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PoliticsMiddle East

Yitzhak Rabin's murder still casts its shadow

Tania Krämer
November 4, 2020

25 years ago, former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in Tel Aviv by a Jewish extremist. It left an indelible mark on Israeli politics and society still felt today.

Israelis behind a memorial of Yitzhak Rabin
Image: Sven Nackstrand/picture-alliance/dpa

On the evening of November 4, 1995, tens of thousands gathered in Tel Aviv for a rally on the Square of the Kings of Israel, now known as Rabin Square.

Then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had doubted whether enough people would turn out for the pro-peace rally planned for that evening. Palestinian terror attacks were a regular event and incitement from the right-wing camp against him and his politics had been simmering for weeks.

At the event, Rabin spoke about his plan to make peace with the Palestinians. The huge crowd cheered him. "This evening proves that Israelis want peace," Rabin said, seeming almost relieved, to a reporter. And then, as he walked down from the stage towards his waiting car, he was hit by two bullets. A young Israeli extremist, Yigal Amir, shot Rabin at close range. He believed the prime minister was a traitor. Shortly afterwards, Rabin was pronounced dead at a hospital in Tel Aviv.

25 years later, that fateful evening remains so deeply imprinted upon Israel's collective memory that many Israelis can still remember where they were when is happened. Uri Dromi, then director at the government press office, was at the cinema in Jerusalem when the news broke. He rushed back to Tel Aviv. "Then I heard on the radio that Rabin had died. From that moment on, I was like a machine, I didn't feel anything. I just thought that I had to take care of the all coverage of the funeral with hundreds of journalists."

Only at the funeral, two days later, did it really sink in: "Suddenly, the coffin is brought in. That was the moment that I understood that in this coffin lies my hero, Yitzhak Rabin. And then, like everybody else, I started to cry. It dawned on me this is it."

Read moreIn Israel, unclear legacy of assassinated Premier Rabin

From a firm 'No' to the Oslo peace process

After a tenure as prime minister in the 1970's, Rabin, leader of Israel's Labor Party, held the post for a second time in 1992 and formed a Labor-led coalition government. At that time, at least officially, there was no talk of peace with the Palestinians. "We used to parrot the party line that we would never talk to the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) because the PLO is a terror organization", says Dromi. "I remember my shock when I woke up in the morning to find out that Rabin authorized the secret channels in Oslo to reconcile with the PLO."

Rabin, Arafat and Clinton shaking hands
The Oslo peace talks failed to provide the ultimate breakthrough to achieve peaceImage: J. David Ake/AFP/Getty Images

Behind the scenes, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators had gathered in the Norwegian capital Oslo to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On September 13, 1993, Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat ratified the Declaration of Principles (or Oslo I Accord) at the White House in Washington, under the auspices of US president Bill Clinton.

Read moreIsraelis and Palestinians lament Oslo Accord deadlock, 25 years on

"On this specific flight to Washington he couldn't sleep. He was restless. He knew he was going there to do something which was against everything he stood for. He had fought the Arabs all his life," remembers Dromi. But he concluded that making peace with the Palestinians will promote Israel's security, although "he wasn't sure it was going to work." In Washington, Rabin ended up writing history with the words: "We who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today in a loud and clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough."

Rabin: From hawk to dove

For many years, Rabin was known as a hawk, throughout his career as a soldier and later when he became a politician. From 1948, he excelled in the military as commander and later as chief of staff. As defense minister in the mid-1980's, he created the "Iron Fist" policy in the occupied Palestinian Territories and developed a controversial strategy to quell Palestinian protests "by force, by might and by beatings" during the first Intifada.

His pivot to peace with the Palestinians didn't go down well at home, nor was the other side enamored with the idea. The militant Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad vehemently opposed the peace process. Suicide bombers blew themselves up in restaurants and buses in Israeli cities, killing scores of people. The Israeli right-wing camp at that time held Rabin responsible. Every week, angry crowds gathered in front of Rabin's house, shouted "Death to Rabin" and held up images of him clad in a Nazi-uniform.

"The assassination stopped Oslo at an inopportune moment. It stopped it in the interim part, and ever since, for 25 years, us and the Palestinians have been in an interim relationship", says Avraham Burg, a prominent Israeli Labor politician and head of the Jewish Agency at the time. "I think Oslo was not his legacy. He was a soldier, he was a general, he was many things, but vis-à-vis the last chapter of his life, I don't think he was a peacenik in that sense."

A bust of Yitzhak Rabin
The assassination of Rabin and the repercussions are still being felt todayImage: Bildagentur-online/Schöning/picture alliance

Rather he had a "fascinating strategic approach", Burg adds, to stop suppressing the Palestinians and to put the relationship on an equal footing.

Read moreOpinion: The two-state solution is just empty talk

Ever since the Rabin era, reaching peace with the Palestinians has been increasingly pushed to the fringes of Israeli politics. "It seems Rabin's vision is further away than ever today," says Omer Cohen, a young Israeli who took part in a recent commemoration event in Jerusalem, and who was 10-years old when Rabin was assassinated.

"Although his ideas are far away from today's mainstream. We want to say that they are still alive and are still relevant", Cohen added.