Rabin

20 Years After

Itzhak Rabin
Laurence Agron | Dreamstime.com

PREFACE[1]

Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel, had just told the former Mayor of Tel Aviv, Shlomo ‘Chich’ Lahat that this was one of the happiest days of his life.

These were emotional words for the normally taciturn, stoical Rabin. It was 9:35 pm, Saturday, 4 November 1995 and the prime minister was standing on the stage at a peace rally in Tel Aviv, attended by more than 100,000 of his supporters.

Rabin had good reason to cheer as for much of his life he had been a soldier, a commander, and a man whose main purpose had been to fight wars and prevent future ones. A brigade commander in the 1948 War of Independence, chief of staff in 1964, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, D.C. from 1968 to1973, prime minister for the first time between the years 1974 to 1977 and for the second time from 1992 to this very day of November 4th.

His efforts over the previous three years to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict had produced two Israeli-Palestinian agreements and an Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty; hence Rabin’s reasons for cheer this evening.

 But Israel had grown increasingly divided over the peace process leading to the creation of a Palestinian state and the end of Israel's presence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, peace seemed to be purchased at such a heavy price, with so many Israelis being killed in terror attacks. Some Israelis called Yitzhak Rabin a traitor, a murderer. Others calmly discussed the pros and cons of killing him. Steadfast in his belief that in time the peace accords would, like a giant tidal wave, wash away dissent, Rabin refused to hide or to take any special precautions in public, he felt increasingly self-confident; he believed the peace process was irreversible and that he and Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), if left to work out the details, would produce a peace with which Israelis could live. Rabin knew the depth of opposition to him and his peace policies, but he had begun to feel in the last few weeks that the chaos and the turmoil that had beset the country over his peace efforts might soon settle down. “Even with a majority of one, I will continue the peace process,” he told friends privately.

Looking into the sea of smiling faces and the huge colorful peace placards at Tel Aviv’s main Malchei Yisrael, or Kings of Israel Square, the 73-year-old Rabin felt a new kind of self-confidence: Here was proof, despite the disappointing polls showing the peace process in disrepute, that he and his peace policies had strong backing. In this buoyant mood, a relaxed, contented Rabin swung an arm in friendship around the waist of foreign minister Shimon Peres, long-time rival, but now a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He joined the crowd singing “Shir La-Shalom” (The Song for Peace), holding a paper with the lyrics.

Just over an hour earlier, he had spoken briefly to the crowd: “I was a military man for 27 years. I waged war as long as there was no chance for peace. I believe there is now a chance for peace, a great chance, and we must take advantage of it for those standing here and for those who are not, and they are many. I have always believed that the majority of the people want peace and are ready to take a chance for peace.”

It was 9:36 pm and Rabin, tucking the leaflet with the song lyrics into his breast pocket, began saying his farewells. Never in love with huge crowds, he wanted to leave the rally a half-hour earlier, when the speeches were over, but became caught up in the intoxicating enthusiasm of the evening and remained for the entertainment. He looked around for his wife, Leah. A few minutes earlier, she had plunged into the crowds and now, approaching her husband, she said in an excited tone, “You cannot believe how many supporters you have out there.”

Shimon Peres departed the stage first and headed toward his car, parked near Rabin’s. A minute later, Rabin walked off the stage to his car.

For a large segment of the population, Yitzhak Rabin was the man who was selling the country out to the Arabs. Most of his rivals among the Israeli rightwing respected Rabin the soldier, the statesman, while despising his peace policies. A tiny fringe of right-wing religious extremists, however, went further.

   At protest rallies, they portrayed Rabin on posters with a red-checkered keffiyeh on his head, a subtle insinuation that he was demonically colluding with the Arabs. A month before the peace rally at a protest rally, someone held up a placard with Rabin wearing German SS uniform, suggesting that the prime minister was no better than the Nazis. At these rallies some shouted “Rabin boged”, “Rabin rotzyach”; Rabin is a traitor, and Rabin is a murderer. Two months before the November peace rally, a rabbi placed a curse on Rabin, calling upon “the ‘angels of destruction’ to kill him.” The curse was due to expire in early November. The leader of Zo Artzeinu, a group of right-wing extremists, said his group held Rabin’s government responsible “for its crimes against security and Judaism.” A Jewish extremist militia calling itself Ayal, the Jewish Fighters Organization, appeared on Israel Television five weeks before the peace rally, woolen masks over their faces, guns in their hands, promising to kill Jews if it would help destroy the peace process.

