Authors: Dan Ephron
Tags: #History, #Middle East, #Israel & Palestine, #Biography & Autobiography, #Presidents & Heads of State, #Political Science, #World, #Middle Eastern
The Assassination of
and the Remaking of Israel
W. W. N
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For my daughter and son,
Who make every moment better and more interesting
And for Nancy—
My partner in this and all things
According to Judaism, killing a king is profoundly significant. It affects the entire nation and alters its destiny.
in a letter from prison, days after
his brother assassinated Yitzhak Rabin
n early 2012, during one of those YouTube click binges that can eat up an afternoon, I came across an old video showing Israeli investigators interrogating Yigal Amir, the young man who had assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. I was serving as the Israel bureau chief for
magazine and looking for subjects to write about—new ways to understand a country I had covered intermittently over two decades. The excerpt, from the night of the shooting in 1995, drew me in. Though the murder had been one of the most dramatic events in Israel’s history, Amir had largely faded from view in the years following his trial. Prison officials had barred journalists from interviewing him. The short clip, which had surfaced in the Israeli media on one of the anniversaries of the murder, seemed to have come from a mounted surveillance camera. It occurred to me that more existed—that somewhere in the country, there must be hours of interrogation tapes.
Eventually, I tracked down those tapes and, in several sittings, watched the long sessions that investigators conducted with Amir. Even by the standards of murder cases, of political murders, they seemed extraordinary. Yigal Amir shot Rabin in a Tel Aviv parking lot on the evening of November 4, 1995, plunging the country into a state of shock and grief. That a Jew had assassinated the leader of the Jewish state made it especially dreadful to Israelis. But at police headquarters in Tel Aviv that night and in the weeks that followed, Amir seemed impervious to the turmoil around him—to the trauma
he had caused. He leaned back much of the time, cocked his head, and recounted how he had stalked Rabin over two years, luxuriating in the details. He explained the religious doctrines that motivated him, the zealotry that could not abide Rabin’s peacemaking with the Palestinians. At one point he asked for a drink so that he could toast the prime minister’s death.
The murder came at a critical juncture for Israel. Rabin’s diplomacy had already produced two accords with the Palestinians and a momentum that made a final peace agreement feel almost inevitable, however difficult and complicated. It had also triggered a violent backlash by both Palestinians and Israelis opposed to the conciliation process. For reporters based in Israel at the time, it wasn’t unusual to cover a peace ceremony one week and a shooting or bombing attack the next. The assassination itself exemplified the bewildering zigzag: Amir had shot Rabin at the end of a huge peace rally, one of the largest Israeli gatherings on record. I attended that rally and later covered the murder trial. Though it wasn’t clear at the time, Amir had set off a chain reaction that would shift the power in Israel from the pragmatists to the ideologues. Two decades later, the coveted peace remains elusive.
Killing a King
is a detailed account of the murder and the two years leading up to it—a narrative about a twentysomething law student, smart and exceedingly radical, who set out to alter the slope of history and succeeded. In a broader sense it is about Israel at a unique point in its existence, a moment when the isolation and hostility that had defined its position in the region for decades seemed to finally lift—but only temporarily. Through the lens of the murder, much can be gleaned about Israel today.
In my reporting for the book, a counterfactual history question came up again and again: would Rabin have succeeded? There’s no doubt that he faced huge obstacles: not just the obstructionists on both sides but a problematic partner in Yasser Arafat, a waning popularity at home, and his own misgivings about the concessions that peace required of Israel. Yet all those factors must be weighed against the circumstances that favored peacemaking in 1995. The opponents of compromise in both camps had nowhere near the power and influence
they hold now. The process itself had yet to be contaminated by sustained waves of violence and settlement expansion. And the rapport between Rabin and Arafat—the deciders of their generation—had evolved into something workable.
For all those reasons, Rabin probably stood a better chance of forging a durable reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians than any leader before or since. That we’ll never know how close he would have come is one of the exasperating consequences of the assassination.
KILLING A KING
itzhak Rabin woke up before seven the morning of November 4, 1995, with an eye infection. He had plans to play tennis, hold several work meetings at his north Tel Aviv apartment, and then attend a peace rally that night at Kings of Israel Square. But the infection, which made his eye swollen and bloodshot, gave him a chance to reassess. Rabin felt ambivalent about the rally; it seemed to him like the kind of event some Bolshevik regime might organize, busing in paid apparatchiks and having them wave banners approved by the Party. He agreed to it mostly because his political opponents, with a few large and rowdy protests, had managed to create the impression that most of the country opposed his now second peace deal with Yasser Arafat. The demonstrators had held up doctored images showing Rabin draped in a kaffiyeh—the checkered black-and-white scarf worn by Arafat—and worse, Rabin in a Nazi uniform. But the prime minister feared that few people would show up at the square. Instead of refuting the perception of his political weakness, the rally could end up reinforcing it. Rabin himself wasn’t exactly sure whether it was just a perception or the hard reality now.
