Thursday, December 3, 2015

Book Review: Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel by Dan Ephron

Guest post by Andrew Schneider.

On November 4, 1995, Dan Ephron was a young correspondent for Reuters, based in Tel Aviv. Ephron’s editors had dispatched him to cover a peace rally in Kings of Israel Square, just a few blocks from his apartment. The main speaker was Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Ephron interviewed people in the crowd for more than two hours, then started to walk home to his apartment to file his story. But after walking just a few blocks, he received a message on his pager. Rabin had been shot. Ephron ran back to the square. After interviewing several witnesses and phoning his editor with the details, he ran half a mile to Ichilov Hospital. By the time he reached it, the prime minister was dead.

Rabin’s assassin was Yigal Amir, an Ultra-Orthodox Jew and a law student at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University. Amir had determined to kill Rabin virtually from the moment the Oslo Accord was announced in 1993. He had been heavily involved in anti-government demonstrations and had publicly called for Rabin’s death on many occasions. Yet somehow, Israel’s vaunted domestic intelligence service, Shabak, had never taken him seriously enough to keep an eye on him.

Incredibly, Amir had managed to work his way into the parking lot where Rabin’s armored Cadillac was waiting to retrieve him from the rally, an area that was meant to be secured. Conspiracy theories about how he accomplished this, and who really killed Rabin, are as common in Israel as conspiracy theories about President Kennedy’s assassination are in the U.S.

Amir was convinced he was acting as an agent of God. In his eyes, by handing over Jewish lands to Palestinian control, Rabin was giving over his fellow Jews to the hands of the enemy. Such actions merited a death sentence, under a reading of Talmudic law embraced by several leading rabbis of Israel’s far right. As a Jew, Amir believed he was not only permitted to kill Rabin – he was obligated to do so, if God saw fit to put Rabin within Amir’s reach. Killing Rabin, he believed, would derail the peace process, save Israel, and save the Jewish people.

For several years after, Dan Ephron remained convinced that the assassin had failed. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process had its ups and violent downs, but it would succeed in the end. There would be a two-state solution, an independent Palestine living at peace with its neighbor Israel. But when, after a long absence, Ephron returned to Israel to take up his post as Newsweek’s Jerusalem bureau chief, he was forced to rethink his views. The Second Intifada had left too many Israelis too bitter. By the time Binyamin Netanyahu won reelection as prime minister in 2013, Ephron was convinced the chances of a negotiated peace were all but dead.

This is what convinced Ephron to write about the Rabin assassination. As he says in the book’s epilogue:
If the prospects of a peace agreement had shrunk to almost nothing in the intervening years, the assassination felt even more significant in retrospect. Had he lived, Rabin might plausibly have reshaped Israel broadly and permanently. In killing the Israeli leader, Amir had done better than the assassins of Lincoln, Kennedy, and King, whose policies had gained momentum as a result of their murders. During the years of his imprisonment, he had the satisfaction of watching Rabin’s legacy steadily evaporate. (p.245)
At the time of the assassination, just over two years had passed since Rabin and Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, had shaken hands on the South Lawn of the White House. In the interim, Rabin and Arafat had developed a working relationship, if not a warm one. Israeli security forces had withdrawn from a number of key cities in the West Bank, along with much of Gaza. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process had also cleared the way for a full-fledged peace treaty with Jordan, the first such agreement between Israel and an Arab state since the 1978 Camp David Accords with Egypt. For the first time in its modern history, Israel had more partners on its borders than enemies.

But those two years also brought a huge upsurge in violence in Israel and the West Bank. Religious hardliners on both sides saw the peace process as an abomination. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the leading Palestinian Islamist groups and fierce rivals of the secular PLO, launched a wave of kidnappings and suicide bombings. More Israelis died during the first two years of peace than during any two years of the Intifada itself.

On the Israeli side, the opposition was more complex. There was the settler movement, made up of religious Zionists who saw Israel’s control of the West Bank and Gaza as irrevocable, a precondition for the arrival of the Messiah. Settlers regularly attacked their Palestinian neighbors, seeking revenge for each Hamas or Islamic Jihad strike. Most notoriously, a doctor and reserve army captain named Baruch Goldstein had gunned down dozens of Palestinians worshipping at the Cave of the Patriarchs, a site holy to Jews and Muslims alike. Survivors of the massacre beat Goldstein to death, earning him the status of a martyr among Jewish extremists.

The settlers weren’t the only Jews opposing the peace process. A wide swath of Israel’s right wing, those living within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, condemned it. At the very least, they argued that trading land for peace rewarded terrorists and cost more Israeli lives. Each bombing or kidnapping appeared to support their argument. Anti-government demonstrations grew larger, their rhetoric more extreme. Demonstrators regularly denounced Rabin as a traitor or a Nazi. The trend worked in favor of Netanyahu, the young leader of Likud, Israel’s leading opposition political party. Israel was due to hold an election in less than a year. There was a real possibility that voters would reject Rabin, and the peace process, in Netanyahu’s favor.

This was the reason that Rabin, reluctantly, had agreed to the rally in Kings of Israel Square (now known as Rabin Square). Something had to be done to alter the perception that most Israelis opposed the peace process. As Ephron saw himself, the rally demonstrated the peace process, and Rabin, still had strong support. Hundreds of thousands of people showed up for the event, many in response to a newspaper advertising campaign. One ad in Yedioth Ahronoth, the country’s leading daily, read: “You don’t make peace by sitting in your living room. Show up and make a difference. Yes to peace, no to violence.”

