The Assassination of Rabin

Nullifying Oslo: The Attempt to Impede Israeli-Palestinian Reconciliation


The murder of Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 was a watershed in the campaign of incitement of the Israeli far Right against the Oslo Agreement.  Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin, was not considered insane or unbalanced before the killing, merely another right wing activist supporting the settlers. Yet it is clear that Amir was swept along by the rising tide of hatred. The language of the anti-Oslo campaign had moved from harsh criticism to chants of ‘death to Rabin’ amidst a sprinkling of rabbinical rulings, threats and curses. An analysis three months before the killing had indicated that a tiny minority, 0.7%, endorsed the claim that ‘a political assassination would be a correct deed if it would halt the peace process’. Rabin’s personal survey researcher told him that there were at least 100 people who had the potential to carry the act of murder. The mainstream Right believed that they could benefit politically from the rising paranoia and opportunistically did not distance themselves from it. Netanyahu was happy to attend demonstrations while Sharon, one month before the killing told the daily Ha’aretz that Rabin’s Labour administration was ‘a sick government’. Benny Elon, until recently Minister for Tourism and a member of Moledet, a party which advocated ‘transfer’, warned that Rabin was precipitating civil war and that ‘if he is not careful, he is liable to be killed’. Labour responded by attacking its central parliamentary opponent, the Likud, rather than clamping down on the far Right and the radical settlers. Uzi Landau, ironically Sharon’s main opponent against the Gaza disengagement in the Likud, responded by informing the daily Yediot Aharanot that Labour was spreading ‘a blood libel against the Likud’. Rabin himself refused to take any extra precautions such as wear a bullet-proof vest and his security minders seemed to be lax in the manner in which they went about their work. Whether Yigal Amir’s motivation was that God had told him to act or whether it was a question of proving himself to friends after his girl friend had left him, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin silenced the inciters and their targets into disbelief. The Jews had always regarded themselves as history’s victims – the downtrodden and the powerless – they simply could not be violent themselves in this fashion. Yigal Amir had shattered this self-delusion in the name of halting the historic reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.


On one level, the years after the historic handshake between Rabin and Arafat had been good ones for Israel. There had been economic prosperity, cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians in the peace process and the establishment of diplomatic relations with a large number of Arab states. On another, the Oslo Agreement had created a large body of opposition within both Israel and within the PLO. The Israeli Knesset had only endorsed  it by 61 to 50. Netanyahu had called Oslo ‘treason’ while Moledet’s Rehavam Ze’evi appealed to the military to defy the government. In the PLO Executive Committee of 18, five resigned and only nine were in favour. Although a coalition of ten Palestinian groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine opposed Arafat, it was the advent of the Islamists that proved to be a decisive factor. Hamas had been formed shortly after the outbreak of the first Intifada in the late 1980s, but the running had been made by the smaller, more radical, Islamic Jihad. The latter was established shortly after the Islamic Revolution in Iran and followed in the footsteps of Ayatollah Khomeini. This, in itself, was remarkable, since the Palestinians were Sunni Muslims while the Iranians were Shi’ites. Hamas, the political face of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West Bank and Gaza, rejected any contact with Iran for years for purely theological reasons. The end of the Iran-Iraq war and the Oslo Agreement pushed both sides together. Within a month of the White House handshake, Hamas embarked on a campaign of attacks on settlers, soldiers and civilians. Hamas imported from Iran the doctrine of self-sacrifice and suicide bombing. This originated during the Iran-Iraq war and was refined by Hezbollah’s campaign against the Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s.

Under Rabin’s premiership, Hamas began its bombing campaign to wreck the peace process. While Oslo was certainly the cause, the indiscriminate killing of 30 Muslim worshippers in a Hebron mosque in 1994 by a radical settler, Baruch Goldstein, provided the retaliatory motivation. With settler rejectionists feeding  Islamic rejectionists, the first bus bombing took place in Tel Aviv and Beit Lid. Rabin’s title of ‘Mr Security’ looked hollow and the enemies of Oslo made political capital. The opinion polls showed a sudden, but dramatic drop in Rabin’s support in favour of the Likud leader, Bibi Netanyahu. While Rabin’s standing in the polls gradually recovered, the next bombing ensured that they once more plummeted. With each atrocity, the rate of recovery was slower. This followed the pattern of the Israeli electorate’s reaction to an outbreak of violence. It always catalysed a cosmic move to the Right. This happened when the first Intifada boosted the Likud so that it achieved victory in the election of 1988.

Following Rabin’s killing, the new Prime Minister Shimon Peres was 30 percentage points ahead in the polls. In all likelihood, many floating voters were revolted by the radicalism of the far Right and the opportunism of the Likud. But Hamas’s actions at the beginning of 1996 – the first systematic campaign of suicide bombing in Israel’s cities – unnerved and angered many. Moreover, it persuaded the floating voters to move back to the Likud. The bombers killed 87 Israeli civilians and injured over 200 in successive days in the heart of the country. The reaction of the Israeli electorate a few months later was to give Netanyahu a sliver of a majority and to place the opponents of Oslo in power.

The strength of Oslo was that it was based on a constructive ambiguity where Rabin and Arafat could ‘do business’ and make progress. The relationship between Arafat and Netanyahu, however, was one of polar opposites. Constructive ambiguity became specific certainty with Netanyahu consistently pointing out Palestinian violations of agreements. Arafat, in turn, retaliated by listing Israeli violations. The incompetence and duplicity of Arafat plus the increasing strength of the Islamists were further ingredients added into this witch’s brew. If Oslo had provided a win-win scenario, the situation after Rabin’s death meant a return to the ‘them and us’ syndrome. If Oslo symbolised a coming together of the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps against their rejectionists, the post-Rabin state of affairs resurrected the megaphone war and a return to ‘Israel versus Palestine’.

Suppose fate had not taken its course on 4 November 1995 and Rabin had stood in the 1996 election against Netanyahu. Would he have won? Would the reaction to the series of suicide bombings have swept Rabin away as it did Peres? Would Rabin’s prestige have nullified the desire for security? All answers now reside within the realm of speculation. Rabin would probably have done better than Peres, but the opinion polls showing Rabin trailing Netanyahu before his death.

If Netanyahu’s tenure, 1996-1999, had been averted, there is every likelihood that the peace process would not have faltered so badly under a second term Rabin administration. The Rabin-Peres team would have provided the stability and rationality in policies that were subsequently missing. Perhaps there would have been an earlier evacuation of the Gaza settlements – and possibly of West Bank ones as well. The joker in the pack amidst such speculation is the global rise of Islamism. Could Rabin have succeeded in persuading Arafat to take action where others had failed? Probably not, but history under Rabin’s responsible stewardship may still have taken a less bloody path.

Striving for Peace: the Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin (Labour Friends of Israel) November 2005

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