 The Tel Aviv peace rally had been designed to marginalize these right-wing extremists by providing concrete proof that Israel’s peace camp comprised a vocal majority of the country. Yet the tensions and threats the country had experienced were on some minds at the peace rally: a journalist approached one of Rabin’s guards and asked if the prime minister was wearing a flak jacket. The guard laughed, and then said: “If he were wearing one, do you think I would tell you?” The same journalist put the same question to Leah Rabin who broke into laughter as well: “A flak jacket? Really? What are we, Africa here? This is Israel.” A military man told the same journalist not to worry, that there were sharpshooters all around ready to fire: “Do you think we’d take a chance with the prime minister’s life?”

Yigal Amir planned to attend the peace rally as well. He was 25 years old, a third-year law student at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv. One of eight children, Amir grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family. His demeanor was usually quiet, but he became emotional when talking about Arabs. He fell into the company of the Ayal extremists and joined in a number of street protests. Once, soldiers carried him against his will from the scene of a protest.

 To one friend, Amir confessed that he felt compelled to do something to stop the peace process. Amir had no criminal record and had a license to carry a 22-calibre pistol, which he calmly loaded at his home in Herzliya, a coastal town north of Tel Aviv, just before leaving for the rally by bus. He thought to himself: Perhaps this time I’ll get close enough to Rabin. He had been stalking the prime minister for most of the past year, but was never able to penetrate the protective screen around him. Amir had also monitored the prime minister as Rabin walked in and out of his apartment in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Aviv. Watching from across the street, Amir hoped for a chance to fire a rifle at him.

Amir arrived at the peace rally at 8:10 pm, just the time Rabin was speaking to the throng. Though police, soldiers and guard dogs mixed with the crowds, the armed Amir walked around the cavernous square undetected. Near the stage, he walked down the 20 steps to the garage where Rabin’s new, heavily fortified Cadillac was parked. When asked who he was, coolly, casually, Amir responded that he was the driver for one of the politicians.

At 9:40 pm, prime minister Rabin descended the same 20 steps that Yigal Amir had some time before. To Rabin’s right was his wife Leah, behind them a security guard and walking directly behind them was Aliza Goren, the prime minister’s spokesperson. She planned to walk Rabin to his car and then say good-bye. A crowd of several hundred people had gathered to watch the dignitaries descend the stairs. There were many police and soldiers as well. Moments before, Shimon Peres had stopped to shake hands with the crowd. A guard whispered to Aliza Goren that he was frightened because some of the crowd had pulled on Peres’ hand and wouldn’t let go.

Rabin seemed in a hurry to get to the car, he did not stop to shake hands. The rear door of the Cadillac was already open, the engine drowning out the crowd sounds. From behind the steps, a figure appeared, running toward the prime minister, taking out a pistol, which had been lodged in his belt. Rabin was about to enter the rear seat of the car. To the guards who saw the thin, dark-haired man dressed in black trousers and shirt race towards Rabin, Yigal Amir was apparently just another person who wanted to shake the prime minister’s hand. Instead, when he was within a few feet from Rabin, Amir aimed his pistol at point-blank range.


            He fired three shots. Two of the three hollow-point bullets smashed into Rabin: one bullet ruptured his spleen and the second severed the major arteries in his chest, shattering his spinal cord and drenching the leaflet with the song lyrics, still in his breast pocket, in blood. The third shot grazed one of the guards. As Amir pulled the trigger, he said: “It’s nothing, nothing. I’m joking. It’s not real. It’s not real.” It was, however, very real. Rabin clutched his stomach and fell forward. Menachem Damti, the prime minister’s driver, who had been waiting near the car to help Leah Rabin into it, heard the shots and rushed to the driver’s seat.

