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Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel
Dan Ephron
(W.W. Norton & Co, 2015)

The summer of 1995 was a time of hope for peace in Israel/Palestine. Israel had been at peace with Egypt for 16 years by then. On September 13, 1993, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas met on the White House lawn to finalize their initial Oslo accord outlining the parameters of a two-state solution. This progress on the Palestinian front, in turn, allowed Israel to execute a peace treaty with Jordan in October 1994. Peace talks with Syria were underway. Rabin and Arafat had forged a working relationship and gained a measure of mutual respect. There was a sense of inevitability about peace that summer.

Huge obstacles remained. Yasser Arafat moved from Tunis to Gaza only in July 1994. Would he be able to build a Palestinian government that could effectively govern? While Arafat was away in Tunis (1982-1994), Hamas emerged as a rival representative of the Palestinian people. Ideological, militarily capable, and popular through its provision of social services in Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas was fiercely opposed to the Oslo peace process. Arafat needed to assert himself over Hamas and unite the Palestinian factions and public behind him. Would he be successful?

On the Israeli side, too, there were large questions. Would Rabin be able to carry through the commitments he made in the Oslo Agreement? In order to achieve the peace contemplated by the Oslo Agreement, the Rabin government would have to be able to expel 140,000 settlers from the occupied territories and resettle them in the Jewish state. But large portions of the Israeli public were fiercely opposed to giving up any part of the West Bank, peace or no peace. On February 24, 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish religious nationalist opposed to Israel giving up any of its God-given land, entered the Tomb of the Patriarchs mosque in Hebron and shot 154 people at prayer, killing 29 of them. He was treated as a hero by portions of the Jewish settler community. In the wake of the massacre the Rabin government contemplated evacuating the 500 or so settlers living in the center of Hebron. The government backed off for fear of violence. There was a real question, therefore, whether the government would be able to evacuate 140,000 settlers from 140 settlements as part of the Oslo peace process when push came to shove.

Just in time for the broadly celebrated 20 year retrospectives of Rabin’s assassination on November 4, 1995, Dan Ephron published Killing a King, a gripping journalistic book that brings to life this time when peace seemed to hang in the balance. Ephron covered the large peace rally in the Kings of Israel square in Tel Aviv (now Rabin square) where Rabin was assassinated. He also covered the subsequent trial of Yigal Amir (the assassin). Since then Ephron has continued to write about the Middle East, notably for Newsweek magazine, and elsewhere. The book describes the relationship between Rabin and Arafat, their growing trust, and the obstacles they each faced if they were going to implement the Oslo Agreement. We learn about Yigal Amir, a law student at Bar-Ilan University, and the protest movement against the Oslo peace process that he helped grow. We learn about Amir’s girlfriends, his brother, and the messianic views of his fellow travelers. Ephron details how Amir came to believe fervently that God would want him to kill this “King Rabin” for his readiness to give up “Jewish land” and how Amir was morally supported in this view by irresponsible rabbis willing to engage in moral speculations about such an act. We learn how Amir stalked Rabin for two years, openly discussed his plans for assassination with his brother and friends, including an informant for Israel’s secret service who failed to take Amir sufficiently seriously. We learn about the rivalry between Rabin and Shimon Peres, and how this rivalry, even after Rabin’s death, may have informed Peres’s steps and missteps leading up to his electoral defeat to Benjamin Netanyahu in May 1996.

To read Killing a King leaves you with the impression that Rabin and Arafat were reluctant but determined champions for peace. Ephron implies that in order for Oslo to be implemented, something akin to a civil war had to be settled inside both the Jewish and Palestinian camps: between the pragmatists led by Rabin and the ideological right wing unwilling to surrender any portion of Judea and Samaria on the Jewish side, and between Fatah and Hamas on the Palestinian side. Ephron suggests that–at that moment in time (1995)–Arafat and Rabin were both necessary to fight those wars and by assassinating Rabin, Amir likely did affect the course of history. Ephron portrays Peres as a petty, vainglorious diplomat, not up to the task of defeating those unwilling to give up any portion of the West Bank or Jerusalem for peace. We are invited to believe that Rabin and Arafat, together, had a chance to consolidate Oslo, but that without both of them there, there was no chance.

