The Atlantic magazine recently published a special issue for the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. This is an impressive volume of old and new essays, including a tribute to the slain 35th president by the 42nd one, Bill Clinton. “Though his death was a tragedy we still mourn”, wrote Clinton, “he left behind legions of his fellow Americans, and people of the world over, who embraced his vision and picked up the torch he lit”.
Alas, the same cannot be said about Yitzhak Rabin, whose assassination 18 years ago we now commemorate. While rallies still attract thousands of people and youth movements are doing educational work under the slogan “Remembering Rabin, defending democracy”, I doubt if the same words about JFK can also be truly said about Rabin, namely, that many people “embraced his vision and picked up the torch he lit”. I refer, first and foremost, to the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.
It should be noted that Rabin agreed to accept the Oslo process, the brainchild of Yossi Beilin and Shimon Peres, not because he became a liberal or a peacenik overnight. First of all, he realised that ruling so many Arabs might endanger the Jewish and democratic nature of Israel.
Secondly, being Israel’s Mr Security, and a pessimist at heart, he weighed the options Israel was facing and came to the conclusion — as early as the beginning of 1993 — that since Iran had embarked on a nuclear track, Israel had better reconcile with the Palestinians and the Arab neighbours (the inner circle) so that, when the time came, it would be best prepared to tackle the Iranian challenge (the outer circle). His assassination, at the most critical phase of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, was not only a tragedy and a blow to Israeli democracy, but also a disaster for the sound strategy he carved for Israel.
Assessing the legacy of JFK, The Atlantic had this to say: “A president who died in his prime left behind a successor who accomplished much of what he could not”. Indeed, President Johnson picked up the civil rights initiatives of JFK and changed America forever. This, unfortunately, never happened to Yitzhak Rabin.
Shimon Peres, to start with, never enjoyed the trust of Israelis (unjustly, I must say, having worked for Peres and known him). Benjamin Netanyahu loathed the idea of a Palestinian state and, although in the Wye Agreement he had to give Hebron to the Palestinians (Rabin was assassinated for much less than that), he never seriously meant to push the process forward. Ehud Barak made a far-reaching proposal to Yasir Arafat at Camp David in 2000, but was quick to declare “I exposed him!”. This left some of us perplexed and, anyway, he was kicked out of power quickly after.
Ariel Sharon favoured unilateral action and pulled us out of Gaza, a good deed in itself, except that the way he did it — by ignoring the Palestinian Authority — drove Gaza into the hands of Hamas. Following Sharon’s coma, Ehud Olmert had serious talks with Mahmoud Abbas but was then removed because of corruption allegations. In came Netanyahu again, to raise some hopes in his first Bar-Ilan speech, only to squash them in the recent, second Bar-Ilan speech.
This kind of leadership, together with the longing for Rabin, drives me back to The Atlantic. The magazine runs a story by novelist Thomas Mallon, who asks, counterfactually: “What if Lee Harvey Oswald had lost his nerve?” Oswald, in Mallon’s fiction, changed his mind at the last moment and didn’t pull the trigger. Why? Because he allegedly saw JFK saying something to his wife Jacqueline, and that human exchange touched him. Suddenly, it wasn’t a president he was going to kill, a somewhat abstract figure, but a real person, a husband and a father.
Yigal Amir, like Oswald, shot his victim from the back. However, I doubt he would have stopped, even if he saw the face of the Rabin I knew — the general’s face marked by battles he had fought for his country, yet lightened by a shy smile when he came to a first-grade class to greet the new pupils for whom he had been carving a better future. No, unlike Oswald, who was a confused person, Amir was a fanatic ideologue. Armed with the indirect blessing of radical rabbis, he had no doubts. “I acted according to Din Rodef [the law of pursuit]”, he said at his trial.
A rodef is someone who pursues another person in order to kill him. According to Jewish law, a bystander is permitted to kill the pursuer without bringing him to justice. According to Amir and his fellows, Rabin, by planning to give away parts of Eretz Yisrael, declared himself a rodef.
