Did Rabin assassination kill the best chance for peace?

By Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East editor

image copyrightEPA
image captionMany Israelis viewed Rabin as a leader they could trust to bring peace and security

I had a talk a little while ago with a senior Israeli official about the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

My view is that Rabin's assassination, 20 years ago today, was one of the most successful political killings of the 20th Century; his assassin, Yigal Amir, wanted to destroy the Israel-Palestinian Oslo peace accords by shooting dead the only Israeli leader who had a chance of making it work.

Amir wanted to stop Israel ceding land in the occupied West Bank to Palestinian control; he believed the land was a gift from God to the Jewish people that could never be traded away. He achieved his objectives.

The Israeli official argued that Rabin's successors were just as willing to talk. They couldn't make a deal, he argued, as neither Yasser Arafat nor his successor Mahmoud Abbas would make the necessary compromises for peace.

media captionYitzhak Rabin's peace deal with the Palestinians created tension among right-wing Israelis.

Rabin's killer, a religious Jew and law student in his 20s, was convinced that he had scored a historic victory. When he was charged with the murder, Amir admitted cheerfully that he had done it. He asked for a glass of schnapps so he could toast his achievement.

Emergence of hope

The atmosphere in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in the months leading up to Rabin's assassination on 4 November 1995 was turbulent; a mixture of hope, among supporters of peace on both sides, and fear and loathing on the Israeli right-wing and within the Palestinian militants of Hamas.

I moved to Jerusalem in August 1995 to start a posting as the BBC Middle East correspondent. Wherever you went in Israeli West Jerusalem there were posters of Yitzhak Rabin, put there by Israeli opponents of the interim peace deals he had agreed with the Palestinians.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionRabin's killing by Yigal Amir - an Israeli - sent shockwaves through the country

In many of them, Rabin was made to look like Yasser Arafat, complete with a black-and-white Palestinian scarf, the keffiyeh, folded around his head in the Arafat style.

In some posters, waved at demonstrations, Israeli enemies of Rabin portrayed him as a Nazi, in the black uniform of the SS. Benjamin Netanyahu - then leader of the opposition, now prime minister - spoke at some of the most vitriolic anti-Rabin rallies.

Among the Palestinians, militants in Hamas had already started a suicide bomb campaign. They would have nothing to do with Oslo, saying it was surrender and that there could be no territorial compromise with an Israeli state they believed should not exist. Some leading intellectuals rejected it too.

But my impression in the summer of 1995 was that mainstream Palestinians and Israelis had real hope that better times were coming, that there could be a peaceful resolution of the most intractable conflict of modern times.

The extremists, though they were kicking and screaming, were being outmanoeuvred.

'The war for peace'

Yitzhak Rabin was the vital Israeli if peace was to be made. He was the man Israelis trusted most with their security.

Rabin had been a leading commander in Israel's independence war in 1948-49. In 1967, as chief of staff, Israel's most senior general, he led their armed forces to their most decisive victory over their Arab enemies.

In six days, Israel destroyed the armed forces of Jordan, Egypt and Syria. After that, like many Israeli generals, he had gone into politics.

image copyrightAFP
image captionYigal Amir wanted to scupper the agreement Rabin signed with PLO leader Yasser Arafat in 1993

Once the Oslo peace process started, he put his weight behind it in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, and internationally. This was a typical quote, from a speech in 1993:

"I, serial number 30743, Lieutenant General in reserves Yitzhak Rabin, a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces and in the army of peace, I, who have sent armies into fire and soldiers to their death, say today: We sail onto a war which has no casualties, no wounded, no blood nor suffering. It is the only war which is a pleasure to participate in - the war for peace."

Israelis listened to Rabin when he talked about making peace, because he had proved himself in uniform as a man who above all wanted his country to be secure. They listened when he said peace, not war, was the answer.

Public grief overflowed in Israel after Rabin was murdered. There was plenty of guilt too, from supporters of peace who realised that they had not defended Rabin enough when he was under verbal assault.

Missed opportunity?

Of course it is impossible to map out with certainty an alternative future for Israelis and Palestinians had Rabin lived.

media captionIsraeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on 4 November 1995

The Oslo peace process had a slow death, but I believe it contracted its fatal illness on 4 November 1995 when Yigal Amir shot Yitzhak Rabin in the back.

There was a chance of peace with the Palestinians when Rabin was alive. He was forging an unlikely understanding with Yasser Arafat, his detested old enemy. Arafat visited Leah, Rabin's widow, in Tel Aviv after the assassination to offer his condolences, and was pictured without his trademark keffiyeh.

It still might not have worked. On 4 November 1995, the night Rabin was shot dead, talks with the Palestinians were behind schedule. Rabin himself had not stated publicly that he supported the idea of a Palestinian state, though his closest aides said after his death that he knew it would be part of a final settlement.

The negotiators had not yet touched the hardest items on the agenda of any peace deal: the final borders of a Palestinian state, the future of Jerusalem, of Palestinian refugees, and of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

Different path

But between them, Rabin and Arafat might have seized the chance to make history.

Shimon Peres was sworn in as prime minister after the assassination. Instead of calling a snap election to capitalise on a surge in the polls he decided to see out the government's term. A succession of blunders followed, and so did an intensification of the Hamas suicide bombings.

On election night in 1996, Israelis went to bed thinking that Shimon Peres had secured a narrow victory over Benjamin Netanyahu.

image copyrightAFP
image captionIsrael shifted to the right after Rabin, with the election of Benjamin Netanyahu

At the Likud campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv, I saw Israeli right-wingers weeping over their hero's defeat. But when Israel woke, the final votes had given victory to Mr Netanyahu and the right. Yitzhak Rabin would most likely have beaten Mr Netanyahu. The future would have been different.

Yigal Amir is still in jail, convinced he is a national hero, campaigning for a pardon.

He was allowed to marry and fathered a son during a conjugal visit. The boy's ritual circumcision was held at Rimonim prison, 12 years to the day after the assassination.

Amir attended in handcuffs. As the 20th anniversary of the killing approached, right-wing Israeli fans of the Beitar Jerusalem football team chanted his name from the terraces.