Much of Killing a King reads like a thriller, with the viewpoint shifting back and forth between Rabin and Amir. The assassin, in fact, drew some inspiration from The Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsyth’s novel about a plot to kill French President Charles de Gaulle for ending French control of Algeria. Ephron plumbs Amir’s psychology, works through his attempts to recruit supporters, and explores his numerous missed opportunities. One such instance, just a few months after the Oslo Accord in 1993, placed hunter and prey within a few feet of each other, at the wedding of one of Amir’s friends to the daughter of Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi.

There were ample opportunities for Shabak to have intercepted Amir, if for no other reason than because one of Amir’s associates, Avishai Raviv, was actually a Shabak informant. Amir had threatened any number of times, in Raviv’s presence, to kill Rabin. Raviv would later claim, under interrogation, that he thought Amir was all talk and had no intention of carrying out his threats. Raviv’s involvement would help stoke conspiracy theories that Shabak was aware of Amir’s plans and deliberately failed to intervene.

Ephron concludes the main reason Shabak wasn’t watching Amir as closely as they should have is that, despite his extreme views and his open threats, Amir didn’t fit the profile Shabak had developed for a potential assassin. For years, the organization had been focused on the potential threat from an agent of the PLO, Hamas, or one of the many other Palestinian terrorist groups. Only since the start of the peace process had the agency begun seriously to consider the threat of a Jewish assassin. Simply put, they were worried about another Baruch Goldstein, someone from the violent fringe of the settler movement. Amir may have supported the settlers’ cause, but he himself had lived almost all his life in or near Tel Aviv.

Even if Shabak had not caught up to Amir before he pulled the trigger, Rabin still might have survived. Rabin’s security detail was constantly trying to convince him to wear a bulletproof vest at public appearances, which he refused to do. Such a vest likely would have blocked the shots Amir fired at Rabin’s back as the prime minister was preparing to enter his car after the peace rally. Instead, two of Amir’s bullets punctured Rabin’s lungs, setting off an embolism that went to his brain.

Rabin’s survival would not necessarily have saved the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Amir acted alone, but he did so in an environment where thousands of his countrymen were denouncing the prime minister and his policies as not just wrongheaded but evil. Many Israelis believed the country was heading towards a three-cornered civil war between the government, the Israeli right wing (religious and secular), and Palestinian extremists. It’s entirely possible that Rabin’s death forestalled such an outcome.

Still, Ephron does suggest that either Rabin or Shimon Peres, his erstwhile deputy, might have achieved a permanent peace accord. At the time of Rabin’s death, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators had hammered out a document addressing all the outstanding issues between the two sides: which lands would be transferred to Palestinian control; which settlements would be preserved as a part of Israel; the status of Jerusalem as a shared capital city; compensation for Palestinian refugees, and their descendants, in exchange for giving up the “right of return” to Israeli territory. The outline seems remarkably similar to the deal a later prime minister, Ehud Barak, offered to Yasser Arafat during the Camp David Summit of July 2000, which Arafat rejected.

Could Rabin have pushed such a deal through the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, had he lived? It would have been a very close vote, as had the votes endorsing the both Oslo Accord and the more-detailed plan for pulling back Israeli forces from the West Bank, known as Oslo II. Arab-Israeli parties lined up with the government in both votes and proved critical for the government’s majority. Netanyahu used this point to claim the agreements lacked legitimacy, because they relied on non-Jewish support.

The story might have had a very different ending, however, if Peres had taken a different approach during his brief tenure as prime minister, following Rabin’s assassination. As in the case of the Kennedy assassination, Rabin’s assassination created a huge groundswell of support for the martyred leader, far more than he’d ever had when he was alive. Netanyahu said at the time that Rabin’s assassination had destroyed any chance of his winning the next election. He may well have been right, had Peres taken the opportunity to dissolve parliament and made it clear that the next election would be a mandate on Rabin’s policies.

The problem was that, as much as Peres believed in the importance of the peace process, which he had done so much to foster as Rabin’s foreign minister, he could not accept the idea that Rabin would wind up with the credit if Peres completed what the two had started together. Nor could he stomach the idea that the only way he could win election as prime minister would be on a sympathy vote.

For twenty years, Peres and Rabin had been bitter political enemies. They had managed, grudgingly, to form a working partnership that served Israel well for the three years between the 1992 victory of Israel’s Labor Party and Rabin’s assassination. Now Peres was in charge, and he wanted to win election on his own merits. He decided he would run out the clock on the Knesset’s current term and call an election in the fall of 1996. But the longer he waited, the more Palestinian terror attacks ate away his vast lead in the polls. By the time he did call for an early election, in May 1996, it was too late. Netanyahu beat Peres and immediately put the brakes on the peace process.

Ephron takes the title of his book from a letter Yigal Amir’s brother and co-conspirator, Hagai, wrote their parents from prison a few days after the assassination: “According to Judaism, killing a king is profoundly significant. It affects the entire nation and alters its destiny.” It this, it would seem, Yigal Amir succeeded.

* * *

Andrew Schneider is the business reporter for Houston Public Media (KUHF), NPR’s Houston affiliate. His work appears regularly on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered.


  1. Interesting review, although I think there is some wishful thinking here.

    Yedioth Ahronoth had an op-ed on the same subject that concluded there still would not be peace.

    Who was the real Rabin and what remains of Oslo
    Op-ed: No one knows what would have happened had Israel's PM survived his assassination attempt, but 20 years of failure indicate that a peace deal with the Palestinians would not have been signed: The gaps were too big, the expectations were too high, and the leaders feared the political and personal price they would have to pay.
    Published: 10.26.15, 23:51,7340,L-4716394,00.html

  2. Basically, the overwhelming bulk of the Palestinians have never accepted the legitimacy or permanence of Jewish statehood. There's a lot of wishful thinking on this, but that's the truth. As long as this remains true, the struggle will continue. "Mowing the grass", as they say in Israel.


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