The Rabin Assassination - 15 Years Later

Recollections of the man who tried to save Israel - and failed.

Haaretz writers
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Haaretz writers

Ora Namir likes to tell it like this: She was a key activist in the Rabin camp, I was Peres' aide, and nevertheless a mutual friendship, not to mention a sort of love, blossomed between us by the checkout counter of the neighborhood supermarket. Only there, in line with our groceries, she says, could we speak unhindered, two secret agents from the two camps, without anyone noticing us, without anyone informing on us.

Yitzhak Rabin.Credit: Illustration by Amitai Sandy

That may be a little exaggerated, but the story still reflects the atmosphere of those days, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the time of cholera in the Labor Party: I came to Labor alongside Shimon Peres in 1978 - about a year after the big Likud election upset. A young man in my twenties, I was hoping to find greatness but found something quite different: Before long I discovered I was part of a camp within the party, at a time when Peres was, of course, against any division into camps. First we fought against the camp of Yigal Allon, a man possessed of great personal charm, who was at pains to present himself as the "No. 2 for-all-purposes." And when he died unexpectedly, in the winter of 1980, his successor and subordinate from the Palmach, Yitzhak Rabin, was called upon to wave the flag of that camp. (Awed by the big names around me, I was careful to maintain good relations with both of them, and with some of their aides, disloyal soldier that I was. )

"Call your party comrade by his first name," a poster at the entrance to the Labor Party headquarters demanded back then, at the behest of party secretary Haim Bar-Lev. So we called Rabin "Yitzhak," with the accent on the last syllable, and called Peres "Shimon," with the accent on the first syllable. This camp and that camp, it was a bloody war. When wistfully recalling Rabin and listening to Peres' eulogies of him, those accursed times should be remembered as well.

It was a dark night in 1979. Peres and I were in an Oldsmobile; Peres as usual in the front seat, myself sitting alone in the back. And then it happened: Rabin published his two-volume autobiography, out of which one particular phrase resonates, to be forever associated with Peres: "a tireless schemer." There's a reason no one ever bothers to mention this book at any of the numerous memorial events: Everyone wants to remember another Rabin (and Peres ).

The rumors about the book had reached us some time before, but that evening there was a press conference. There were no cell phones then, no Internet. All we had was a phone token and so we wandered about the streets of Afula, of all places, on the way home from another boring party branch meeting, searching for a public telephone. We finally found one at a dark and uninviting gas station on the outskirts of town. To this day I recall that terrible night whenever I pass it: Like in some especially lame Western, I emerge from the Oldsmobile all wobbly in the knees while Peres waits, his expression tense. I go over to the phone, drop in the token and receive fresh updates from the front.

"The news isn't good," I say as I return to the car, worried and crestfallen. "He's calling you 'a tireless schemer.'"

The rest is history - the history of a political rivalry, among the ugliest ever seen here.

The battle lines were starkly drawn then, just as - not to really compare them - among organized crime families. You were either with us or with our enemies. Every treasurer and deputy secretary of every godforsaken workers committee appeared on the lists: ours, theirs, or wavering. The most effort was invested in the latter, of course. The struggle was reckless and aggressive, without so much as a trace of ideology behind it. Rabin and Peres simply could not stand one another. For Rabin the feeling was especially intense.

Peres again paid the price for his foreignness: Unlike Allon and Rabin, and unlike Moshe Dayan, whom he admired, all of them walking legends, he was not born here and did not "add a twig to the bonfire," i.e., the bonfire of legends surrounding the battles of '48. Neither Palmach nor Israel Defense Forces, neither Haganah nor the British Army. He didn't even have Galilean-inflected Hebrew. His whole life Peres paid for this: They were the ones with the "values" (arakhim ); he was the one with the "schemes" (tekhakhim ).

This was not a fair representation of things: Neither camp had any values to speak of, and the scheming was pretty much evenly divided on both sides. All around, of course, stood the cheering sections - inciting, inflaming, spurring to attack, offering advice and keeping score.

Who started it all? Just like in a broken marriage, there is no single answer to that question. One favorite, though, is this explanation from Peres: In the 1960s he traveled with Rabin to Tanganyika (now Tanzania ). They made a smart pair: one a senior IDF officer and the other the deputy defense minister. Rabin was constantly snapping photos. They sailed on Lake Tanganyika, and Rabin was forever insisting on more shots; they went ashore and he kept shooting. Scenes from a marriage. It got on Peres' nerves.