The book hints at the rightward drift in Israeli society since 1995 but does not detail these changes, or what they mean for the peace process or Israeli society today. For a look at those changes and what Israel has become after 48 years of occupation you need to go elsewhere, like Max Blumenthal’s Goliath. Business analysts too are getting the picture. See, e.g. this Stratfor report. Here is David Remnick’s report in the New Yorker in November 2014 describing Israel’s one state reality. Noam Sheizaf calls 2015 the year in which the Right has officially taken over.

After Rabin’s assassination, as it played out, the right found a skilled and effective leader in Netanyahu whose Likud party defeated Peres in the May 1996 elections and went on to dominate Israeli politics for most of the next 20 years. In 1978, a 29-year old Netanyahu appeared on the American Public Television program “The Advocates,” arguing strenuously for one state, a Jewish state, between the Jordan river and the sea. There should not be a separate Palestinian state, he said. See Link. Confronted with the question about how he would square a Jewish and democratic state with demographic trends indicating an Arab majority in that space, he confidently denied that this would be a problem.

Netanyahu didn’t really mean “it’s not a problem,” of course. What he meant is “don’t worry about it.”

And for 20 years after Rabin’s assassination, the international community and Israeli politicians did not worry: Zionism would be saved and justice would be served by the two-state-solution! Israel and the world Jewish community refused to confront the emerging one state ethnocracy even as the two-state-solution contemplated by the Oslo agreement was being actively undermined by Hamas, by Jewish religious nationalists, and by every Israeli government. Israel paid lip service to a two-state solution for the Israel/Palestinian “problem,” but at the same time every Israeli administration since the Yom Kippur war (1973) has worked hard to expand settlements in the West Bank and to build Jewish-only infrastructure. “We will be here permanently forever,” said a triumphant Netanyahu to settlers in Ariel after his election in 1996. Ariel is a settlement of nearly 20,000, 34 km deep in the West Bank. Instead of 140,000 Jewish settlers that Rabin faced in 1995, today there are more than 500,000 Jewish settlers entrenched all across the West Bank. If there was doubt in 1995 whether Rabin could successfully evacuate the settlements to achieve peace on the Oslo model, today there is no doubt: it can’t be done. The Oslo model is dead.

In the run up to the most recent election (March 2015) Netanyahu made clear there would be no Palestinian state side-by-side with a Jewish state. President Obama and John Kerry have begun to point out the implication of this failure. When Secretary of State  Kerry embarked on his last push for peace, which was firmly rebuffed, he said at a House hearing: “I think we have some period of time—in one to one-and-a-half to two years—or it’s over.” That was in 2012. By 2014, Kerry was warning Israel that it was in danger of becoming an apartheid state. At the beginning of this month Kerry again warned that through its continued occupation of the West Bank, Israel is becoming a bi-national state.

What is a “bi-national state?” If you’re optimistic, think secular and democratic; think Canada; think Switzerland. So why would Kerry’s comments about a bi-national state cause “consternation in Israel?” It’s a good question. The need to worry about the consequences of permanent occupation and a one state Jewish ethnocracy hasn’t really sunk in.

Killing a King is a nostalgic book. It takes us back to a hopeful moment in time. It’s a reminder that hope is possible. “Yitzhak Rabin defended this country,” said Bill Clinton at the memorial rally in Tel Aviv, “but more importantly, he advanced the values that are fundamental to Israel. He stood for freedom, for peace, for acceptance of those different from us, and the preservation of democracy.” But to indulge in such nostalgia without truly facing up to what’s happened since then, and admitting the fact that the kind of peace Rabin hoped to achieve in 1995 is no longer possible, is also a kind of fraud. Dexter Filkins recognizes this in his recent article in the New Yorker, taking to task Dennis Ross, who has also recently publish his account of the U.S.-Israel relationship since 1948: “In four hundred-plus pages,” says Filkins about the Ross book, “there is almost no mention of the changes that have transformed the Israeli polity in the past six decades, and surprisingly little discussion of the steady growth in the settlement population, which now exceeds half a million.”

