Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel
(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.