah Rabin nagged him to drink water.
I saw Rabin with Jordan’s King Hussein at the winter palace in Aqaba, displaying the ease and chemistry of two men who’ve been through a lot together and have truly bonded.
Above all, I remember a tour of the newly renovated British Mandate-period Illegal Immigrants Camp at Atlit in 1993 where Rabin nostalgically recalled his experiences as the deputy commander of a Palmah nighttime operation that helped more than 200 immigrants break out. 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 reminisced. “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.
TWENTY YEARS on, “Dor Hanerot,” “The Candles’ Generation” – the youth who spontaneously set up memorial sites where they gathered to sing sad songs following Rabin’s death – has grown up. One of Rabin’s favorite songs spoke of the children born in “the winter of 1973,” born to promises of peace following the Yom Kippur War. These are today’s middle-aged Israelis who argue over Rabin’s legacy and over who is responsible for his death and the fact that the peace Rabin so desired continues to elude us.
The conspiracy theories that inevitably surround any political assassination have not disappeared. And neither have some of the questions: The role of Amir’s friend Avishai Raviv, who apparently acted as an agent provocateur for the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) is still relevant at a time when farright extremists are coming under scrutiny for attacks on Arabs and threats to public figures, including the president and head of the Supreme Court.
I often wonder what Rabin would have made of the ceremonies and his posthumous standing. He was chief of staff in the Six Day War; the defense minister who helped the IDF recover after the Yom Kippur War; the premier who ordered Operation Entebbe; and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, but he was generally unassuming. Perhaps he would have dismissed the legendary status with one of those characteristic waves of his hand.
The week of Rabin’s murder I interviewed Hebrew University historian Robert Wistrich, who died earlier this year, on the unexpected aura of martyrdom surrounding Rabin that sprang up overnight.
Bravely stating views that challenged the prevailing atmosphere, Wistrich said: “There has been a sudden idealization – even mythification – of Rabin, who only a short time before was being savagely criticized, and not only by the opposition. Suddenly in his death – his martyrdom – only his good sides are being perceived.”
Before his murder, it was acceptable to note that the discovery that his wife had a dollar bank account in the US, in violation of Israel’s foreign currency regulations, caused Rabin to resign from the Labor Party leadership ahead of the 1977 elections, which the party lost to the Likud’s Menachem Begin.
Journalists also felt free to comment on the way that Leah Rabin had mobilized soldiers to look for her brooch which went missing during the peace treaty ceremony with Jordan in October 1994.
“Rabin now appears to us as the ideal leader: wise, sensitive, bold and unhesitating in his pursuit of peace. Previously, he had been accused of being indecisive, uncommunicative, insensitive and someone with whom it was difficult to empathize,” noted Wistrich.
Among the many explanations for the phenomenon that we discussed, the most obvious was that the assassination of the premier was unprecedented in Israeli history. Another could be the stunning contrast between the euphoria of the rally, where Rabin and his political nemesis Shimon Peres hugged and sang “Shir Hashalom,” and the tragic way it ended.
Although comparisons with the Kennedy assassination are obvious, Wistrich was reminded more of Martin Luther King’s death after his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
“It was as though Rabin had reached a deeper understanding about himself and could die at peace with himself,” he said.
The enormous shock stemmed not only from the murder, but the way it was carried out, said Wistrich: that he was shot at pointblank range by a Jew.
“In our own minds, at least, we are exempt from this violence despite what we see on the roads and in the Knesset,” said Wistrich.
“It is possible that the response, particularly of the young people, is to a type of Israeliness which has been lost. A loss of innocence.”
THE QUESTION of “what if?” – what would have happened had Rabin not been killed – is inevitable and unanswerable. I don’t believe he would have stayed in power. The Oslo process was already literally blowing up before he was killed. And while the Left says it was the incitement that led to his murder, it is impossible to ignore the role of the massive wave of Palestinian terror attacks. The image of “Mr. Security” had already been badly hit by shrapnel. Even had he remained prime minister, there’s no way of knowing whether Rabin would have continued along the path that Peres was pushing him down or done a reverse.
The Oslo Accord signing ceremony I covered referred to “Gaza and Jericho first.” I cringed as Norwegian diplomats implied that Jerusalem and the Golan were no longer taboo.
As extraordinary as it seems now, Rabin’s last term as prime minister was marked by discussions of leaving the Golan Heights.
The residents of Jewish communities in Gaza were among those who expressed solidarity with the residents of the Golan, who seemed to be under the imminent threat of losing their homes.
Had he not died the way he did, Rabin’s Knesset speech comparing Golan Heights residents opposed to withdrawal to “spinning propellers” probably would still come back to haunt him now and again.
But things changed on November 4, 1995.
This is not the first time I have shared my personal memories of him, but, 20 years on, it is still vital to remember that whatever your political views, Rabin was a human being – a politician but also a family man. There are way too many accusations; there can be no excuses for the way he was cut down. May Rabin’s memory live on and may we learn to live at peace first and foremost among ourselves.
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