I had just landed several days before in the U.S. Elana and I were in Israel leading our second Israel tour. It was only my third visit to the place I have called home for the past 15 years and I was wild-eyed and dreamy. I could not wait to move! I was intoxicated on all things Israel! It was Saturday night in the Holy Land, and about 4pm in Maryland, when I turned on the T.V.
Yitzhak Rabin, the ninth Prime Minister of Israel, had been shot dead! Despite not being a fan of Rabin’s risky policies and overtures to the PLO—I burst into tears and did not stop crying for a week.
While in Israel on the tour, many questions came up about the peace process. The right-wing political party Likud had been ousted from power because of the Intifada (the violent Palestinian uprising). Israelis wanted peace with their Arab neighbors and they didn’t think Likud had the willingness to negotiate. Shimon Peres, as foreign minister, had already persuaded King Hussein to agree to a set of principles.
In a secret meeting in a London home, the two met and got along so well that the King suggested that he and Peres do the dishes together after the meal. What a sight that would have been—the king of an Arab enemy nation doing dishes with the foreign minister of Israel. Of course, their host would have none of it.
But when Peres presented the set of principles to the prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir (of the Likud party), he was cold to the idea. Peres was stunned.
A couple years later, after the fall of the Soviet empire and the turmoil between Middle Eastern Arab nations (when Iraq conquered Kuwait), there was a feeling that peace was achievable. Rabin defeated Peres in the Labor party primaries and, once again, became prime minister of Israel (he had been prime minister in the 1970s).
Arafat comes to Israel
He set an agenda for peace with the Palestinians and the Arab nations. Arafat, a man with Jewish blood on his hands, was brought from Tunisia (he had been kicked out of Jordan and the Israelis forced him to flee Lebanon) to rule in Gaza. The PLO, a terrorist organization, was named the sole representative (as opposed to Islamic terrorist groups like Hamas) of the Palestinian people.
The feeling, around the world, was that Arafat could be rehabilitated into a statesman; that, yes, a leopard could, in fact, change his spots. It was wishful thinking. He would speak peace in English, wowing the masses, and war and terror in Arabic, appeasing the Arab world. The west said that he had to do that to save face, while the Arabs said that he was just lying to Israel. Israel put up with it because there was no one else with whom to make peace.
Who can forget the most awkward of handshakes: President Clinton in the middle, Prime Minister Rabin, with a somber face, embracing the hand of the murderer, Arafat, as he (the father of modern day terrorism) smiled.
Despite all the overtures to Arafat, terror increased. Arafat claimed he could not control the Islamic extremists, but we know that the PLO was complicit in many attacks. Israelis were starting to lose faith. Those in middle, who brought Rabin to power, were fleeing to the right, with the realization that it simply did not matter how much we wanted peace—the PLO had no interest.
A Peace Rally
In an effort to shore up support, a peace rally was announced to take place in Tel Aviv next to City Hall—at what we now called, Kikar Rabin – Rabin Square. This very square is where most demonstrations—often against Prime Minister Netanyahu—take place today. It is minutes from my house.
They came in droves and Shimon Peres said, “It was the happiest I’d ever seen him—possibly the happiest day of his life.”[i]He said he heard Rabin sing for the first time in his life. The anthem of the event was a song called Shir l’Shalom—A Song for Peace.
As the prime minister and foreign minister were about to leave, the security teams were informed of a threat against the leaders. This was nothing new. The political environment had gotten out of control. Far-right activists portrayed Rabin as a Nazi. They would have pictures of him dressed as Hitler.
They left separately and, as Peres was getting into his car, he heard three shots. Before he could find out what happened, he was pushed into his car and whisked away by security forces. Rabin was rushed to the hospital, where he died shortly thereafter.
If his death were not enough, another gut punch soon followed. It was announced that it was not an “evil, bloodthirsty Arab terrorist” who shot him, but a Orthodox Jewish man. Yigal Amir was part of a group of fanatical Jews who felt it was their duty to stop the peace process at all costs. And that they did. They believed that Jewish law allowed for this. Amir felt he was doing a mitzvah—a righteous act.
In truth, it would only have been a matter of time before it became clear that the Palestinian leadership was not serious about peace. Labor would have lost power in the next election, for sure. It was only the outpouring of compassion, because of the death of Rabin, which caused the election to be close.
A Kiss Goodbye
When Peres found out what happened he was stunned, speechless. He demanded to be taken to the hospital. His security detail refused—it was not safe. He told them that if they did not take him, he would go alone. It was only there that he found out that the shots were fatal.
“Mr. Peres,” [the doctor] said, with a crack in his voice, “I am sorry to have to say, the prime minister is dead.” It was like someone had attacked me with a knife, my chest laid bare, my heart punctured. I had forgotten how to breathe. I had just seen Rabin’s face, smiling like I’d never seen before. There was so much life in him, so much hope and promise. And now “Shir l’shalom,” our song for peace, was quite literally stained with blood—in the pages of the songbook Rabin was holding when attacked.[ii]
He walked into the room with Leah Rabin and the two of them of kissed him goodbye—the wife of his youth, and the man who was his political rival for decades, now his best friend.
Peres was sworn in as prime minister and he was urged by his party to call for early elections. He knew that he would win in the wake of the murder, but he also knew that “to call an early election was to choose to win power using the spilled blood of Rabin.”[iii]So, a year later, he lost to Benjamin Netanyahu.
Over the next few years, Arafat rejected peace deal after peace deal. It is much easier to be a freedom fighter than to actually govern your people, oversee an economy and take care of things like electricity and water.
At his funeral, President Clinton, who had become close with Rabin, ended his remarks with the phrase, Shalom Haver…Goodbye friend. For the next several years, you could see those words on bumper stickers all across the nation.
The anniversary of Rabin’s death was yesterday. I just happened, by chance, to read an account about it today as I was finishing a book (during my workout). To this day, his death affects me greatly. I could not hold back the tears—even while exercising on the elliptical machine—as I read Peres’ account of the tragedy. Suddenly, it was 23 years ago in my bedroom. I turned on the TV. “Prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin has been shot.”
[i]Peres, Shimon. No Room for Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel (p. 207). Custom House. Kindle Edition.