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13 minute read
Steve Wulf

And if anyone asks, “What are these wounds on your chest?,” the answer will be, “The wounds I received in the house of my friends.” –Zechariah 13:6

SHIR HA-SHALOM. THE SONG OF Peace. In a rare moment of elation for the dour leader, Yitzhak Rabin tucked a leaflet with the lyrics to Shir Ha-Shalom into his breast pocket and sang along with the 100,000 people who had gathered to celebrate peace and support him last Saturday evening on Kings of Israel Square in the heart of Tel Aviv. Such moments came all too infrequently to the embattled Premier these days, when Arab and Jewish extremists, equally intent on murdering the tenuous accords between Israel and the Palestinians, held center stage. But this starlit night, the message was different. The 73-year-old Prime Minister of Israel exhorted the crowd to go forward down the road to which he had committed Israel in September 1993. “There are enemies of the peace process, and they try to hurt us,” he said. “But violence undermines democracy and must be denounced and isolated.”

Rabin seemed to be unusually buoyed by the outpouring of support and affection coming from the largest assembly the square had ever seen. Yet watchers could not shake off all their fears. During the rally one man, Meir Doron, walked up to a journalist and asked, “Don’t you think Rabin ought to be wearing a flak jacket in a situation like this?” The journalist shrugged, and Doron made his way over to Leah Rabin, the Prime Minister’s wife, and asked her if she thought her husband was safe. She looked sharply at him, put her finger to her lips and said, “Shhh. Don’t say such things. I don’t believe anyone is capable of doing anything like that.”

When the rally ended, Rabin walked off the podium and down a stairway leading to a sheltered area where an armored Cadillac awaited him. Just as the Prime Minister was stepping into the limousine, at 9:40 p.m., a man came up behind him with a .22-cal. pistol in his hand. The assassin, a 25-year-old Jewish militant named Yigal Amir, fired two shots from less than three meters away. The hollow-point bullets smashed into Rabin, who had always refused to wear a bulletproof vest. One ruptured his spleen; the other severed major arteries in his chest and shattered his spinal cord, drenching the leaflet in his pocket, the Song of Peace, in blood.

As a phalanx of security personnel grabbed Amir and slammed him up against the wall of an adjacent shopping center, another set of bodyguards cradled the stricken leader into the car, then rushed him to nearby Ichilov Hospital. When Rabin arrived, he had no pulse and no blood pressure; after heroic efforts to stop the massive bleeding, his doctors acknowledged failure. At 11:15 p.m., Eitan Haber, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, emerged from the hospital to scream for all the world to hear: “Rabin is dead!”

The first political assassination in the nation’s short history left Israelis in utter shock. First there was the prospect of a Jew killing a Jew. In a land where every Jewish life is counted precious, there could be no greater horror. And when the victim was also the Prime Minister whose brave policies of peace have torn the populace in two, the act seemed almost literally unthinkable. The assassin had apparently been driven by the simplistic idea that if he could kill this one man, he could kill the whole process of peace. The true tragedy would be if he were proved right, and so the nation’s grief was charged as well with the fear that something even more profound than one man’s life had been ended. In the aftermath, Israelis seemed to be asking themselves, “What kind of a people have we become? What rot has infested our national soul?”

Paradoxically, in a country preoccupied with matters of security, assassination was a largely unexamined possibility. Israelis assumed they were safe among one another–the entire point, after all, of the founding of the Jewish state. With hindsight, of course, the foreshadowing could be discerned. In the two years since Rabin embarked on his controversial peace with the Palestinians, the farther reaches of Israel’s radical right had grown bold in their threats to subvert the process and preserve their dream of a Greater Israel to the Jordan River. Yigal Amir may have acted alone, as he told police, but he had many ideational conspirators.

Rabin’s departure has profound implications for the entire Middle East, since he was the Israeli who made rapprochement possible. Was his removal sufficient to still the process? The early consensus was that it was not. But no one really knows how long shared grief will paper over Israel’s deep division over the wisdom of giving up land for promises of peace.