            The wounded guard, believing that the attack might not be over, fell on top of Rabin. The guard saw a huge amount of blood on his body and believed that it came from his own wound, not thinking that it might be Rabin’s. To the guard it was not clear if the prime minister had been hit as well. “Listen to me,” he shouted, “and to me only! We’re going to get up now and get into the car and leave.” Rabin did not respond, but somehow the guard managed to pull him up and throw him into the car. “Move!” the guard shouted to Damti, slamming the door shut. The car raced away.

The crowd started screaming and falling to the floor. It was natural to assume that if three bullets had been fired, there might be more to come. The entire incident took no more than a few seconds, and even those who were nearby could not tell precisely what had happened. Aliza Goren never even saw the assassin, never saw Rabin fall. He was simply not there, when she looked at where he had been standing; though she did see the gun and the smoke and fire from the shots. She felt as if she was watching a movie, it was all too unimaginable. She understood that someone had tried to shoot the prime minister, but she convinced herself that he had not been hit.

            Meanwhile, another security guard grabbed Leah Rabin and helped her into a car directly behind her husband’s. “What happened?” she asked as the car took off. “There were shots from a toy pistol,” the guard said. “It wasn’t real, it wasn’t real. Someone shot in the air to frighten him, to create an atmosphere of chaos and fear.”

When Leah’s car reached the General Security Services headquarters, located just minutes away from the Tel Aviv square, she asked: “Where is he? If it wasn’t real, where is Yitzhak?” “We don’t know,” the guards insisted. “We’ll tell you when we do.” Leah was escorted to a room and left there alone. She made one phone call to her daughter Dalia. “They’ve shot Dad,” she said sadly.
 

As Rabin’s car sped to the hospital, word that something untoward had happened spread throughout the crowd at the rally. Most were too far from the prime minister’s car to have heard the shots, let alone witness the shooting itself. The question on everyone’s lips was: “What happened?”

“Shots were fired,” said one person. “They were fired near the prime minister, but he wasn’t hurt,” said another. A third had heard that the prime minister was hit, but not seriously. A fourth said: “The prime minister was hit, and he was in bad condition.”         

            Shimon Peres had been in his car ahead of Rabin’s when he heard the shots. “Stop!” he told his driver, “I want to get out.” Peres’ security guard yelled, “No!” He wanted the driver to pull away. “I’m not listening to you,” the guard told the foreign minister, “I am ordering the driver to drive away.”

           As the car moved off, the guard asked Peres if he wanted to go to his home in Jerusalem. “No,” said Peres, “I want to go to Yitzhak.”

                        Concerned that the shots might have been part of some organized conspiracy against other members of the government, the guard took Peres to the same building where Leah Rabin had been taken, the General Security Services headquarters. The guard went inside to find out more details about the shooting. For the next 40 minutes, Peres remained in the car. At times, a guard would come back to report a few more details to him, and Peres could only reply, “I want to see Yitzhak.”
 

After rushing off in the direction of Ichilov Hospital, a few minutes’ drive from the rally, driver Menachem Damti shouted back to Rabin: “Are you hurt? Are you hurt?”

“I think so,” Rabin answered, “but it’s not bad, it doesn’t hurt so much.” But then the prime minister began to breathe with difficulty and the guard, though wounded himself and losing strength, gave Rabin mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Damti kept asking the guard where they should go. All roads were blocked and it was difficult to work out how to get to the closest hospital. To make sure they were heading the right way, Damti stopped and picked up a policeman who climbed in the front seat and began giving directions.

Within seconds of the shooting, a swarm of police and soldiers grabbed the gunman, Yigal Amir, and took his weapon from him. They thrust him against the wall of the adjacent shopping center and formed a human wall around him. People in the crowd turned to Rabin’s spokesperson Aliza Goren, hoping to learn what had happened. But she did not know. She did know that it was imperative that she get away from the crowds so she could use her mobile phone with some privacy. When she broke away, the only phone number she could remember was that of Danny Yatom, the prime minister’s military attaché. She reached him at home.

“They shot him,” she shouted into the phone.
“Shot who?” the usually reserved army man asked.
“They shot Yitzhak.”
“It’s not true.”

“Danny,” said Aliza, “they shot him. I don’t know if he’s hurt or not, he just left. Try to find out if he’s hurt and if he is, tell me where he went.”

