KILLING THE KING: THE ASSASSINATION OF YITZCHAK RABIN AND THE REMAKING OF ISRAEL by Dan Ephron

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The past few weeks has witnessed an increase in violence between Palestinians and Israelis.  Palestinians have resorted to lone wolf knife attacks against innocent Israeli citizens and the Israeli response has been to kill the perpetrators on the spot.  The lack of any progress toward negotiations is part of the reason for the uptick in violence that has led to the current situation.  The current climate of violence and extremism in the region also has contributed to the lack of any progress between the two sides.  The failure of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians since the heady days of 1993 when the Oslo Accords were signed are long gone.  It was at that time under the leadership of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin that the hope that the conflict might finally be settled was spreading among Israelis and Palestinians, but the assassination of Rabin on November 4, 1995 put an end to the process and led to a spiraling of events that bring us to the current impasse and violence.  Understanding the mindset that led to Rabin’s death is important in trying to make sense of the tragedy.  For the first time in Israeli history a political assassination occurred whereby an Israeli killed an Israeli.  Dan Ephron’s new book, KILLING THE KING: THE ASSASSINATION OF YITZCHAK RABIN AND THE REMAKING OF ISRAEL provides an intimate picture of the fissures that exist in Israeli society and politics.  The book would be considered a political thriller if it were fiction, the problem is that the narrative is true.

(The handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat that sealed the Oslo Accords on September 13, 1993)

Ephron’s premise that the assassination of Rabin put an end to any realistic peace process following his death is accurate and shifted the Israeli approach to negotiations from the pragmatists like Shimon Peres and Rabin to the ideologues like Benjamin Netanyahu.  Critics of the peace process argue that Yasir Arafat would not have delivered on his promises after the signing of Oslo II that gave the Palestinians control of seven cities in the West Bank, including Hebron, in the same way he turned down the deal offered by Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton in 2000.  It appeared that a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza was very possible in November, 1995, but because of the actions of Yigal Amir, a religious extremist and ideologue, who assassinated Rabin we will never know.  Ephron a Newsweek bureau chief in Jerusalem has written an important book that describes the two years that led up to Rabin’s death and the implications for the period that followed.  A period that saw the peace process stymied by violence and intransigence from both sides of the conflict.

Ephron describes in detail the right wing reaction in Israel to the secret negotiations that resulted in the Oslo Accords of 1993 between the Israeli government and the Palestinians.  He further describes the violence that was initiated by extremists on both sides whether Hamas suicide attacks and Israeli settler actions like that of Baruch Goldstein.  The treaty signing itself is evidence how difficult future negotiations would be as Rabin was very wary of Arafat and the agreement had numerous holes in it that had to be dealt with in future negotiations.  But as talks progressed the Israeli settler movement saw it as a threat to their future existence.  It would take a long time for the people around the Israeli Prime Minister to realize that he faced extreme danger because of his authorship of the peace process with the Palestinians, once they did Rabin himself did not want to cooperate with increased protection.  One thing is clear that as soon as Oslo was made public, Yigal Amir believed that Rabin’s actions were treason.

(Yigal Amir in October, 2010, seventeen years into his life sentence for assassinating Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin)

Amir whose family had immigrated to Israel from Yemen, grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish home and attended strictly orthodox schools.  Upon graduating from high school he turned down a religious deferment and joined the Israeli Defense Force, spending his time in Gaza during the Intifada of 1988 were his belief that Arabs would kill Jews at every opportunity, was reaffirmed and that only ruthless reprisals would deter them.  Ephron does a nice job tracing the evolution of Amir’s beliefs.  He came to the conclusion in a broader theological doctrine, “one that empowered him to judge for himself – to “fathom God’s Will” – whether political leaders were honoring the Bible or violating it.” (39)  Amir believed that Jews had an obligation to settle the West Bank and Gaza rather than wait for God to secure their sovereignty over the territory and any politician who blocked this went against the will of God.  Amir would set up a group of students called, “Students for Security,” and actively worked to create a militia to defend the rights of settlers.  As rabbis began to preach that soldiers did not have to obey orders by the government to dismantle settlements arguing, “Even if the king orders you to violate the laws of the Torah, it is forbidden to obey,” fostered an already volatile situation.

Amir’s anger was also fueled by the social schisms that existed in Israeli society.  Ephron is quite accurate when he describes the resentments that existed between the Ashkenazi, Eastern European ethnicity of Israel’s ruling class up until 1977, of which Rabin was an example, with Sephardim, Jews who had emigrated from Arab countries when Israel was created who suffered many years of discrimination.  The fact that Amir’s family was from Yemen just exacerbated his feelings.  The core of Amir’s belief rests on the Talmudic argument that would justify his assassination of Rabin.  The Talmudic concept of “rodef” referred to a person who pursues another person with the intent to kill them, “rodef” means the pursuer.  “The law of   the pursuer, or “din rodef” permitted a bystander to kill the aggressor in order to save innocent victims.”  Amir rationalized that Rabin fit the definition of “rodef” as his policies were a threat to the safety of settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.  Amir also decided that Rabin “was a  ‘moser’, a person who handed Jews over to a hostile power, in this case the newly formed Palestinian Authority.” (94-5)  Amir argued that he had the right to kill Rabin on order to save the settlers.  This argument was already surfacing in the extreme religious press and among certain rabbis thereby reaffirming Amir’s beliefs.

Ephron presents a detailed narrative in how Amir stalked Rabin for three years and how he had missed at least three opportunities to kill him.  Ephron will take the reader inside the Israeli intelligence community as it belatedly came to realize the threat the religious right presented as they demonstrated and constantly referred to Rabin as a Nazi, a traitor, and murderer at rallies and sit in at his residence and the Knesset (Israeli parliament).  Ephron walks the reader through the murder in real time and once it takes place it is difficult for Israelis to accept the fact that one of their own killed the Prime Minister.  What is most disturbing about the assassination is Amir’s attitude after he is captured.  He is euphoric and proud of himself and firmly believes that he has saved Israel from its own government.  Amir details to interrogators his beliefs and exactly how he went about murdering Rabin and shows no remorse.  For Amir and his followers “Rabin had defied biblical injunctions and undermined the redemption process that messianists believed had been underway since 1967.” (161)  Following the assassination Ephron analyzes the investigations and recriminations that resulted from Rabin’s murder.  He also delves into the politics that pitted Peres against Netanyahu that saw the Likud candidate victorious in the next election thereby ending any possibility that peace talks would be successful in the future.

The book is very disturbing when one thinks about the future of peace in the region.  The current government of Benjamin Netanyahu is dependent upon the right wing settler movement for his coalition government, as was evidenced by his racial appeal during the last election.  Netanyahu was a leader of the Likud Party in 1995 and many argue assisted in stirring the pot against Rabin that resulted in his assassination.  I cannot imagine that the current Israeli government will take part in any meaningful negotiations, as if it does its coalition would likely collapse.  Ephron’s book may read like a political thriller, but it is a description of the reality of Israeli politics and society which seems split down the middle in its attitude toward peace.

(The aftermath of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin on November 4, 1995)

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