The reaction to Rabin’s murder in some parts of the Arab world was not hopeful. Mohammed Zahhar, a leader of the terrorist organization Hamas, told the Associated Press, “He practiced all forms of violence against us. I’m joyful because he was punished.” And in Beirut the Hizballah television station showed film of locals celebrating “the death of the Zionist criminal Rabin” as a news anchor told viewers, “The gunfire you hear is in celebration, but please keep your bullets for the Israeli oppressors” in southern Lebanon. When the station, Al Manar (The Lighthouse), showed footage of an Israeli TV journalist weeping, the anchor laughed out loud.

In Israel news of the assassination sent thousands to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the wall that Rabin had helped capture as the Israeli army’s chief of staff in the Six-Day War of 1967. Scores of mourners brought candles to stand sentinel over both Rabin’s private home on Rabbi Ashi street in Tel Aviv and his official residence in Jerusalem. Said one mourner in Jerusalem, pharmacology student Dganit Safrai: “This is the end we can expect for someone who makes peace. He was so strong, it seemed as if nothing could happen to him.”

Had Rabin died at the hands of an Arab terrorist, Israelis would have been furiously hurt, yet they would have understood. But for Jewish blood to be spilled by another Jew brought home to the country the dangers of political disagreements that burn so deep. In retrospect, it seemed a short step from strident criticisms made by mainstream rightist parties to the fanaticism of Amir. For months, Rabin’s Labor Party had complained that the opposition Likud, psychological compatriot of the extremists in its dislike of the peace plan, was fomenting an atmosphere of violence. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the assassination, saying “We must vomit from among us those who do not abide by one of the most basic rules of society: Thou shalt not kill.” But he reaffirmed his virulent opposition to the peace process, showing no signs of conciliation.

At the same time, right-wing extremists had grown increasingly brazen: posters of Rabin in a kaffiyeh, in a Nazi uniform, with blood on his hands, began appearing at rallies protesting the expansion of Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank, which had been dictated by the Oslo accords. Ehud Sprinzak, Israel’s leading expert on right-wing Jewish violence, says, “A sense of enormous theological and personal desperation within the settlers, greatly intensified by Arab terrorism, finally produced an image of a monster in Rabin.” Netanyahu himself did not help matters when he compared Rabin’s Labor Party tactics to those of the late Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. According to Gadi Wolfsfeld, a lecturer in political science at Hebrew University, all the vicious talk may have inspired Rabin’s assassination. “The hysterical language that what Rabin was doing was an act of treachery made someone think they would be a hero if he could stop the peace process by killing Rabin.”

That someone turned out to be Amir, a third-year law student at the religious Bar Ilan University. One of eight children raised in an Orthodox family in Herzliyya, a town north of Tel Aviv, Amir was quiet and unprepossessing, except when it came to the subject of peace with the Arabs. He fraternized with members of a right-wing group called Eyal, also known as the Fighting Jews. According to a friend, Amir once said he felt he had to do something to stop the peace process, but the friend dismissed Amir’s words as an empty threat.

Amir reportedly told police he had been planning to kill Rabin since at least January. The Prime Minister had been scheduled to go to Yad Vashem that month to visit the sacred memorial to the Holocaust, but when the Islamic Jihad launched a suicide bomb at a bus depot at the Beit Lid Junction in Central Israel, he canceled the visit. Several months later, Amir allegedly planned to assassinate Rabin at a highway dedication in Kfar Shmaryahu, but that time he could not penetrate the Prime Minister’s security detail.

Given the nature of the right-wing hatred, and in the wake of the Israeli Mossad’s suspected assassination of a terrorist leader on Malta two weeks ago, security for Rabin seemed rather relaxed at last Saturday’s rally, a rally specifically designed to counter the extremists’ demonstrations. But that was Rabin’s choice. In a television interview two days before his murder, the Prime Minister admitted that “there are wild inciters out there,” but he never believed Jews would stoop to killing Jews. The Israeli protective service all but begged Rabin to wear a bulletproof vest and to move inside a ring of security agents, as U.S. Presidents do, but he refused to give in to fear.

And then the impossible happened. Soon after the shots were fired, Israeli political reporters were beeped by an organization that identified itself as AYIN, the Hebrew acronym for Avenging Jewish Organization. Apparently not knowing that Rabin had in fact been killed, the extremists said, “This time we missed. Next time we won’t.” But after Amir was taken into custody, he told investigators that he had acted alone. According to the police, Amir said he had “received instructions from God to kill Prime Minister Rabin.”

Even after he was pronounced dead, the anger among Jewish extremists did not dissipate. A small group of followers of the late Meir Kahane gathered outside the hospital and chillingly chanted, “Rabin is dead,” as they pounded on the cars of the Knesset members who had arrived. Almost as insensitive was the mob that responded, “Bibi [Netanyahu] is a murderer.” But Shimon Peres struck the right note in a television address late Saturday night. Referring to the Song of Peace, Peres said, “He put this song in his pocket, and the bullet went through this song. But the song of peace ringing in our ears will not end.”

Sometime after midnight, Cabinet members convened an emergency session, leaving one black-draped chair empty. They met to plan the state funeral and to set up a transitional government; by Israeli law, the Cabinet automatically becomes the caretaker of Israel. After two days of national mourning, President Ezer Weizman will call all the party leaders together and ask for a new government to be formed by Peres, the man who helped execute Rabin’s quest for peace. Peres will almost certainly succeed, despite a parliamentary majority so razor thin that his Labor Party depends on the five Arab votes to stay in power. On Sunday, Netanyahu announced that Likud would not contest a new Labor government. “In a democracy,” he said, “a government is changed by elections and not by murder.”

The hope that the prospects for peace may actually improve because of Rabin’s assassination may be more than wishful thinking. Amos Oz, the novelist and leading left-wing spokesman, says, “This will not kill the peace process, because under Peres the new government will continue the same policy and perhaps act with even more determination and with more anger. I believe the right-wing opposition in Israel as a whole will become rhetorically more responsible. In the short run, we are going to have a kind of restraint and perhaps a relative unity, which we haven’t had in a long time.”

But for Palestinians committed to the peace process, Rabin’s death spells trouble. Palestinian security forces are now in a state of emergency because they fear that the assassination will inspire Palestinian enemies of peace to try to kill Arafat, who declined to attend Rabin’s funeral for just that reason. Politically, Arafat had come to trust Rabin, and while Peres is viewed as a softer adversary, the Palestinians fear that he will not be able to rally Israel behind him. Says a senior Palestinian Authority official, “The Israeli politicians are sad now. But after three days you will see them again shouting at each other in the Knesset. We will go back to square one, and the victim will be our agreement with the Israelis.”

Because of the logistical difficulties involved in getting world leaders to Israel within the customary 24-hour period between death and burial, Rabin’s state funeral was put off a day–until Monday afternoon. But Israelis themselves poured out their confused and troubled emotions on Sunday in a remarkable rite of homage. As a motorized cortege bore the warrior statesman up the highway from Tel Aviv to the Holy City, teary-eyed mourners lined the route. And when he came to rest in the brilliant blue November afternoon on a catafalque outside the Knesset, hundreds of thousands of Israelis, in a queue two kilometers long, filed quietly past to pay their last respects.

Perhaps if more of them had supported their fallen leader in the last hard years of his life, this moment would never have come. As former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger noted last week, Rabin was a leader who “was not trying just to hang on and preserve, but to build.” Now it is up to those who survive to build that legacy for him. “The peace process,” says former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Edward Djerejian, “has always been a race against violence on the ground and the extremists.” Rabin’s death will not have been in vain if it helps the Middle East win that race.

–Reported by Lisa Beyer, Johanna McGeary and Aharon Klein/Jerusalem, Lara Marlowe/Beirut, Scott MacLeod/Paris and James Carney and J.F.O McAllister/Washington

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