"I have always believed that the majority of the people want peace, and are ready to take a risk for it," Yitzhak Rabin told a crowd of 100,000 at a peace rally last Saturday night in Tel Aviv. With those words, the Israeli prime minister wrote his own epitaph. Minutes later, a right-wing Jewish law student fired a revolver at the 73-year-old Labour Party leader as he was making his way down the stairs from the speakers' platform, striking the prime minister in the spine, back and chest. Rushed to hospital, Rabin died in the operating room about 90 minutes later - casting a pall over the future of the Middle East peace process and plunging Israel into mourning.
He was the nation's most revered war hero, who late in life was transformed into its top soldier for peace. Yet in the end, the Nobel Peace Prize-winner and survivor of four wars between Israel and the Arabs was killed by a fellow Jew. Authorities identified the gunman as Yigal Amir, a 27-year-old student at Bar Ilan University who had links to the extremist group Eyal, which opposes any attempt to make peace with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Israel Radio said Amir, who was arrested at the scene, quickly confessed to the assassination and told police: "I acted alone on God's orders, and I have no regrets."
The assault took security forces by surprise, occurring at the biggest gathering in years of pro-government peace activists. But experts on the Israeli radical right said the writing had long been on the wall. Rabin had been labelled a "traitor" by Jewish extremists ever since he signed the 1993 peace agreement in Washington with PLO Leader Yasser Arafat. Protesters in Jerusalem last month displayed photo montages of Rabin dressed in a Nazi Gestapo uniform, implying that he shared guilt for the deaths of Jews killed by Palestinian terror. But the majority of Israeli Jews, who distance themselves from that extremist fringe, felt the same horror at the assassination as did the rest of the world.
Among the first to comment was a visibly shaken Arafat, the former archenemy who reached out to grasp Rabin's hand two years ago in a historic display of friendship on the White House lawn. "I hope we will have the ability - all of us, Israelis and Palestinians - to overcome this tragedy against the peace process, against the whole situation in the Middle East," Arafat said in Gaza Saturday evening. The Palestinian leader, who is now under more pressure than ever to stop Muslim extremists from unravelling the momentum for peace, made a point of expressing his sadness on behalf of all Palestinians. But no sooner had Arafat spoken than the leader of the militant group Islamic Jihad gloated over the assassination. "I am not sorry for the killing of Rabin," said Ramada Abdallah Shallah, calling the slain prime minister "the world's No. 1 terrorist." Other Arab leaders, by contrast, were quick to renew their support for the peace process, which had recently come closer than ever to bringing hardline Syria into the fold. In Damascus, the news of Rabin's death was reported, but no comment came from President Haffez Assad. Jordan's King Hussein, who had just hosted the largest-ever Middle East economic conference, said he hoped Rabin's legacy would be to "strengthen the resolve of all those who belong to the peace camp."
In coming weeks, all eyes will be on Washington, which has shepherded Middle East negotiations through countless crises. Calling Rabin "a martyr to his nation's peace," U.S. President Bill Clinton remembered the prime minister's warning, expressed in Washington last month, not to let "the land flowing with milk and honey become a land flowing with blood and tears." Said Clinton: "Now, it falls to us, all those in Israel, throughout the Middle East and around the world who yearn for and love peace, to make sure it doesn't happen." Clinton ended his statement with a choked "Shalom, chaver" (Goodbye, friend).
In Jerusalem, an emergency cabinet session voted Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, 72, as acting prime minister. It was a natural transition for a man who had, during the past three years, worked so closely with Rabin. In many ways, they functioned as a dual premiership. Peres, ideas man and chief negotiator, wielded more influence than any other foreign minister in Israel's 47-year history. What the moderate Peres lacked was Rabin's singular authority as a no-nonsense military general who would not be seen as soft on his enemies.
Rabin believed in the stick, along with the carrot. As author of the "break their bones" policy during the intifadeh, the Palestinian uprising of the late 1980s, he was convinced that only a strong Israel could draw its partners into negotiations. Where he differed from more hawkish members of the opposition Likud party was in believing Israel must negotiate with the PLO - despite its history of terror against Israeli civilians - and be prepared to give up land for peace. Recognizing the PLO was the breakthrough that pushed Rabin far beyond any other Israeli politician in moving peace forward and setting up autonomy for Palestinians. "It is not with one's friends that we need to negotiate, it is with one's enemies," he was fond of saying.
Born in Jerusalem in 1922, Rabin was one of the first recruits to the Palmach, the crack fighting unit of the Hagannah, a fledgling Jewish defence force waging a struggle for a state. In the 1948 War of Independence, he commanded the brigade that secured the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Two decades later, he commanded the Israeli forces that defeated three Arab armies in the 1967 Six-Day War. It was those battles that gained Israel the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the territories Rabin was in the process of turning over to Palestinian rule when he died.
Having served as Israel's ambassador in Washington, Rabin returned home in 1973 and entered Labour Party politics. He was elected prime minister a year later, but was forced to hand the reins to Shimon Peres in 1977 after a scandal involving a bank account his wife, Leah, had maintained in the United States, contrary to Israeli law. In 1992, he won back leadership of his party and went on to win that year's election on a platform of "peace with security."
After secret talks in Norway with the PLO in August, 1992, Rabin and Peres emerged no longer as rivals, but as authors of a breakthrough that would expand Israel's peace from the frosty calm with Egypt to include West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, Jordan and in future, they hoped, Lebanon and Syria. On the last day of his life, Rabin spoke of a real potential for peace with Syria, as he dedicated the fateful Tel Aviv rally to "an end to violence." As his party colleague and fellow Israeli war hero Ori Orr would later put it, Yitzhak Rabin, soldier and peacemaker, "died in action."
Maclean's November 13, 1995