Ephron’s book doesn’t downplay the political changes like Dennis Ross does. Killing a King makes clear that the settlers have won, and that the Amir brothers have no doubt that they were instrumental in that win. But Killing a King is also a distraction from the now 48-year old occupation. With morbid fascination and focus on the details of the murder, Yigal Amir’s life, and some of the crazy conspiracy theories that are popular in Israel about the murder (like Rabin set it up, that the secret service did it, that the conspiracy went awry…) the book diverts attention from the real problems and from what needs to be done.

Dan Ephron is married to This American Life producer Nancy Updike, and This American Life did a full hour program on the book. Terry Gross did an interview with Dan Ephron. Between these two popular shows, they spent nearly two hours looking voyeuristically at this murder, and virtually no time discussing the real problems of Zionism today.

The book and its eager reception in America, like the celebrations of Rabin on this 20th anniversary of his assassination, in general, suggests that American Jews are not yet ready to get serious about engaging with the problems of Netanyahu’s Zionism. They are not yet ready to truly worry.

A version of this review first ran on Roland Nikles’s site.

About Roland Nikles

Roland Nikles is a Bay Area writer and attorney. He blogs here: rolandnikles.blogspot.com. And you can follow him on twitter @RolandNikles

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22 Responses

  1. hophmi
    January 2, 2016, 1:32 pm

    There isn’t one serious person who believes that Oslo means expelling half a million settlers from their homes. It means land swaps and maybe about 80,000 evictions, not 500,000.

    • Laurent Weppe
      January 2, 2016, 1:46 pm

      There were a lot less settlers when Oslo was signed: building new settlements was a way to sabotage the accord (and to manufacture a captive electorate)

    • Mooser
      January 2, 2016, 1:54 pm

      “There isn’t one serious person who believes…”

      “Hophmi”, are you “serious”? If so, I’ll be Roebucks, and we can start a store!

    • echinococcus
      January 2, 2016, 4:19 pm

      Look, look, a Zionist who invokes Oslo! Isn’t that a surprise! Didn’t get the memo yet about the Oslo deal? It’s past dead, disregarded, shredded by ***your*** government and recalled only by its not-so-Norwegian puppets, Master Hophmi. In fact, even though concocted entirely by ***your*** government, Oslo did not provide for the building of further colonial murderer lairs (“settlements” to you) to house 500,000 unprotected persons.

    • talknic
      January 2, 2016, 7:39 pm

      @ hophmi “It means land swaps…” = swapping non-Israeli territory for non-Israeli territory so Israel can keep illegally settled non-Israeli territory. Generous of Arafat, concession after concession.

      Israel meanwhile has never offered anything towards peace with the Palestinians, all it has ever done is lie, then break its agreements, steal and demand more and more, preferring to sacrifice Jewish Israelis by duping them to illegally settle in non-Israeli territory held under occupation

      A regime that loves other folks territory more than it does Jews is surely Antisemitic at its core
      An organization who loans Jews money (at interest) to illegally settle where they are endangered is surely Antisemitic
      People who purposefully support such a regime after having been shown so much factual information as has been made available here on MW, are surely Antisemitic

      • Mooser
        January 3, 2016, 2:17 pm

        “A regime that loves other folks territory more than it does Jews is surely Antisemitic at its core”

        But one of those is a renewable resource, and the other is not. And look at the amount of ground gained vs. expenditure of Jews.

    • Stephen Shenfield
      January 6, 2016, 8:43 pm

      From the documents disclosed in the Palestine Papers we now know that the Palestinian side only asked for two settlements to be dismantled in order to restore some contiguity to what remained of the West Bank — Ariel (mentioned in the article) and Ma’aleh Adumim. These two settlements now have 80,000 residents between them (Ariel 20,000; MA 60,000), so Hophmi is right — even if Israel accedes to these modest requests the maximum number of evictions is 80,000. But Israel has never offered to remove any big settlements at all, only a few isolated outposts, i.e. only a few hundred evictions.