            Yatom’s first call, before he sought to determine whether Rabin was hurt, was to the Israel Defense Forces headquarters. The army needed to know that the prime minister might be injured. Yatom then called Rabin’s car and got back to Aliza, “He’s hurt and on the way to Ichilov.” Aliza and two aides ran to the hospital.
 

Rabin’s car arrived at Ichilov Hospital at 9:45 pm. Sirens were blaring. The car door was opened and the prime minister was immediately placed on a stretcher. His chest was drenched in blood, his eyes were closed. He was unconscious, with no blood pressure and no pulse.

Bodyguards ran into the hospital in front of the stretcher, yelling: “Clear the room. Rabin has been hit.” Dr. Motti Gutman, a senior surgeon at Ichilov Hospital, was on duty in the trauma unit. He was quickly located and told that an emergency case had just arrived with a devastating injury. He was shocked to find that the seriously wounded man was the prime minister. Used to such cases he remained calm, but just knowing that Yitzhak Rabin’s life was in his hands put all sorts of extra pressure on the physician.

            At 9:55 pm, Rabin was wheeled into the operating room.

Eitan Haber, the director of Rabin’s bureau who was like a son to the prime minister, was just arriving at a small reception in Tel Aviv given by Ido Disenchik, a senior Israeli journalist in honor of the outgoing Israeli ambassador to Paris, Avi Pazner. The prime minister and his wife were due at the party after the rally. Haber asked a security guard outside the front door of Disenchik’s home whether the Rabins had arrived and was surprised to find out they had not yet left the rally. Haber joined the other guests at the reception, among whom was Dr. Gabi Barbash, head of the Ichilov Hospital. Called to a phone, Barbash listened briefly, then, ashen-faced, walked over to Haber: “Yitzhak has been shot. I think it’s critical.” Haber raced downstairs and asked the guard what they were saying over his earpiece. The guard said he could not make out what was happening.

Haber raced through red lights to reach Ichilov. While driving, he had the presence of mind to call American ambassador Martin Indyk to tell him that Rabin had been shot. Reaching the hospital, Haber heard someone yell cheerfully: “Terrific, Rabin is dead.” Once inside the building, Haber kept opening doors and looking into darkened rooms, trying to find someone who could tell him about Rabin’s condition. At one stage he came upon the operating room where the doctors were operating on Rabin himself.

Israel Television’s news anchorman Haim Yavin was at home at 10 pm, 20 minutes after the shooting, when he got a phone call about the shooting from his colleagues at the television studio in Jerusalem. He was at the studio 15 minutes later. Yavin’s steady, reassuring television presence has led him to be compared to the American anchorman, Walter Cronkite. Yet even he was unsettled. Never before had he been forced to anchor an assassination attempt on a prime minister. What if Rabin was seriously hurt? What if he should die? Yavin asked himself if he could keep his cool on the air during such awful circumstances for the nation. He knew that he would have to try. Yavin could not imagine that Rabin was seriously hurt, but, as word filtered in to the studio, he began to understand that this would be one of the most difficult assignments he had ever undertaken.
            Israel Television had no rules about what was to be said over the air in the event that a prime minister was shot. An event of this magnitude had never happened before. Nor had it been thought possible. And therefore no one had thought it necessary to list some dos and don’ts about what, when, and how to tell the nation that its prime minister was dying or dead.

            Yavin went on the air at 10:20 pm. Comparisons to the television coverage of the Kennedy assassination were inevitable, but Yavin believed, even as he was going on the air live, that the two events were not entirely similar. After all, Lincoln had been killed before Kennedy. But for Israel, this marked the first time that a political leader had been gunned down while in office. For the next half hour or so, Yavin quietly explained to the anxious nation that Rabin was in the hospital, that doctors were working on him, and that there was still no news on how serious his wounds were.
 

Uri Dromi, the director of the Government Press Office, heard the news, like so many other Israelis, when his mind was on things other than the rally. He was at Jerusalem's Cinemateque restaurant having coffee with his wife and friends. His relationship with Rabin had been special, close. In November 1966, then-chief-of-staff Rabin, visiting the Hazerim Air Base near Beersheba, placed wings on 19-year-old Dromi’s uniform, signifying that Dromi was the outstanding graduate of the flying school. Dromi was awed. Rabin warned him: “I might prick you,” Dromi replied: “I don’t mind.”