From that moment on, it wasn’t Yitzhak Rabin the individual, whom Amir was about to kill, but the prime minister. Furthermore, it turned out that the main purpose of Amir wasn’t necessarily killing Rabin, but stopping him. “Din Rodef is not an act of punishment”, he explained to his judges. “My goal wasn’t to assassinate him as a person; I gain nothing from the fact that he is dead. If he was paralysed and would stop functioning as prime minister, it would be the same for me”.
So there is no point in entertaining, in the footsteps of Thomas Mallon, the idea that Yigal Amir might have lost his nerve or changed his mind. Nevertheless, I sometimes drift into those worthless hallucinations, imagining what would have happened if Amir had missed (flimsy chance: he shot Rabin point blank). Or, if our security service had done its job instead of letting Amir stay in the “sterile” area around Rabin. Or if Amir’s friend Margalit Har Shefi, who had heard him speak about the need to assassinate Rabin, had told the authorities. Or if a rabbi worthy of the title had reminded Amir of the important commandment, “Thou shall not kill”.
Historians warn us against playing the “if game”. In his groundbreaking book, What is History? English historian E H Carr dismissed the theory of “Cleopatra’s Nose”, promoted by French philosopher Blaise Pascal, who suggested that, if Mark Anthony had not fallen for Cleopatra because of her amazing nose, the Second Triumvirate would not have broken up, and therefore the Roman Republic would have survived.
Still, with Carr’s warning in my ears, I find myself, especially around the yahrzeit, indulging in the forbidden “if” game. So, in those daydreams where Rabin has survived this vile act, what do I see?
First of all, I’m returning to the huge convention hall in Cairo, where, in May 1994, as a spokesman for the Israeli government, I witnessed the signing of an agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organisation on the handover of Gaza and Jericho.
Here is how I described it 10 years later in the New York Times (May 22, 2004): “The night before the signing, Rabin and Arafat argued over the outstanding issues, with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt going out of his way to mend fences. Finally, just before dawn, all was settled. We went to catch a few hours of sleep before the ceremony. Then, in front of the festive crowd assembled in Cairo’s convention centre, with the world watching on television, Arafat struck.
“He was supposed to sign first. All seemed to go smoothly. He sat at the table and solemnly signed the voluminous agreement, and then returned to his place on the stage next to the other dignitaries. Then Rabin sat at the table and started signing. Suddenly he stopped, his face reddened, he looked around and said something inaudible. Israel’s legal adviser rushed to the stage. The crowd became restless. No one knew what was happening.
“We finally found out that, at the historic moment meant to bring his people closer to the fulfilment of their dreams, Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, couldn’t help himself. He had only pretended to sign all the pages of the agreement, skipping some.
“Rabin, furious, threatened to leave. Mubarak, the insulted host, confronted Arafat, and, as later rumours had it, gave him a piece of his mind in solid Arabic. Arafat refused to yield, claiming that certain things had not been agreed upon. Only after a long, unscheduled break did he finally succumb and sign”.
Why does this incident, of all others, come to mind? Because it highlights the complexities of making peace with the Palestinians. There was Yasir Arafat, who always talked out of both sides of his mouth, but that was the Arafat with whom we had to deal.
And there was Yitzhak Rabin, the tough soldier, who knew how to call Arafat to order. There was a hard-won trust between the two, and trust is the vital ingredient for a solid agreement. With the brutal removal of Rabin, trust was lost.
Being a sworn optimist, I can’t conclude on such a grim note. Therefore, I’ll change direction, and instead of speculating on the past, I’ll dare make an assessment about the future: it will be Benjamin Netanyahu who will bring about a Palestinian state, not because he believes in it but because, if he doesn’t, then under his watch Israel will lose either its Jewish or democratic nature.
Reluctantly, then, he will be carrying out the political will of Yitzhak Rabin.