  2. Ossinev
    January 2, 2016, 2:11 pm

    Meanwhile fresh from today`s Jerusalem Post Nitay has been spewing his usual bile in his comments ref the Tel Aviv shooting eg:
    “Whoever wants to be Israeli should be an Israeli through and through,” Netanyahu said.

    It would appear that his IQ has is dipping below the 50 mark more and more. How can 1,000,000 Palestinian Israelis be Israeli through and through when they have no access to their families in the rest of Palestine and vice versa. When they watch the daily murder and brutalizing of their families in the West Bank and Gaza. Would Mr Nitay have welcomed, had he been around at the time, a grotesque comment like this to German Jews from Hitler/Himmler etc during the “solution” era viz”Whoever wants to be a German should be a German through and through”. I don`t think so.

    The Jerusalem Post headlines it`s article:
    “Netanyahu to Israeli Arabs: You can’t enjoy Israeli rights while failing to obey state’s laws”

    Hopefully in the very near future when the Western world finally tires of Israeli lies,denials and intransigence and takes boycott and expulsion action the headline will read:
    “You can`t enjoy recognition and incorporation into international legislative bodies while failing to obey the laws of these international bodies”

    BOYCOTT UGLY APARTHEID ISRAEL
    SUPPORT THE RIGHT OF THE PALESTINIAN PEOPLE TO DEFEND THEMSELVES

    • a blah chick
      January 4, 2016, 12:52 pm

      The reviews of that performance at the site of the shooting were almost all bad. It was just another excuse to whip Jewish Israel into a frenzy of blood lust.

    • eljay
      January 4, 2016, 1:09 pm

      || Ossinev: Meanwhile fresh from today`s Jerusalem Post Nitay has been spewing his usual bile in his comments ref the Tel Aviv shooting eg:
      “Whoever wants to be Israeli should be an Israeli through and through,” Netanyahu said. … ||

      Well, it’s about time! I agree with King Bibi that Israel should be the Israeli state of and for all of its Israeli citizens, immigrants, expats and refugees, equally. Enough with the divisive, religion-supremacist “Jewish State” nonsense.

      • Stephen Shenfield
        January 6, 2016, 8:46 pm

        Israeli through and through but not allowed to have “Israeli” entered on his or her identity card.

  3. JLewisDickerson
    January 2, 2016, 5:43 pm

    RE: “While Arafat was away in Tunis (1982-1994), Hamas emerged as a rival representative of the Palestinian people. Ideological, militarily capable, and popular through its provision of social services in Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas was fiercely opposed to the Oslo peace process.” ~ Roland Nikles

    SEE: “How Israel Helped to Spawn Hamas”, By Andrew Higgins, The Wall Street Journal, 01/24/09

    [EXCERPT] Surveying the wreckage of a neighbor’s bungalow hit by a Palestinian rocket, retired Israeli official Avner Cohen traces the missile’s trajectory back to an “enormous, stupid mistake” made 30 years ago.
    “Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel’s creation,” says Mr. Cohen, a Tunisian-born Jew who worked in Gaza for more than two decades. Responsible for religious affairs in the region until 1994, Mr. Cohen watched the Islamist movement take shape, muscle aside secular Palestinian rivals and then morph into what is today Hamas, a militant group that is sworn to Israel’s destruction.
    Instead of trying to curb Gaza’s Islamists from the outset, says Mr. Cohen, Israel for years tolerated and, in some cases, encouraged them as a counterweight to the secular nationalists of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its dominant faction, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah. . .
    . . . When Israel first encountered Islamists in Gaza in the 1970s and ’80s, they seemed focused on studying the Quran, not on confrontation with Israel. The Israeli government officially recognized a precursor to Hamas called Mujama Al-Islamiya, registering the group as a charity. It allowed Mujama members to set up an Islamic university and build mosques, clubs and schools. Crucially, Israel often stood aside when the Islamists and their secular left-wing Palestinian rivals battled, sometimes violently, for influence in both Gaza and the West Bank.
    “When I look back at the chain of events I think we made a mistake,” says David Hacham, who worked in Gaza in the late 1980s and early ’90s as an Arab-affairs expert in the Israeli military. “But at the time nobody thought about the possible results.” . . .