At 10 pm, Dromi’s mobile phone rang. A colleague was reporting to him from the rally: “It was a great rally but there was some commotion and sirens at the end. I don’t know what happened.” Dromi sensed trouble and called army headquarters but got no answer. Then a BBC reporter called him and mentioned that Rabin had been shot. Dromi could not let himself break down even after hearing this shocking news. He went over to into “disaster syndrome,” as he described it, and tried to keep his mind focused on the long night of dealing with the press that would be his main job. He planned to drive to the hospital in Tel Aviv at once to help with the handling of journalists there.  

When Aliza Goren arrived at Ichilov, it was around 10:20 pm. The first person she recognized was the prime minister’s driver, Menachem Damti, whose hand was covered in blood. “What happened?” she asked with desperation in her voice.

Goren refused to believe what he was saying: “Are you a doctor? How can you say that?”

Just then, Leah Rabin arrived at the hospital. She still had no information about her husband’s condition other than he had been shot. Somber, head bowed, Leah presented a jolting contrast to the person who had been happily mixing with the crowds at the rally a few hours earlier. Leah said nothing, just looked at Damti. He repeated to her what he had just told Aliza Goren.

                        “Oy, oy,” Leah said, shaking her head back and forth, her face betraying the deep worry she felt. Aliza tried to calm her. “Let’s wait until the doctor says something.”

            Leah then saw the others who had gathered inside the hospital: Eitan Haber; Shevach Weiss, the Knesset spokesperson; Jean Friedman, the organizer of the rally; Tel Aviv’s mayor Roni Milo; Danny Yatom; Ephraim Sneh, the health minister; the director of the Mossad. Members of the immediate family were there as well: the Rabin children, Yuval, 40, and Dalia, 45, with her husband Avi, and Rabin’s two older grandchildren. Leah said nothing, just stared into their faces. She could tell without asking that her husband was in very bad shape. A few people tried to comfort her, to say that perhaps it would be all right. But she could tell from their faces how serious the situation was.   

Meanwhile, the doctors began dealing with the stricken prime minister. Their first thought was to get a pulse. Gutman and his team inserted a tracheal tube and began to ventilate Rabin; they then inserted a chest drain and started to administer drugs and the first of 22 pints of blood. Rabin’s pulse was restored but remained weak. A doctor left the operating room to talk to the family. “We’ve stabilized the situation. He’s got a pulse of 90, but the situation is very serious.”

Aliza Goren thought to herself: It’s bad. He doesn’t sound optimistic at all.

            The main effort in the operating room was directed at trying to stop the massive bleeding from the damage to the prime minister’s lungs, spleen, and tissues surrounding the heart and spinal column. Every few moments or so, it seemed to the family and friends gathered with Leah, the doctors emerged to provide another report on what was happening inside the operating room:

“We’ve removed the spleen.”
“We’ve opened his stomach.”
“We’ve opened the chest.”
“He’s bleeding internally.”

Eitan Haber approached Dr. Gabi Barbash with a plea: “Look me in the eye and forget all the controversies and fights between the hospitals. Tell me if there is some doctor in Israel or abroad whom I can bring here.”             “If my father were here,” Barbash replied, “I would put him in the hands of the doctors who are here.”
 

Meanwhile, Leah Rabin had a question for Aliza Goren: “Where’s Shimon?” It dawned on her that Peres was not at the hospital and it struck her as curious. Goren had no ready answer. Finally, foreign minister Peres arrived. He had persuaded his guard to bring him to the hospital. By this time, many ministers and Knesset members had come over from the rally.A hospital spokesperson cornered Goren to tell her that journalists outside the building were clamoring for any bit of information on Rabin’s condition. “What should I tell them?” she was asked. “Mind your own business.” Aliza snapped. “I don’t want any information released without consulting us first.”
It was a few minutes after 11 pm. The doctors operating on Rabin, tears in their eyes, looked at one another and simply stopped their work. The prime minister was dead. Had he been a 20-year-old man, Dr. Gutman thought, perhaps he might have survived, but probably not. Dr. Barbash approached Haber. “That’s it. He’s dead.” Haber asked Barbash to go and tell the family, and Barbash went down the hall into the small room where the Rabin family and a few friends had gathered. His face revealing the tragic news he was about to convey, Barbash said simply: “I’m sorry the prime minister is no longer with us.” Members of the family screamed. In a broken voice, Leah said to Roni Milo: “It’s too bad they didn’t shoot me, instead of Yitzhak.”