The rancor was initially aroused in the days of Tanganyika (perhaps ), while in the days of Oslo (perhaps ), it began to fade after decades of mutual loathing. Rabin detested Peres, but Peres did not detest Rabin quite as much, and could never figure out just what the guy wanted from him. "Why did he suck my blood all those years?" he asked once, after the murder.

Just how much the two had been reconciled - and how much Rabin had truly begun to appreciate Peres, as some say - is hard to tell from afar: It was enough that the two touched each other and sang the "Song of Peace" together a few minutes before the assassination. To anyone who'd been around the two in the years when they wouldn't even agree to enter the same room without the presence of a third party (usually Haim Bar-Lev ), that seemed like nothing less than a miracle.

Now Rabin is gone and Peres is president of the country. Rabin has become a legendary figure and Peres a beloved figure who sorrowfully eulogizes the dead. And only the minister of history smiles, from the side, with a sly ironic grin.Sayed Kashua

I'm very sorry. I have nothing important to write about Rabin. And I find it excruciating when a subject is dictated to me. But the newspaper insists on Rabin. None of the ideas that popped into my head went beyond the boundaries of the banal: Where I was when Rabin was assassinated, how everything has only deteriorated since then, how there used to be something called the center in Israeli politics and what things were like once upon a time, when a flicker of hope still existed.

Now I understand why I always failed composition in school. Now I understand that all anyone has to do to afflict me with writer's block is tell me what to write about.

Rabin, then. So be it, there's no choice. I need a drink for this, even though lately I have avoided drinking during the day. Back then I drank mainly arak, Elite Ha'arak. A friend from the philosophy department showed me how to stick a mint leaf into each ice-cube compartment in the tray before filling it. The mint ice upgrades the arak with the deer on the label exponentially.

I was 20 and living with roommates in the most neglected apartment in Jerusalem's Nahlaot neighborhood. God help me, my life was a total misery. I had a tiny room in which I put a mattress on the floor, a small table and a white plastic chair. It had a window with a view of my landlord's storeroom. He was Tzidkiyahu, the pickle king of the Mahaneh Yehuda market. He called me Assad and completely ignored the fact that I was Arab, or so I thought. He had Likud banners permanently flying from the balcony, along with huge yellow flags of the Beitar soccer team. But the cauliflower his children sold on the family's market stall was the tastiest in the world. There was just the one time he collared me on the stairs and asked, "Tell me, Assad, you're Circassian, right?" I nodded yes and kept going.

I worked full-time plus in a hostel for wards of the state. The work took up most of my time and I barely managed to get to my classes. I had no choice. My parents were devastated when they heard I intended to study philosophy, and I was ashamed to ask them for money. Still, I had to pay tuition. I understood nothing of what Kant was saying, and in my scarce free time I preferred writing to studying. The only thing that came out at the time was poetry. I had always hated poets, so I simply threw the poems in the trash. In those days I wrote in a notebook, always in pencil.

Except for my roommates, no one in the neighborhood knew I was Arab, or so I was convinced. Almost every day I went to Beni's grocery, across the street, but I never spoke to him. In fact, I didn't talk to anyone in the neighborhood except my roommates. They were both lefties, both studying at Bezalel, the art academy. One, a kibbutz artist, also tried to play bass guitar. He would practice for hours, a joint in his mouth. I thought he had talent; our roommate, who was studying architecture, prayed for him to give up and switch to drums.

In the end that's what happened. The artist bought a darbuka and every night would practice what he called Moroccan rhythm. They were nice guys, my roommates, and we got along famously, eating together and having a good time. I never felt the need to leave the apartment. It was an excellent family substitute. How I miss them now and how distressed I am by the thought that friends who were once my whole world simply disappeared with the years, without my ever hearing from them, nothing. I wonder what they're doing now, how they are, and whether, if we met, we'd have anything to say to each other or would be bored instantly.

I was in love back then. I waited for the academic year to begin so I could see the girl I loved so much, wait for her in the cafeteria I knew she liked, wander around her department as though by chance, waiting for the moment when she would notice me and our eyes would meet and she would instantly realize that I loved her and know it was the same for her. Because there was no way, she would see in a flash that there was no way, that anyone else could give her more than my look gave her. Maybe that's why poetry came out when I wrote?

