A little more than 10 years ago– on the evening of November 4, 1995– I turned on the radio in my apartment outside Tel Aviv for news of a peace rally at the giant square next to City Hall downtown. Although my Hebrew was far from perfect, I could tell immediately that something dreadful had happened. Soon enough it became clear that someone had shot Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as he was leaving the rally, and that he had been rushed to Ichilov hospital. After excruciating minutes, the announcement came that he had died of his wounds. (Strangely, for almost an hour after the shooting, the main Israeli TV channel continued to broadcast the movie “Crocodile Dundee.”)
It soon became clear that the killer was an extremist Israeli Jew enraged by Rabin’s willingness to exchange occupied land to make peace with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
The effect on the country was electric. Hundreds of thousands (including me) gathered in the same square a few days later for a memorial demonstration. Teenagers sat with candles in all-night vigils. Bumper stickers quoting President Clinton– “Shalom, haver” (Goodbye, friend)– appeared on thousands of cars. “Shir Hashalom” (The Song of Peace)– which Rabin joined in singing in the final moments of his life– was ubiquitous. Opposition politicians who had denounced Rabin’s peacemaking efforts were on the defensive. The new prime minister, Shimon Peres– riding a wave of post-assassination sympathy– seemed sure to complete the process Rabin had started.
And then, in the following months, came a wave of brutal suicide murders in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv– which Arafat seemed unable or unwilling to deal with– and the defeat of Peres by Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu in the 1996 election.
There has been a tendency since his death to romanticize Rabin, the tough old general turned peacemaker. Certainly Arafat was pleased to do that, portraying Rabin after the murder as his indispensible “partner” for peace. If only he had lived, Arafat seemed to suggest, all the violence and bloodshed of the following years could have been avoided.
But why? Netanyahu was not eager to complete the process Rabin started, but his successor, Ehud Barak, undoubtedly was. And from everything I know about Rabin, he would never have offered anything more generous than what Arafat rejected at Camp David in 2000. In fact I doubt Rabin would have made the concessions Barak did on dividing control of Jerusalem. It’s hard to believe that whatever “trust” supposedly existed between Rabin and Arafat would have made the difference.
It’s also important to remember that the two years between the Rabin-Arafat handshake at the White House and the assassination in Tel Aviv were not entirely filled with sweetness, light and reconciliation. There were bus bombings in Israel and Baruch Goldstein’s slaughter of Palestinians in Hebron. And while Arafat spoke to the Western media of making “the peace of the brave” with Israel, his words before Arab and Muslim audiences were not always so reassuring.
Rabin was much more the practical realist than the idealistic dreamer. And yet he was a brave man (braver by far than Arafat) who understood that despite all the risks, it was time to try a different approach with the Palestinians– an approach that cost him his life.
Intervening events have offered precious few reasons for optimism about settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict any time soon. But I still hope that some day the efforts of brave men and women on both sides will help complete the process which began on that hopeful day at the White House.