            Haber sat down at a small desk and began composing the official death announcement in the name of the Government of Israel. Haber showed the statement to Peres, now the acting prime minister, and told him he was going to read it to the journalists outside the hospital.

Back at the television studio, Haim Yavin listened as his producer whispered the message through his electronic earpiece: “He’s dead, but don’t say anything on air yet.” The producer had learned the awful news from a source at the hospital. In fact, Rabin had been clinically dead from the moment he arrived at the hospital, but that had not prevented a supreme effort to try to revive him.

            Thoughts raced through Yavin’s head. How could he muster the inner strength to tell the nation that Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s prime minister, was actually dead, felled by an assassin’s bullet? He felt hesitant and nervous and embarrassed all at once. Something told him to wait a few minutes. He told himself he needed to be 100 percent sure. He asked the producer to find a second source at the hospital. For the time being, Yavin had to continue his commentary, pretending that he still had no solid information about the prime minister.

            Meanwhile, British Sky Television broke the news a few minutes after        11 pm and Yavin quickly realized that quoting Sky would be a good way of preparing the country for the tragic news. He quoted the British network but added that there was no official confirmation.

            At 11:15 pm, Yavin was in the middle of an interview with an organizer of the rally. Suddenly there was a voice whispering into his earpiece: “You can announce it. He’s dead. We have it from a second source now.” And so, Yavin interrupted his interview and said with great gravity that prime minister Rabin had died of the wounds suffered in the attack. Yavin held back the tears. He had a job to do. Off camera, he would cry, but not now.

Eitan Haber would have preferred to wait a while before making the official death announcement, if only because he knew that Rachel Rabin Jacoby, Rabin’s sister was at that very moment travelling to Tel Aviv from Manara, her Kibbutz in northern Israel. Haber did not want her to hear the news over the radio, but he had no choice. He had to tell the nation.

            For three years, Haber had written all of the prime minister’s speeches and had decided who saw Rabin and who did not. He had been with Rabin every moment since the elections in June 1992. And now it was over. Haber walked into the night and the bright television lights and waited for the shouting and scrambling of the journalists to cease; but the noise and the jostling continued; so he too shouted, screaming to the country and the world that the prime minister was dead, that he had been felled by an assassin’s bullet.

                        “Rabin is dead,” someone shouted in the crowd of journalists. “Rabin is dead.” The word filtered back to the edges of the crowd, numbering some 1,000 by now, and then the tears and wailing began. Cabinet ministers went into shock. Shimon Peres’s driver began weeping. A group of teenagers wearing Peace Now T-shirts lit candles for the prime minister.

Leah Rabin wanted to see her husband. The doctors told her it would not be easy for her to view the body, but she insisted. She wanted to say farewell. The doctors agreed. She was accompanied by her daughter Dalia and son-in-law Avi, as well as Peres, Goren, Yatom, and Sneh. They walked into the room where the body lay and Leah approached her fallen husband first. The prime minister’s body was covered to his shoulders with a white sheet. His lips were swollen and his forehead was very red from the hemorrhaging.

Leah kissed him on the forehead and then she spoke to him. Sneh took the prime minister’s head in his hands and hugged him for a long time, crying deep sobs. Next was Peres: He gave Rabin a long kiss on the forehead. Goren did not touch the prime minister. She simply stared at him, still unable to believe what had transpired. And then she cried, thinking to herself: A few hours ago he was the happiest man in the world.

[1] The author put together the narrative of the behind-the-scenes of the Rabin assassination based on conversations with many people who knew of those events on a firsthand basis. The author also used Israeli newspaper accounts to round out what Rabin associates told him.