December 1995, Pages 6, 100-102
Rabin Assassination Sharpens Choice Facing His Country
By Richard H. Curtiss
"[Assassin Yigal Amir] was as Israeli as hummus pie. He's not a lone anything—he's exactly a product of the extremist Orthodox-nationalist culture that he comes from. He was trained by his rabbis, and as far as I'm concerned, he pulled the trigger for them. Sure he's insane, but they're insane too. This is not Lee Harvey Oswald. He didn't come from nowhere. He's the boy next door."—Israeli author Ze'ev Chafets, November 1995.
"For two years now we have been hearing from some right-wing Israelis that 'the people' do not want this peace and that God forbids any contact between Jews and the Palestine Liberation Organization...It is typical of religious fanatics, whether Christian, Muslim or Jew, that the 'orders' they get from God are always, essentially, one order: Thou shalt kill. The god of all fanatics sounds more like the devil."
—Israeli author Amos Oz, Washington Post , Nov. 12, 1995.
"Unless these extremists stop corrupting the souls of young children, destroy their Baruch Goldstein memorials, and keep their radical opinions strictly to themselves, they must be collectively excommunicated." —Ehud Sprinzak, author of The Ascendance of Israel's Radical Right, Washington Post, Nov. 12, 1995.
"There are enemies of peace who are trying to hurt us in order to torpedo the peace process. I want to say bluntly that we have found a partner for peace among the Palestinians...the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was an enemy, and has ceased to engage in terrorism...For Israel there is no path that is without pain. But the path of peace is preferable to the path of war."—From Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's final speech delivered at the Tel Aviv peace rally where he was killed on Nov. 4, 1995.
If Yitzhak Rabin had lived, what would he have done between Saturday, Nov. 4, 1995, the day he was killed at a peace rally in Tel Aviv by two bullets from the gun of an assassin from Israel's religious-nationalist movement, and May 1999, when the third and final stage of implementing the Oslo accords was to be completed? First, there is no doubt he would have completed the second-stage withdrawals from nine West Bank towns and cities and 415 villages to clear the way for Palestinian elections, presently scheduled for January 1996.
Then, with a new Palestinian National Council legitimized by elections in the West Bank and Gaza, he would have begun the final-stage negotiations as scheduled in May 1996. It is unlikely, however, that Rabin would have rushed into making hard compromises on the outstanding issues—Jerusalem, the status of Palestinian refugees from 1948 and 1967, the final borders of Israel and the new Palestinian entity, the nature of that entity (independent state, confederation with Jordan, economic union with Israel, or all of the above), and water sharing. Nor, it appeared, was Rabin ready immediately to make the only settlement possible with Syria: full Israeli withdrawal from Syria's Golan Heights in return for full peace with and recognition of Israel by Syria.
Instead Rabin probably would have dragged out the negotiations with the Palestinians and allowed the Jewish settlers to continue expanding and consolidating their settlements while harassing their Palestinian neighbors until after Israel's own elections, scheduled for November 1996. If the Palestinians remained calm, a majority of Israel's evenly divided electorate might have become convinced they could have all of the benefits of peace without making major sacrifices.
If, on the other hand, there were more bus bombings or other killings of Israeli civilians or soldiers, Rabin probably would have cracked down hard, closing off the newly created West Bank enclaves from the surrounding Israeli-patrolled countryside, Jerusalem and Israel just as he had closed off Gaza repeatedly during the previous year. In doing so he would have been betting that he could create such economic hardships for the blockaded Palestinians that public opinion within the enclaves would turn just as decisively against West Bank Palestinians resisting the peace agreement as it had in Gaza, where support for Hamas's religiously motivated resistance has dwindled to less than 20 percent of the Palestinian electorate, and support for the leftist "rejectionists" of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine has nearly vanished.
An Internal Script
In the script Rabin carried only in his head, all this would have led to a significant election victory in late 1996 for his Labor ticket and its Meretz allies so that, with the support of the "Arab" parties and perhaps the co-opting of a religious party, he would have had a comfortable majority in the Knesset to back him in the hard bargaining to come at the peace table before 1999.
Only after such an election victory would the world have learned what he really intended to do with the Jewish settlers, whose armed and obstructionist presence on the West Bank truly is "an obstacle to peace," as so many U.S. presidents prior to Bill Clinton called them. The world also would have learned for the first time whether or not Rabin truly was willing to give the Palestinians back "lands seized in the recent conflict [of June 1967]" as called for in U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 of Nov. 22, 1967, or whether he actually believed that Yasser Arafat would settle for an agreement that would give his people even less than the 22 percent of the Mandate of Palestine that a total Israeli withdrawal from all of the West Bank and Gaza would provide. And, finally, the Israelis would have learned whether Rabin's repeated assurances that Jerusalem would remain "the eternal, undivided capital of Israel" meant that the Muslim and Christian Palestinians would be excluded from the city holy to three faiths, or whether in fact he would have agreed to a condominium arrangement whereby the city could become the capital of both a Palestinian and a Jewish state.
It is easy to list the compromises for peace that Israel still must make to integrate itself both economically and politically into the Middle East. It also is obvious that if anyone could sell those compromises to the Israeli public, it was Rabin. What no one can say, however, is whether he would have won the 1996 election and, had he done so, whether in the end he would have taken his victory as a mandate to eject the militant Jewish settlers from the West Bank and Gaza lands that must be traded back to the Palestinians, or instead would have tried to keep the Palestinians confined in their tiny West Bank bantustans, and locked out of Jerusalem entirely.
That is the choice that now faces his successors. The first such successor, Rabin's long-time rival within his own Labor political party, Shimon Peres, very likely will benefit from the wave of backlash sympathy for Labor and its program generated by the assassination. A month before that tragedy an Israeli Yediot Ahronot poll showed the Israeli electorate was almost equally divided, with 51 percent supporting the Oslo II agreement and 47 percent opposing it. A poll taken in the week that followed Rabin's death showed that if elections were held then, Acting Prime Minister Peres would receive 54 percent of the vote while Likud leader Benyamin Netanyahu would receive only 23 percent. Even more stunning is the fact that in the immediate aftermath of the assassination 74 percent of the formerly divided Israelis said the Israeli government should continue putting into effect the accord with the Palestinians, while only 23 percent said it should not.
Given such initial reactions, it is no wonder that Netanyahu, who only a month ago had good reason to believe he could win in the national elections next November, offered no objection to the assumption by Peres of responsibility for forming an interim government. Netanyahu has no desire to precipitate early elections, while sympathy for Rabin and the peace effort is so strong. For his part Peres, aware of how quickly external events like a terrorist bomb in an Israeli bus can change volatile Israeli public opinion, may find it hard to resist the temptation to find a reason to hold earlier elections while sympathy for him, as Rabin's partner in the search for peace, remains high.
In pursuing the scheduled withdrawals and negotiations, however, he is going to have to begin reining in the settlers, who before the assassination were planning physically to obstruct such withdrawals by having religious-nationalist rabbis tell Israeli soldiers it is a sin to withdraw from Jewish occupied land, and continue telling their followers that any Israeli soldier who tries to force a Jew off his land can be shot by his fellow Jews.
In dealing with the settlers Peres almost certainly will start with the the most obnoxious group of them, who also appear to be deeply involved in the conspiracy that led to Rabin's assassination, on the third try, by 25-year-old Yigal Amir, an Israeli-born Jewish university student of Yemeni ancestry whose brother, Hagai Amir, also is accused of preparing and hiding arms for the assassination as well as for deadly attacks on West Bank Palestinians. These most visible and violent settlers are the 400 armed Jewish militants terrorizing 100,000 unarmed Palestinian residents of Hebron, and the spiritual backers of those settlers in the adjoining religious settlement of Kiryat Arba.
Netanyahu has no desire to precipitate early elections.
American-born Dr. Baruch Goldstein, murderer of 29 Palestinian men and boys at prayer in the spring of 1994, lived in Kiryat Arba. The settlers there have turned his grave into a shrine, from which they sell memorabilia and T-shirts honoring Goldstein to visitors, a large percentage of whom come from Jewish nationalist support groups in the United States. The Kiryat Arba settlers, who regularly descend into Hebron to smash Palestinian autos and fire their automatic weapons into crowded Palestinian streets and houses, follow another religious fanatic, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, who leads by example. Some years ago his wild shooting down a crowded shopping street in Hebron killed a Palestinian shoe shop owner. Levinger personally has led repeated subsequent shooting sprees that have seriously wounded other Palestinian men, women and children.
Those who think Peres does not have the stomach to deal forcefully with the settlers, a political risk that Rabin had chosen to postpone, have forgotten that in the 1970s it was Peres who campaigned as a hawk who would keep the entire West Bank while his Labor movement rival, Rabin, was willing to exchange it for peace with Israel's Arab neighbors.
After that, however, the brilliant but sometimes mercurial Peres tried to launch a peace movement with the Palestinians and Jordan when he was prime minister between 1984 and 1986. He was thwarted then by his Likud partners in a Labor-Likud coalition government. Subsequently, as finance minister in the same Labor-Likud coalition, Peres sought to implement major free-market reforms in Israel's quasi-socialist economy, an effort that also largely failed due to opposition from both Likud and Labor colleagues.
There is no doubt that Peres has the vision of what would be possible for an Israel at peace with all of its Middle East neighbors, and the daring to make it a reality. It was his oratory, far more than that of the stolid but trusted old soldier Rabin, that lent magic and meaning to the first White House signing ceremony for Oslo I on Sept. 13, 1993.
What remains to be seen, however, is how the seeming reversals of course by Peres, who never served as a soldier, will be viewed by the Israeli electorate over the next few months. Prior to Rabin's assassination, Peres' flashes of bold inspiration were viewed by many Israelis as self-serving opportunism and illustrative of a lack of principles. The final answer to how the electorate now views Peres' necessary actions in pursuit of peace will come only when Israelis go to the polls.
If Peres and/or the younger rising stars of the Labor party are defeated, it will be because American-raised Benyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu has convinced Israeli voters that they cannot sacrifice land for peace, or need not do so in order to keep the American financial support that has made economic reform unneccessary, and the political and military support that has made it impossible for the Arab states to defeat Israel militarily.
In fighting his way rapidly to the top of the Likud, 41-year-old Netanyahu has made wide policy swings of his own. However, none of them bode well for the Palestinians, their neighbors, or peace. Netanyahu, like his Likud predecessors Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, has vowed to give up "not one inch" of land for peace. Prior to the Sept. 28 White House signing of the Oslo II agreement he also threatened repeatedly to rescind all agreements the Rabin government had concluded with the Palestinians, saying commitments made by Israel's Labor government would not be binding on a Likud successor government.
After the Chinese Tienanman Square massacre, Netanyahu publicly deplored the fact that while international attention was focused on China, the Israeli government had missed an opportunity to "transfer" the Palestinians by force into Jordan or Lebanon. Right-wingers in Likud and the like-minded Moledet party aver that such an involuntary expulsion of 1.2 million Palestinians from the West Bank and some 900,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel is the only way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in Israel's favor. Such a movement, which would involve tens of thousands of deaths and create more Palestinian refugees than the upheavals of 1948 and 1967 combined, would almost certainly ignite a new Middle Eastern conflagration. That, inevitably, would invite a rain of missiles, some bearing chemical, biological or even nuclear warheads, on Israel's cities—particularly if there no longer were Arab residents in any of those cities or nearby territories.
As he saw the real possibility of a 1996 Likud victory growing, Netanyahu had begun toning down his rhetoric somewhat, even before the assassination. Admitting that renouncing Israel's signature at the White House on two separate agreements with the Palestinians would be a violation of international law (not to mention discrediting Israel for all time), Netanyahu stated simply that there would be no more territorial concessions. He also made it clear that the settlements that gradually are precluding such compromises would remain and expand.
Meanwhile, by writing a book on international terrorism and traveling around the world to publicize it, Netanyahu has advanced the theory that Israel's war with both Sunni and Shi'i Islam, which he describes as the sources of two "networks" of "international terrorism," will continue into the indefinite future. The fact that that war pits Israel's five million people against the Muslim world's one billion is ignored. Also ignored is the possibility that the United States might have better things to do with the vast amounts of money and arms it would have to continue providing the Israelis than simply invest in an endless and pointless "clash of civilizations" in which neither mainstream Muslims nor Christians express any interest.
As Israel's post-assassination trauma plays itself out, however, a number of myths are being promulgated, particularly in the American press, which seems unwilling to discard the idealized and palpably false image it created of modern Israel during that country's turbulent first 47 years of existence.
Dr. Israel Shahak is a European Holocaust survivor who moved to Israel to teach chemistry at Hebrew University after World War II. By indefatigibly translating into English over many years many articles from Israel's Hebrew-language press that were not meant for Western eyes, he has become a major deflator of Israel's made-for-export national mythology. The writer once asked him if, because of his gadfly role, he feared for his life in Jerusalem. "No," he answered, "as an Israeli Jew I do not need to take precautions, but as a non-Jew (and frequent critic of Israel), you should."
This point of view subsequently was elaborated in Dr. Shahak's book, Jewish History, Jewish Religion , published in 1994. In it he explained how the religious-nationalist extremists at the heart of the settler movement in Israel interpret Judaism as providing a license to kill non-Jews, but still place a prohibition on the taking of Jewish life. For proof Americans had only to look at the 1,418 deaths of Palestinians at the hands of Israeli soldiers and settlers since 1987, none of which had occasioned serious soul-searching among Israelis, outside of the minority in Israel's peace movement.
The specter of Jew killing Jew is by no means unprecedented in Israel's brief history.
The widespread shock over Prime Minister Rabin's death among Israelis and their Jewish supporters abroad gives credence to Dr. Shahak's thesis. There is a strange irony in the rhetorical questions now being raised among Israeli and American Jews alike as to whether Jews in Israel had become "a nation of killers." The question was not raised during Israel's many wars in which perhaps 200,000 Arabs died, nor even after admissions earlier this year by prominent Israeli ex-soldiers that they had ordered the mass executions of disarmed and defenseless Egyptian military and civilian prisoners during both the 1956 and 1967 Israel strikes into Sinai. After all of this bloodshed, seemingly it is only the Rabin murder that has impelled most Israelis into a period of national introspection.
Even this has given rise to yet another myth. The specter of Jew killing Jew is by no means unprecedented in modern Israel's brief history, despite the reluctance of the American media to report this fact. Within the tiny Jewish community in Palestine after World War I, Jacob Israel de Haan, spokesman for an ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious party that opposed Zionism, was gunned down as he left a synagogue in 1924. His assassins, who were never arrested, were believed to have been carrying out a death warrant promolgated by the Haganah, the mainstream Jewish militia that became the Israeli army when Israel proclaimed its independence on May 14, 1948.
Still in the pre-independence period, Labor Party leader Haim Arlosoroff was killed while walking with his wife on a Tel Aviv beach in 1933 by two assassins believed to be right-wing Jewish nationalists. They were tried by British authorities but acquitted for lack of evidence.
Another famous assassination was that of Eliahu Giladi, a member of the underground extremist Lehi militia, known to the British army it fought against throughout World War II as the Stern Gang. Lehi leader and future Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who never denied his role in ordering and planning the assassinations of Lord Moyne, British military governor in the Middle East during World War II, and Count Folke Bernadotte, the Swedish diplomat and U.N. Palestine mediator in 1948, also has admitted he ordered the assassination of Giladi, who had been one of his closest colleagues, and a rival for Lehi leadership. Shamir denies, however, that he personally fired the fatal shots, although there is much anecdotal evidence to support the charge.
Yitzhak Rabin himself unquestioningly carried out Haganah orders to sink, with the loss of 15 Jewish lives, a ship called the Altalena , which was bringing Jewish refugees to Israel during that country's war of independence. The ship was sunk to prevent it from landing because it also was carrying arms that Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, feared would fall into the hands of another Jewish underground group, the Irgun Zvai Leumi, headed by future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Begin himself ordered the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which served as a British headquarters during the pre-independence period. Besides British and Arab deaths, a number of Jewish employees in the building also were killed.
And, during the 1948 fighting, members of one Haganah unit decided after a drumhead trial to execute one of their own officers on charges of consorting with the enemy. The charges subsequently were proved to be totally unfounded. (By contrast, during World War II with 15 million Americans under arms, U.S. forces executed one soldier for desertion, but only after he refused to return to his unit in the front lines in Europe in December 1944, and no U.S. military personnel were executed on espionage charges throughout the war.)
In 1949 and 1957 Jewish political opponents tried, unsuccessfully, to murder Ben-Gurion during Knesset sessions. Also, since Israel obtained its independence, Jews have been killed by Jews there over alleged collaboration with the Nazis in World War II. As recently as February 1983, during a demonstration by Israeli peace activists protesting Israel's invasion of Lebanon, a hand grenade thrown into the demonstrating crowd killed left-wing protestor Emil Grunzweig. No one has ever been charged in that killing.
In short, all three of Israel's most recent prime ministers have been personally implicated in the killing of Jews by Jews. And, if the killing of Jews by Jews for political reasons is not unprecedented in Israel, neither is the rhetoric calling for political murders. Rabbis associated with the settler movement, which includes less than 2 percent of Israel's population but which enjoys the support of perhaps another 15 percent of Israelis, repeatedly have called for the killing of both Rabin and Peres, not to mention the killing of Israeli military personnel carrying out any future orders to evacuate Jews from West Bank settlements
Rabbi Levinger of Kiryat Arba has accused Rabin of "crimes against the Jewish people," the same phraseology used to describe the deeds of German Nazis during World War II. Likud leader Netanyahu, who has visited the settlers of Hebron to show his solidarity with them said, "This minority [government] is dragging the nation to the brink of an awful abyss, without asking the people, without being authorized by them, without so much as even seeking a mandate...You, Mr. Prime Minister, are going to go down in history as the prime minister who established an army of Palestinian terrorists."
Former army chief of staff General Ariel Sharon, who was active in Likud until his defeat by Netanyahu for Likud leadership, has compared the Rabin government with the Jewish community councils in Europe whose World War II collaboration with the Nazis is widely blamed in Israel for facilitating the vast slaughter of Jews during the European Holocaust. In the religious-nationalist circles within which Amir and his alleged collaborators moved, rabbis justified their calls for the murder of Rabin on grounds that he was violating Talmudic prohibitions against giving up Jewish land to Gentiles. They also invoked a Talmudic enjoinder to Jews to kill any Jew who puts the community in danger.
Avishai Raviv, organizer of the Eyal group with which Amir allegedly was affiliated, and who has admitted to the police who arrested him that he had heard Amir speak of killing Israel's prime minister, has hardly been passive himself. Raviv, who like Amir was a student at Bar Ilan University, which combines religious and secular studies, has twice previously been arrested on suspicion of murdering Palestinian Arabs. He was not convicted in either case.
Among American supporters of the settlers of the religious right, talk of murdering leaders of Israel's Labor government was perhaps even more common. Rabbi Abraham Hecht of the Sephardic Shaare Zion synagogue in Brooklyn was one of 25 "top" representatives of the New York Jewish community nominated to take their concerns to Pope John Paul II last Oct. 7 during the Pope's recent visit to New York. The invitation came despite the fact that Rabbi Hecht had openly sanctioned in advance the assassination of Rabin as a traitor to Israel.
A White House Invitation
Manfred Lehman, a Jewish lay leader and recipient in September of the Menachem Begin Leadership Award from Likud USA, was a guest at a Sept. 15 White House dinner for Jewish donors to the 1992 Clinton election campaign, to which Lehman had contributed $40,000. Yet Lehman last March had paid for a full-page advertisement in The Jewish Week of New York on the first anniversary of the mass murder by Dr. Baruch Goldstein in Hebron calling upon American Jews "to honor Goldstein's memory as a Jewish patriot." At the White House Lehman told Hillary Rodham Clinton that her speech at the U.N.-sponsored women's conference in Beijing last summer had inspired Israel's anti-peace protestors. He told Clinton that the peace process threatened Israel's existence. No one returned Lehman's political donation or refused his political advertisement.
After the assassination a telephone hotline was set up in New York to raise funds for Yigal Amir's defense. Moshe Gross, a member of an Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn who is directing the hot line, told the New York Times that the fund-raising effort had been initiated by Orthodox Jews who consider Amir "a hero." Said Gross, "We have watched all these Jews grieving over the killing of Mr. Rabin and we would like to surprise the world with the news that many Jews are glad."
Nor is mourning for Rabin by any means universal in Israel. Although U.S. media were quick to report celebrations of the assassination among opponents of the peace process in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Gaza, little was made of reports in the Israeli press of the widespread celebrations in Jewish West Bank settlements. Yet, according to Dr. Shahak, initial polls in Israel indicate that some 19 percent of Israelis support the assassination.
Israelis are entitled to their period of introspection, following the shock of the Rabin assassination. They may finally admit that the level of civil discourse broke down, possibly irreparably, long before the rise of the settler movement in what Israel's American friends like to call the Middle East's "only working democracy."
What might be equally appropriate would be some introspection among those same American friends of Israel, especially the American Jews who have funded the settler movement since its beginning, and out of whose ranks have come most of its leaders and many of its followers. Even more appropriate might be some introspection among America's non-Jewish political leaders who, for domestic political advantage, have never moved to reduce the excessive American taxpayer aid that makes the settlements possible, or to curb the private American Jewish donations that fund Israel's murderous ultra-nationalists.
Finally, it might behoove such American media apologists for Israeli extremism as syndicated columnists Charles Krauthammer and A. M. Rosenthal to spend some moments meditating over why no one in the mainstream U.S. press thought it worthy of discussion that America's president did not return a huge political donation from a Jewish leader who later condoned mass murder in a Hebron mosque, but instead invited Manfred Lehman to dinner in the White House. Such second thoughts in America as well as Israel might improve political comity in America. They are absolutely essential, however, for the recovery of Israel, and for continuation of the vitally important Middle East peace process.
Richard H. Curtiss is the executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.