He moved to the den, picked up the phone, and called off his tennis match. At seventy-three, Rabin still played several sets every Saturday, walking to a country club in the neighborhood and puffing on Parliament Longs between the games. He planned to phone Shlomo Lahat next, the former mayor of Tel Aviv and the organizer of the
rally that night. The two had served together in the army and overlapped as members of the general staff—the Israeli equivalent of the joint chiefs. But before he dialed, Leah, Rabin’s wife of forty-seven years, called to him from elsewhere in the apartment, saying she’d tracked down an ophthalmologist who was now on the way. For the prime minister, of course he would make a house call on the Jewish Sabbath. And unless the doctor discovered something serious, Rabin would have no excuse but to attend the rally.
Around the same time, a few miles north, Yigal Amir was getting out of bed at his parents’ home in Herzliya. A twenty-five-year-old law student, short and handsome, Amir also had plans for that Saturday. He would pray at the Orthodox synagogue in the neighborhood, eat lunch with his parents and brothers and sisters—eight children in all—and head to Tel Aviv in the evening. Amir put on jeans and a dark-colored T-shirt. He lifted his 9mm Beretta from the nightstand next to his bed and tucked it in the back of his pants—he took the gun everywhere. His older brother, Hagai, with whom he shared a room, was a step behind him. Hagai palmed a velvet bag containing his tallit—the shawl with knotted fringes that religiously observant Jews wrap themselves in during prayers every day—and the two stepped out onto the pavement.
Somewhere between the house and the synagogue, on one of the leafy streets of middle-class Herzliya, Amir told his brother he would try to kill Rabin at the rally that night. It didn’t come as a surprise, and Hagai did not recoil. The two had been talking about ways to assassinate the prime minister for more than two years, since Rabin’s first peace deal with Arafat. With the bedroom door closed on the second floor of the house on Borochov Street, the brothers would toss out ideas, including an especially outlandish one: to inject nitroglycerin into the water pipes of Rabin’s apartment building. The elaborate schemes belonged to Hagai. Two years older than Amir and a physics student at the Jewish settlement of Ariel, Hagai was a tinkerer. In the shed behind the house, he liked taking apart old appliances and reassembling them. But Amir kept coming back to the one simple plan that felt right: stalking Rabin and shooting him with his Beretta.
Now, on the street, Hagai revived an idea he had raised in an earlier
conversation: acquiring a rifle and shooting Rabin from a safe distance. Hagai had trained as an infantry sniper during his army service and won first place in a competition at one of his stints in the reserves. He told Amir that even if he could close in on Rabin and fire his handgun, the prime minister’s bodyguards were well trained and would shoot back. It would be a suicide mission. Though the two brothers were determined to kill Rabin, Hagai was unwilling to sacrifice himself doing it. Amir had his own misgivings, even on that Saturday morning. But he told himself he would get as close as he could to Rabin—and then let God guide him.
At the synagogue, Amir paged to the Torah portion of the week, Lech-Lecha, which recounts God’s command to Abraham to leave his home and go to Canaan, where he would become the father of a great nation. In effect, it is the biblical moment when God promises the real estate that is now Israel (and the West Bank and Gaza and parts of Jordan) to the Jews. With the discordant voices of men praying all around him, mumbling or chanting softly, Amir thought to himself how fitting it would be for a prime minister who willfully surrendered parts of Israel to meet his death at the very time the Bible reminds Jews that the land in question is their birthright.
“All right. All right. But no kissing.”
he moment of Yitzhak Rabin’s conversion occurred sometime between nine o’clock and midnight on Friday, September 10, 1993. During those three hours, he sat in the den of his Tel Aviv apartment on 5 Rav Ashi Street and pondered whether to fly to Washington over the weekend or send his foreign minister in his place. He met with an adviser and took a phone call from Warren Christopher, the US secretary of state. Throughout the evening, he sipped from a glass of whiskey doused with enough soda to render the mixture almost colorless. The hefty television set on which Rabin liked to watch soccer games and tennis matches was turned low. Israel’s state-run channel aired a Spanish drama that night,
According to the calendar on his desk, Rabin had been the prime minister of Israel for nearly fourteen months. It was the second time he held the job, his first term having ended largely in ignominy sixteen years earlier. By his own admission, he had lacked in both age and experience, having served in politics less than six months when he entered office. Now he was seventy-one, stood five feet six and a
half inches tall, and had wisps of white hair that he combed straight back, exposing a half dome of freckled forehead and scalp. He wore tailored suits, making him better dressed than most Israeli politicians. But he remained loyal to an old pair of black leather shoes that Rabin, in many ways still a creature of his first career as a military officer, took the time to polish almost every day.