How peace died with Yitzhak Rabin
Certain words remain engraved in people’s collective memory, and even a generation later they find it hard to let them sink in. Such was the announcement 25 years ago of the death of the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a Jewish religious extremist on Nov. 4, 1995.
Standing outside the hospital where Rabin was admitted after being shot twice, the prime minister’s aide Eitan Haber declared: “The government of Israel announces in dismay, in great sadness, and in deep sorrow, the death of prime minister and minister of defence Yitzhak Rabin, who was murdered by an assassin, tonight in Tel Aviv.” Haber, who died last month, endured the trauma of this murderous tragedy until his last day. Israeli society was shaken to the core. The shots were fired at Rabin, but the real aim was to kill the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians, in which Rabin led the Israeli team of negotiators. That process has endured a slow death ever since.
It is a terrible irony that Rabin’s last act as prime minister was to participate in a peace rally where, together with hundreds of thousands of Israelis, he sang the “Song of Peace,” which was written in the late 1960s to express a longing for peace at a time when it was nowhere in the offing. This shy man, who was far from comfortable, almost awkward, at mass rallies, had the song’s lyrics tucked in his suit pocket close to his heart when he walked to his car after the rally — lyrics that were soon to be soaked in his own blood, leaving Israeli society and peace with the Palestinians to bleed along with him.
Rabin’s assassin is still languishing in jail, where he belongs, and hopefully for the rest of his life, but those on both sides of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict who wanted to put behind them years of division and open a new chapter of peace have failed to continue on the path Rabin was so instrumental in paving. If there is one single act that can be said to have led to the collapse of the Oslo peace process, it is the assassination of Rabin. Certainly, there have been enough opportunities since then to resurrect it. But without the subtle leadership qualities and pragmatic approach of this hero of the 1967 war, the odds would have been stacked against reaching an agreement based on a two-state solution; especially when such an agreement needed substantial Israeli compromises with the Palestinians, accepting that Jerusalem is also the capital of Palestine, returning most of the occupied West Bank while removing Jewish settlements there, and working out a fair and just solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees.
It is a terrible irony that Yitzhak Rabin’s last act as prime minister was to participate in a peace rally where, together with hundreds of thousands of Israelis, he sang the “Song of Peace...”
A critical mass of Israelis trusted Rabin to lead the peace negotiations cautiously, yet with great determination and the conviction that peace and the concessions that had to accompany it were in the best long-term interest of the Jewish state. The mood of the country was generally supportive, but there remained fears, prejudices and distrust of the Palestinians. In Rabin, however, Israelis saw someone they could trust to move at the right pace while not compromising their country’s vital interests.
Rabin’s ability to carry the peace process on his shoulders, and his readiness to return occupied land and facilitate an independent Palestinian state, instilled fear among those who opposed the Oslo Agreement. They understood that if anyone could gain critical popular support for such an historic attempt at coexistence, it was Rabin. Hence they grew resentful of him, and that resent turned into full-blown pathological hatred. For the fanatical right-wing, and especially the settler movement with its religious-messianic elements, Rabin’s pragmatism had become the main threat to their long-term objective of annexing the entire West Bank, and in those days Gaza too, and making the lives of Palestinians insufferable to the extent that they would abandon their national aspirations or even be forced to leave.
At that point in history it was Rabin more than any other Israeli politician who was about to crush this wretched plan, and consequently a campaign of vicious incitements against him ensued. A Jewish religious zealot pulled the trigger, but he was not alone in his guilt; he operated in an atmosphere created by rabbis, secular ultra-right politicians, and opportunists in the mould of Benjamin Netanyahu, who created, through religious ruling and fearmongering, a permissive environment for such an act of extreme violence. In Jerusalem, protests against the Oslo Accords, at which posters depicting Rabin as a Nazi SS officer along with “Death to Rabin” stickers were distributed, were led by Netanyahu and other right-wing politicians who turned a blind eye to such vile incitements.
The terrorist who murdered Rabin said at his court hearing: “According to Jewish law, the minute a Jew gives over his people and his land to the enemy, he must be killed.” His religious mentors, who never retracted this contemptible incitement based on a flimsy Talmudic interpretation, had indoctrinated the perpetrator and his accomplices.
In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, large parts of Israeli society turned numb with horror, while those who had incited Rabin’s murder feared retribution and toned down their vile and inflammatory language against the Oslo Accords and those involved in the negotiations. But before long they embarked on a campaign of deflection from their responsibility for Rabin’s murder, and reignited their incitements against the peace process and those who worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians. Politically, the main beneficiary of the assassination was none other than Netanyahu; he won the subsequent premiership election, running against Rabin’s partner in peace Shimon Peres, who had been next to him singing “Song for Peace” a few minutes before the Israeli prime minister was fatally wounded, along with the prospects for peace.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg