Book is a somber warning of dangers political extremism poses to a democracy
Killing a King
By Dan Ephron
Reviewed by Steven R. Maher
Americans today are engaged in a polarizing Presidential election in which each side has demonized the other party’s presumptive nominee. Republicans and Democrats warn of the apocalyptic consequences of electing Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump President. Dan Ephron’s new book “Killing a King,” subtitled “The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel” is a somber warning of what can happen in a democratic society where such stigmatization occurs.
Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin, was a Jewish extremist. His motive in killing Rabin was to kill the peace process, in which Israel would withdraw from the territories occupied in the June 1967 six day war in exchange for peace. Aided by other extremists on both sides of the Middle East divide, Amir largely succeeded. Amir was impelled in part by denunciations which portrayed Rabin as a Nazi.
Writes Nephron: “Amir viewed the Rabin government … as intruders, purveyors of a foreign culture and a threat to Jewish existence. It mattered not that Rabin himself was Jewish, the hero of 1967, and the elected Prime Minister of Israel.”
Rabin was the first native born Israeli prime minister in the country’s history. He joined the Palmach, a Jewish armed group during the pre-state era. In 1964 he assumed command of the Israeli Defense Forces. Rabin was the Israeli Chief of Staff during the six day war in 1967, when Israel launched a pre-emptive attack and defeated the combined military forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
This military background gave Rabin credibility with the Israeli public when his government signed the September 13, 1993 Oslo accords, in which Israel agreed to withdraw from the Gaza Slip and the West Bank in a “land for peace” bargain. In a historic handshake on the White House Lawn, Rabin shook hands with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat. A little over two years later, on November 4, 1995, Rabin was assassinated while attending a peace rally by Amir. This book is the story of those two years, what motivated Amir, and how Rabin’s assassination led to the breakdown of the peace process.
The signing of the Oslo peace treaty sent ripples of hope through the Middle East. Now that it was permissible to negotiate with Israel, Jordan’s King Hussein negotiated a peace treaty with Rabin. Serious peace negotiations began with Syria. The Tel Aviv stock exchange gained more than 80% in value.
Ultras on both sides opposed making peace. Palestinian extremists in Hamas favored continuing the war until Israel was destroyed. Hamas dispatched suicide bombers deep into Israel with the avowed goal of slaughtering as many Jewish civilians as possible. Jewish religious fanatics opposed giving up the West Bank – which they referred to by the biblical names of Judea and Samaria – and wanted to preserve a “Greater Israel”, and populate the West Bank with Jewish settlers. One zealot, Baruch Goldstein, entered the Moslem section of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and shot to death twenty nine Palestinians as they were praying, and wounded over one hundred others. Rabin closed entrances to Israel from the West Bank to hinder the suicide bombers, and 60,000 Palestinians lost their jobs as a result.
“The [peace] process that was supposed to enhance Israeli security and give Palestinians more freedom and prosperity was undermining all three,” writes Ephron.
As the peace began to unravel, the Israeli right unleashed a propaganda campaign against Rabin, depicting him in a Nazi uniform. Protesters appeared outside Rabin’s home every day to chant “Rabin’s a traitor” and other anti-Rabin slogans. Rallies were organized where pictures of Rabin in Nazi uniform were burned while the crowd chanted “Death to Rabin”.
As the protests reached a crescendo, a group favoring the peace process organized one of the largest rallies in Israeli history, attended by 100,000 people. At the end of this rally, Amir shot Rabin in the back as he was going to his car.
If Rabin had lived
As is normal for any society that suffers the loss of a leader at a critical junction, many Israelis were left to question what would have happened if Rabin had lived.
“There is no doubt that he faced huge obstacles: not just the obstructionists on both sides but a problematic partner in Yasser Arafat, a waning popularity at home, and his own misgivings about the concessions of peace required of Israel,” says Ephron. “Yet those factors must be weighed against the circumstances that favored peacemaking in 1995 … Rabin probably had a better chance of forging a durable reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians than any leader before or since. That we’ll never know how close he would have come is one of the exasperating consequences of the assassination.”