Oh God, how ridiculous it all sounds now. "You have to talk to her," my roommates insisted. "You have to say something to her, invite her to a movie, for a cup of coffee." But they were artists who didn't understand anything. They were Jews who could do whatever they wanted. I loved from afar, always, and waited for her to understand on her own. I know very well that classes did not begin on time that year, due to a strike or for another reason, but I know that on the day my roommates shouted that something had happened in the square in Tel Aviv I was moping about forlornly, crushed by unrequited love and longing for a lover whose name I did not know.

I emerged from my room into the hall, where there was a small orange television set with a rabbit ear antenna, and listened, together with my obviously overwrought roommates, to a report that began with the news that something had happened at the rally. That there had been shots, that something terrible had happened whose meaning was not altogether clear.

"Those sons of bitches," the architecture student snarled, giving me a look filled with loathing. Quietly I slunk back to my room, angry at the sons of bitches who had done something terrible, so terrible that I knew very well that my life as I knew it, as I had shaped it, would never be the same again. Very quietly I packed my clothes and my few books and left the apartment. My roommates were glued to the screen and didn't notice that I had abandoned them.

With the Pixies blaring in my ears from the headphones of my portable CD player, I set off for the Central Bus Station. That's it, we did something terrible, something that required me to hightail it out of the neighborhood. It was Saturday night and I remember the fear that gripped me as I entered the bus station, looking for the bus home, to my parents. We did something unforgivable and my only hope was that no one would recognize me in the station. Just not tonight, not after whatever it was we did in the square in Tel Aviv, and at a peace rally, yet.

I boarded the 947 to Kfar Sava, from which I would grab a jitney home. It's been so long since I was home, I thought, my parents will really be surprised - whether for good or ill I had no idea. The radio on the bus was on high, and every so often I took off my headphones to hear the reports. It was the prime minister. I tried to control the shaking that seized me, tried not to look too suspicious. We had killed the prime minister. If anyone on the bus notices that I'm Arab I'm a goner, I was convinced. I tried to look concerned, sharing in the grief, studying the expressions of the other passengers so I could imitate them. I remember how I literally jumped with joy when the announcer said the assassin was a Jew. I couldn't control myself. "Yes!" I shouted in the middle of the bus on the evening Rabin was assassinated, and I was the happiest guy in the world.

1. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated five days before the anniversary of Kristallnacht, so it happened that when those shots were fired in the square, I was lecturing to a group of Bnei Akiva members in Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood on "the Jewish community's response to Kristallnacht." I was supposed to give two talks in succession.

I won't bore you with the details, but it was not a great success. The children never stopped yawning and making noise, and I silently cursed myself for agreeing to two consecutive talks. One was plenty. While I spoke of "the West's response to that night," a tumult could be heard from outside, a clamor of shouting and loud cries that did not bode well for the second lecture.

At last, it was over. Tired and fuming, I staggered outside, followed by a torrent of kids. Cries of "Rabin's been shot! Rabin's been shot!" greeted us.

"His condition is critical," someone added. There was no second lecture.

2. The 400 bus from Jerusalem to Bnei Brak is packed.

We all fall somewhere along the national-religious-settlers-Haredi spectrum. The tension is heavy. The radio blares, and we listen to Eitan Haber's shocked announcement.

The entire bus freezes, and the newsreader continues, "The shooter is Yigal Amir, a 25-year-old student from Herzliya." The woman next to me bursts out: "I don't believe it! I know him! I go to school with him! No! I don't believe it!"

I don't yet know it, but apparently we all know him, or friends of his, or friends of his friends, or people who went to school with him, and anyone who doesn't actually know him will nevertheless be considered as if they did. The religious public is about to be perceived as a single, undifferentiated, murderous bloc.

How ironic; it will be the first time that the religious and the ultra-Orthodox will feel as if they are in the same cramped boat, and the last time that the national-religious will feel themselves to be a collective. (The irony is heightened further by Amir's black skullcap: You stigmatized us all and you don't even wear our skullcap! )

We don't know it yet, but we are on the edge of disintegration.

3. It's not easy to be a student at Bar-Ilan University in 1995. To be precise, it's not easy to admit to being a Bar-Ilan student. Sometimes I say I'm at Tel Aviv University and change the subject immediately to avoid being caught in a lie.

It's not easy to have the appearance of a religious Jew on the streets of Tel Aviv after November 4. I remember the time I wanted to go to the square - I belong to the Candle Children, too! I cry, each time the radio plays "Cry for You." I, too, was horrified by the shots that ripped through the body of my prime minister. I, too, want to give expression to this horror, together with everyone else in this square that looks so pretty and moving on television.