    ENTIRE ARTICLE – http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123275572295011847.html

  4. JLewisDickerson
    January 2, 2016, 6:13 pm

    RE: “The book and its eager reception in America, like the celebrations of Rabin on this 20th anniversary of his assassination, in general, suggests that American Jews are not yet ready to get serious about engaging with the problems of Netanyahu’s Zionism. They are not yet ready to truly worry.” – Nikles

    BUYER’S STOCKHOLM SYNDROME:

    Post-purchase rationalization, also known as Buyer’s Stockholm Syndrome, is a cognitive bias whereby someone who has purchased an expensive product or service overlooks any faults or defects in order to justify their purchase. It is a special case of choice-supportive bias.
    Expensive purchases often involve a lot of careful research and deliberation, and many consumers will often refuse to admit that their decision was made in poor judgment. Many purchasing decisions are made emotionally, based on factors such as brand-loyalty and advertising, and so are often rationalized retrospectively in an attempt to justify the choice. . .

    SOURCE – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-purchase_rationalization

    P.S. ALSO SEE: “It’s time for American Jews to recognize they have been duped” | by Avigail Abarbanel | Mondoweiss.net | July 25, 2015
    LINK – http://mondoweiss.net/2015/07/american-recognize-duped

    • JLewisDickerson
      January 6, 2016, 8:02 am

      P.S. ALSO SEE: “When Facts Fail: Can We Change Hearts and Minds?” | by Amée Latour | Counterpunch.org | January 5, 2016

      [EXCERPT] . . . I’ve long been interested in finding effective ways to talk to people with whom I disagree. I try not to go into such conversations with the conviction that I am right and they are wrong; they may have information or insight or perspective that I do not. By exchanging such wares, perhaps we can move closer to one another. Maybe one of us will change our minds. Or maybe we’ll just understand one another a bit better. It’s an exercise of understanding first, and convincing second (if at all).

      But recently I’ve found myself embroiled in “conversations” in which I cannot, in any way, understand the other, and he or she cannot understand me. Facts and reasoning hold no sway and we yell across a chasm that grows the more we speak. This is my hell, the opposite of what should happen, a direct challenge to my faith.

      The first step is to understand.

      Why Do Facts Fail?

      Fortunately, those better equipped than I are already attempting to do so. A study conducted between 2005 and 2006, entitled “When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misconceptions,” sought to analyze the impact of factual information on participants’ misconceptions (including the ideas that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, G.W. Bush banned stem cell research and tax cuts increase government revenue). Researchers found that, among the most ideologically conservative participants, receiving factual information about the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the lack of correlation between tax cuts and increased government revenue not only failed to correct their misconceptions, but actually strengthened their belief in them. The researchers called this “the backfire effect.” Among liberals, misconceptions were neither corrected nor strengthened by access to information to the contrary.

      The study authors suggest that the phenomenon of “motivated reasoning” may explain why misconceptions were not corrected, and in some cases were even strengthened, by contradicting information. Motivated reasoning is the unconscious process by which people interpret, accept and dismiss information in a way that contributes to some goal, and is the focus of much of Yale Law professor Dan Kahan’s research. Kahan explains that motivated reasoning can have diverse goals, including preserving one’s position within a group, maintaining a certain self-image and abating anxiety or dissonance. There are a number of ways in which motivated reasoning plays out: biased information search (seeking out or giving more weight to information that confirms one’s stance), biased assimilation (discrediting evidence to the contrary of one’s stance) and identity-protective cognition (dismissing evidence that would cause one anxiety or dissonance) are three primary styles noted by Kahan. . .

