An Assassin's Creed: Rabin and His Killer

An Assassin's Creed: Rabin and His Killer

Twenty years after Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, a new book examines the Israeli leader's legacy—and that of his murderer.


In the months prior to the assassination, Amir spoke freely about killing the prime minister, and did so to a remarkably large circle of people. Many who heard these remarks—including an informant for Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, who reported prolifically but did not report these comments from Amir—later said they did not think Amir would follow through. The talk sounded like bluster that was not much different in tone and in underlying sentiment from what many others were saying even more loudly. The vitriolic talk became the stuff of large street demonstrations. “It was now standard,” writes Ephron, “to hear protesters chant, ‘Rabin is a murderer,’ over and over, in pulsating fury; to compare Rabin to Hitler or his government to...the Jewish administrative bodies that enforced Nazi rule during World War II. The ugly invective,” says Ephron, “came not just from the political margins but from the top echelons of the Likud Party.”

An especially ugly event occurred a month before the assassination, in the form of a huge antigovernment demonstration at Zion Square in Jerusalem while the Knesset was considering the Oslo II agreement. Amid the chants of “death to Rabin” and the burning of pictures of the prime minister, other pictures were distributed through the crowd depicting Rabin’s head atop the body of a dog or showing him in a Nazi uniform. The frenzy did not end when the formal program did. Demonstrators marched on the Knesset, and for the first time in Israeli history the legislature seemed in danger of being overrun. When the prime minister’s driver attempted to bring his limousine to the Knesset, the crowd swarmed the car, rocked it, pounded the roof, climbed on the hood and tore off the ornament. Later a member of the extremist group Kach brandished the hood ornament during a televised interview and said, “People managed to remove the ornament from the car. And just as we got to the ornament, we can get to Rabin.”


Ephron’s account lends support to the belief in Rabin’s family that responsibility for the lethal mood of this time must be shared by the ambitious and slippery politician who had been leader of Likud since 1993: Benjamin Netanyahu. According to Ephron, “Netanyahu aligned himself with the hardliners, the settlers and the rabble-rousers, speaking at rallies across the country where crowds branded Rabin a traitor and a murderer, and consorting with rabbis who’d urged soldiers to disobey evacuation orders.” At least once, Netanyahu gently scolded an audience for its rhetoric; “more often, he ignored it. Occasionally he seemed swept up in it.” At the frenzied demonstration in Zion Square, Netanyahu and other right-wing leaders stood on a balcony above the square for two hours “and watched as protestors came unhinged.” Ephron writes that “Netanyahu seemed unfazed by the mayhem—even as protesters threw burning torches at the line of policemen. Any effort to call the crowd to order could well have turned the extremists against him, a risk Netanyahu evidently did not wish to take.”

Although Ephron repeatedly emphasizes the larger impact of Amir’s act, it is easy to reach the conclusion that if Amir had not killed Rabin there is a good chance that someone else with similar sentiments would have done so. For all we know, and for all Shin Bet knows, there may have been other would-be assassins planning to do just that when Amir hit his target. Some of the findings of the official investigation of the assassination were the sort of hindsight-driven conclusions, especially of the connect-the-dots variety, that are customary after such events. In this case, there was so much malicious and threatening noise directed against Rabin that the signals involving Amir’s intentions would have been especially difficult to pick up and to interpret as significant. What was inexcusable was the porous physical security for Rabin at the site of the rally where he gave his last speech. A parking lot that was supposed to be a secure area never was properly secured. Amir had no trouble entering it through a gate and loitering there within steps of the prime minister’s car for nearly three-quarters of an hour, all without being challenged.


EPHRON IS wisely noncommittal about whether the Oslo-based peace process would have survived if Rabin had also survived, although he seems to lean in the direction that it would have. The question is similar to countless counterfactual queries that have been posed elsewhere about whether a particular leader was indispensable for a particular result. Speculation about Rabin and the peace process is aided by Ephron’s informative treatment of the six months following the assassination. During that period the new prime minister, Shimon Peres, lost an initial large lead in the polls and ended up losing narrowly to Netanyahu in an election in May 1996.

Multiple reasons help to explain Peres’s failure, some involving misjudgment and some involving luck. Syrian president Hafez al-Assad was reluctant to conclude a peace agreement when it was uncertain if the Israeli leader he concluded it with would be around very long. Peres was reluctant to involve Rabin’s widow Leah in the election campaign—perhaps a reflection of the long-standing rivalry between Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, a recurrent sub-theme in Ephron’s book. An Israeli military operation in Lebanon may have led some disaffected Arab-Israeli voters to sit out the election. Most of all there was the Israeli assassination in January 1996 of Hamas master bomb-maker Yahya Ayyash, in an operation involving explosives hidden in a phone and detonated by remote control. This assassination almost certainly was the stimulus for a wave of retaliatory suicide bombings against Israel, ending what had been several months of calm. The bombings swung Israeli public opinion in favor of the hardliners and against the idea of territorial concessions to Palestinians.

To assess the counterfactual scenario of these same six months if Rabin were still alive, one must remember that Peres was at least as much committed to the peace process as was Rabin. As foreign minister, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize that also was awarded to Rabin and Arafat. Moreover, had Amir missed his target, Rabin would not have experienced the pro-Labor spike of public sympathy that Peres enjoyed in the first weeks after the assassination. The outcome of the scenario would have depended most of all on the decision to kill Ayyash. One hypothesis is that for Shin Bet, which was responsible for protecting the prime minister and embarrassed by its failure to do so, taking out Ayyash was an opportunity to redeem itself and thus an operation that it pushed especially hard on Peres. But Rabin might have been just as tempted as Peres to eliminate this important Hamas military figure. If Rabin had given the same green light to Shin Bet, the resulting security and political repercussions probably would have been largely the same as what actually occurred.

Regardless of who was prime minister, if a two-state solution was to be reached according to the Oslo agreement, it had to have been reached fairly quickly and certainly within the five-year interim period the accord specified. One reason was that the gradual, staged approach in the agreement, although it was intended to build mutual confidence, also was an opportunity for opponents on each side to mobilize against the accord. The longer the process dragged on, the more likely that violent events would disrupt it. Yossi Beilin, a key Israeli negotiator who was one of the architects of the Oslo agreement, later came to have second thoughts about the gradual approach for this reason.

A larger and longer-term reason that time was not on the side of the peace process was that demographic change, creation of facts on the ground and the political consequences of each have pushed political power in Israel in the direction of holding on to the West Bank and stifling the birth of an official Palestinian state. The impassioned opposition of the 1990s has morphed into an increasingly entrenched governing coalition. The same Netanyahu who stood on the balcony and looked without objection on the zealots in Zion Square is now the second-longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, with little apparent prospect for being dislodged from power any time soon. He heads a government in which other major figures are even more direct and blunt than he is in rejecting any Palestinian state.


AFTER BEING away from Israel for years, Ephron returned in 2010 as chief of Newsweek’s Jerusalem bureau. The changes in mood and political atmosphere quickly became apparent to him. Israel was safer and more prosperous than what he had seen before, but the very fact that life in Israel was good despite the absence of peace implied that “there was little incentive to revive the process.” Ephron notes that between Rabin’s assassination and his own return to Israel the settler population had more than doubled, greatly increasing its political power. The proportionate numbers and resulting political clout of traditionally hawkish Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews also had increased substantially. Israel has indeed been “remade” in the image of Rabin’s detractors, as suggested by the book’s subtitle.