I couldn't bring myself to cross Arlosoroff Street. The stares fixed on my long skirt, an obvious giveaway, and my baggy top, drove me back to Bnei Brak. There, I stood before the mirror and said to myself: No more.

I don't want people to think they know all about me; I don't want them to prejudge my attitudes, my faith and my opinions. I don't want them to think with one passing glance they know everything from my political views to my literary taste. I don't want these damned long skirts to speak for me. No more!

I took a big garbage bag and turned purposefully to my closet.

4. So there we had it! The cat was out of the bag. So that's what was behind all your new-modern-religious-lite? A little pressure and you cave? Your great-greatgrandparents were steadfast for 2,000 years. They didn't trim their beards or change their customs. And all it takes is a few sideways glances and you already want to look like a secular woman?

Not exactly. Because the Rabin assassination served as a catalyst for the schisms that had already begun within religious Zionism.

I think it began with the Oslo Accords, with "Gaza and Jericho First." Suddenly the Redemption process ceased to be linear. Suddenly the inconceivable happened: Territories were evacuated. True, we'd been through Yamit already, which was also a big crisis, but Yamit isn't mentioned in the Bible and it's questionable as to whether Sinai is part of the Promised Land. But Jericho? Jericho is the Land of Israel! The first city entered by Joshua!

The crisis was severe, and led to two opposing processes within the national-religious public: On the one hand, the Zionist Haredim, who saw how the process of Redemption and settlement of the territories was halted, began to think that maybe the Haredim were right, and the state wasn't so holy anymore. On the other hand you had the more liberal national-religious, who began to wonder about the true value of the Gush Emunim enterprise and the religious radicalization that came with it.

And then three bullets were fired in the square and everything came to a halt.

The initial period was unifying. There's nothing like a long, accusatory finger to unite a fractured public, to pull it closely together so that the blame falls on the shoulders of the many, so when the lone individual - say, one in half a million - comes to receive his due, it will be relatively small. Even the Haredim, who were never particularly right wing (Rabbi Schach founded the dovish Degel Hatorah party ), joined this covenant of the ostracized.

We were called upon to do some soul-searching. Some of us did, all of us were affected by it. The religious Zionism of 2010 is not the religious Zionism of 1995. Everything has changed.

5. A good friend shows me his high-school yearbook. He graduated in 1994, a year before the assassination. He lives in a settlement in Samaria - hard core.

"Look," he says, pointing to the row of young faces. "Not a single large white skullcap, no side locks showing."

He's right. They all look like nice, decent kids. But the yearbook pictures in the years following the assassination will look different - large wool skullcaps, long side locks, a burning fire in the eyes. These are the Haredi nationalists as we know them today, a moment before the hilltop youth, a moment after the emotional detachment from the state, the one that spit them out, the one that they are no longer so keen to be a part of.

Then there's my own yearbook picture, from 1991. We, too, are good girls with clean faces and buttoned-up collars. And today? Like a microcosm of the religious public, the class has split too. Some are Haredi-Zionist, some live in settlements. There are also the new liberal religious women, who live in Petah Tikva and Givat Shmuel and try to combine the two worlds.

Somebody once hissed at me mockingly: "The Rabin assassination basically gave you a justification for religious-lite, for your new and liberal religiousness, for the bourgeois lifestyle. Come and say: I'm not just religious-lite, I'm not some spineless religious-lite type, not at all. I am deeply concerned for the future of the nation and the state. I uphold Israeli democracy, because just look where the other path leads."

6. 15 years later

On my way to Tola'at Sefarim, the most Tel Avivian and "correct" bookstore there is, where I practically feel at home. I pass by the memorial, eyes traveling to the spot where the words "murdered at the hands of a skullcap-wearer" were etched.

The skullcap. This skullcap is steadily unraveling.

The lives of others

I don't remember where I was the Saturday night Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. In my imagination, which is perceived as memory, I was at the Bat Yam Mall. I was at a movie. I leave the theater during intermission and a rumor is going around that Rabin has been murdered. But upon examination it turns out this was apparently someone else's memory, not mine. Hila, my girlfriend, insists that I wasn't at the mall, that I was at home, that I saw it all on television. She's probably right. Her memory is better than mine, especially her long-term memory. Nevertheless, the images I have retained are these: I walk out of the movie, stand at the railing of the Bat Yam Mall, on the third floor, not far from the pizza stand where I worked three years earlier, hear a lot of whispering and murmuring, ask somebody what happened and he says: "Rabin was murdered."