      ENTIRE COMMENTARY – http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/01/05/when-facts-fail-can-we-change-hearts-and-minds/

  5. JWalters
    January 2, 2016, 7:30 pm

    It is not credible that a few religious fanatics can keep America perpetually on the brink of war. Who is providing the financial, political muscle, and WHY?

    • Mooser
      January 3, 2016, 12:03 pm

      “It is not credible that a few religious fanatics can keep America perpetually on the brink of war. Who is providing the financial, political muscle, and WHY?”

      The US MIC, including the military, its associated contractors and industry, and assisted for the worst of reasons and ways by the media, pretty much runs its own foreign policy.

      • JWalters
        January 3, 2016, 5:56 pm

        “assisted for the worst of reasons and ways by the media”

        ?

      • Mooser
        January 3, 2016, 6:33 pm

        “assisted for the worst of reasons and ways by the media”

        Yes, I should have written it out completely as “assisted in the worst of ways and for the worst of reasons by the media”.

    • Kris
      January 3, 2016, 5:28 pm

      War seems to be even more profitable than the pharmaceutical and insurance industries.

      Who benefits? Who loses?

      US elites benefit. Owners of military contractors benefit the most ($711,000,000 the last day of 2015 alone, nearly $40 million per hour around the clock), and they share their largesse with those who serve them best—friendly bellicose politicians, persuasive media, high-level military officers.

      Iraqis, now Syrians, and by extension even the Europeans who are now awash in refugees from the wars we help foment, and the US taxpayer, and, documented by a Brown University study, the US job seeker—these are the losers.

      Every $billion spent on the military is a significant job loss, since taxpayer money spent on education, health care, clean energy development, or infrastructure upkeep creates many more well paying jobs for Americans.
      http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/01/01/you-say-isil-i-say-isis-lets-call-the-whole-thing-off/

      • JWalters
        January 4, 2016, 5:56 pm

        Thanks for the link. A little recap on MIC history:

        Marine Major General Smedley Butler said he spent more time as an enforcer for U.S. corporations than defending America or democracy. Thus aware, he foiled a Wall Street coup attempt against FDR. (That story is somehow left out of American History texts and classes.)

        Colonel Fletcher Prouty described how the CIA literally manufactured wars in the Philippines and Vietnam, seen from his position as a top military liaison to the CIA.

        The Iraq war was manufactured, we know from many sources. It couldn’t and wouldn’t have been manufactured without the MIC.

        General Wesley Clark revealed insider Pentagon plans for war against a half dozen other countries in the Middle East after Iraq.

        General and Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, after considerable experience at the highest levels of the military AND government, issued a dire warning to Americans about the potential for a degree of takeover by the Military Industrial Congressional Complex. (He left “Congressional” out of his final speech.)

        Abraham Lincoln was concerned about the potential political power of the large profits being made on the Civil War. Tom Paine warned about war profiteers back in 1790, when large profits had been made on European wars for centuries.

        How are Americans kept unaware of all this? It can only be because the media is also controlled by people who want it kept hidden. And who would that be?

        The banks sit at the hub of the financial wheel, because every company needs a banker. They see and know more than anybody else. They are the insider’s insider. Insurance company VP Wendell Potter told how, through information and financial control, they set the rip-off priorities of the insurance companies.

        Reformed banker John Perkins told how the bankers would approach a new president in a third world country with an offer of either millions for himself and his family, or a bullet. As necessary, the CIA, or even the US Marines would be called in.

        President Franklin Roosevelt told Americans that the big bankers were gangsters, “banksters” in his vivid word. And their coup attempt against President Roosevelt might have succeeded were they not foiled by Marine Major General Smedley Butler.

  6. W.Jones
    January 3, 2016, 12:31 am

    some of the crazy conspiracy theories that are popular in Israel about the murder (like Rabin set it up, that the secret service did it, that the conspiracy went awry…)

    What do you mean “crazy”? 30% of Israelis believe those theories.

    • RoHa
      January 3, 2016, 5:48 pm

      Are you suggesting that 30% of Israelis are not crazy? Gross overestimate, surely.

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