I wonder whose memory it is.

On Sunday, my friend Uri and I were sent to Mount Herzl, in Jerusalem, to set up a war room for Deputy Chief of Staff Matan Vilnai. We drove an army GMC van, the back of which was crammed full of communications equipment and which rocked from side to side. When we arrived we found that the central communications battalion had got there before us. At the closing discussion of the operation, the battalion commander would scream at the deputy commander: "How could they have got there before us?" And the deputy commander would say: "They're the central communications battalion, they're based in Jerusalem. We're in Ramle, in Tzrifin, it takes longer to get there." The battalion commander's face would contort with fury, he would hush the impudent deputy commander and scream again: "I don't give a shit! I don't care! We're the Amirim Battalion, a national communications battalion, we should get there first! I don't give a shit that they're in Jerusalem!"

From the Rabin assassination I vividly remember this scene. The ridiculous violence of the battalion commander. His red face. His cockiness. I also remember the gentleness of the deputy commander, the frustration he felt, his helplessness. I remember that I felt pity for him. From the Rabin assassination I remember that if you have two "falafels" (oak leaf clusters ) on your uniform, you can insist that Ramle is closer to Jerusalem than Jerusalem.

At Mount Herzl, we set up a war room. Lots of equipment that today could all be boiled down into one cell phone. Vilnai came into the war room once, picked up the receiver of the hotline phone, checked for a dial tone and left. Three days amid a tangle of antennas and field dress uniforms just for this moment: The deputy chief of staff checked for a dial tone. From the Rabin assassination I can remember a lot of people who work hard for one man who picks up the phone and then leaves. At the funeral itself I abandoned the war room for a few minutes to watch all the famous people who showed up. I stood a few meters away from Bill Clinton, King Hussein, Hosni Mubarak. I heard "Shalom, haver," I heard Noa Ben-Artzi sobbing for her grandfather. I was a witness to the big historic moments, but the fear of my having left the war room be discovered gnawed at me the whole time. For me, the Rabin assassination is the connection between the fear of military jail and "Shalom, haver."

After three days of no showers and little sleep, Uri and I returned to the base. We donned service dress uniforms and prepared to go home. But then someone, I don't remember just who it was, said that we had to stay. We asked why. Seemed there was a rumor about a Swiss airliner that had been hijacked and was being flown toward Cyprus. We asked: So what? We were told that there was no way to know, there might be Israelis on board, they might land the plane in Israel, we might be needed. We asked: Who gave the order for us to stay? We were told: the deputy battalion commander.

The deputy battalion commander. In other words, the deputy of that guy who screamed about the battalion from Jerusalem getting to Jerusalem before the battalion from Ramle was someone who in a country other than Israel would have been diagnosed as being mentally ill. His mental illness was expressed in cruelty toward the soldiers. He would verbally abuse us, play with us as if we were toys, and all out of a "professionalism" that occasionally went by the name of "perfectionism."

I remember one evening that I was supposed to stay on the base and asked a friend to take my place. His name was Kobi Aharon and he is one of the nicest people on the planet. A few minutes after he agreed to the switch, a moment before I was going to walk out the gate, an announcement blared that my company was being dispatched for a sudden drill. It was about 7 P.M. I went to Kobi Aharon and said to him: Forget it, I'll stay. He said, "Don't be silly. You go. We switched, it's OK. It's nothing." I eyed him a little sorrowfully - he was too skinny and had a big helmet that wobbled on his head - and then I left.

I remember returning to base the morning after. It was 7 A.M., maybe 7:30. Suddenly I saw that the dispatch vehicle was still sitting in the main parking lot. I went over and again I saw Kobi Aharon, again with the helmet, this time with some stubble that had come in overnight. I asked him what happened.

He said the deputy battalion commander had sent them off with no advance notice once again, at 6 A.M.

He was a son of a bitch, our deputy battalion commander. He conquered his boredom at our expense. And now the son of a bitch wanted us to stay on the base because of some Swiss airliner on its way to Cyprus. I remember that we already had our packs on our backs, just steps from the gate. I remember the precise moment that the two of us, Uri and I, just looked at each other - and left. Just walked out.

From the Rabin assassination I remember that I left even though the state told me to stay.

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