On November 9, 1995, Yasser Arafat was among the mourners who gathered at the Tel Aviv apartment of Yitzhak Rabin’s widow Leah, to offer condolences after the Israeli prime minister’s assassination five days earlier. Arafat, in olive green battledress, but without his trademark keffiyeh, sat next to the grieving woman, drinking tea and displaying his limited knowledge of Hebrew.
The leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization had arrived in Tel Aviv from Gaza by helicopter. It was the first time he had set foot inside Israel since his clandestine mission to rally resistance to the occupation after the 1967 war. When a colleague broke the news of Rabin’s murder, Arafat responded: ‘Today the peace process has died.’
Twenty-five years on, it is hard to disagree with that instinctive judgment – even if it was premature. The Oslo Agreement of September 1993 was an historic achievement, but an unbalanced and interim one. The PLO had formally recognized Israel while Israel had recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians. It had also agreed only to limited self-government, not an independent state, pending ‘permanent status’ talks.
And Oslo had faced opposition from the start from both sides. Edward Said, the Palestinian-American intellectual, attacked the ‘supine abjectness’ of the PLO. The Islamist movement Hamas agreed. Benjamin Netanyahu, leading the Likud opposition, had addressed a Jerusalem demonstration where Rabin had been portrayed in SS uniform and accused of making ‘a pact with the devil’.
Yigal Amir, the extremist who fired three shots into Rabin’s back at a peace rally in Tel Aviv on November 4, had planned his deed for two years. The 25-year-old law student had supporters and a wider constituency including rabbis who had formulated the notion that the prime minister’s policies justified his killing. ‘I acted alone on God’s orders,’ Amir told police, ‘and I have no regrets.’
Yet Rabin was no dove. His reputation as ‘Mr Security’ was based on his performance as Israel Defence Forces chief of staff in Israel’s stunning victory in 1967. Twenty years later, as defence minister during the first intifada, he ordered soldiers to ‘break the bones’ of Palestinian stone throwers. When Oslo was signed on the White House lawn, he was visibly reluctant to shake Arafat’s hand as a beaming President Bill Clinton stood between them. Since then he had neither indulged Arafat nor gone soft.
For his part the PLO leader remained committed – at least on paper – to fighting Hamas and other opponents. But whether he was unwilling or unable – or both – to crack down hard enough, every Palestinian attack, especially suicide bombings, boosted Israeli hardliners. And Israel’s retaliatory measures caused serious hardship to Palestinians.
Still, in September 1995, when the Oslo II Agreement was signed in Taba, and despite the fact that key issues – borders, Jerusalem, Jewish settlements – were only to be decided in future negotiations, Palestinian support reached an all-time high of 71 per cent. In Israel, however, a hardening mood wasreflectedintheKnesset vote on the deal – a tiny margin of 61 for to 59 against.
In his last speech in parliament on October 5 1995, Rabin laid out his vision, including a reference to Israel’s future borders in the Jordan Valley, a united Jerusalem and a Palestinian ‘entity’ which was ‘less than a state’. The speech has been quoted for years, especially in the context of the recent debate about annexation of parts of the West Bank under Netanyahu, now the country’s longest-serving prime minister, who had his first term in office just months after the assassination.
Yossi Beilin, one of Oslo’s main architects, has admitted that Rabin was not committed to a two-state solution in 1995, but speculated that had he lived, he might have come to accept one.
The importance of Oslo, in Beilin’s words, was ‘the willingness of the two parties to bite their lips and shake hands after many long years of inflicting mutual suffering’.
Beyond lip-service, these days a two-state solution attracts little support. Netanyahu’s talk of annexation, facilitated by President Donald Trump, has revived the dangers of formalizing an apartheid system with different rights for Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank – and doing nothing to relieve the suffering of Gazans.
But the status quo has long consisted of what is accurately described as a ‘one-state reality’. Like so much else in Israel, Rabin’s assassination – and Oslo – remain controversial topics. Yigal Amir remains out of sight, but not out of mind. ‘We locked him up,’ opined a columnist in the liberal daily Ha’aretz last year, ‘but not his worldview.’ Rabin was not guaranteed to succeed. But there can be little doubt that what happened a quarter of a century ago ended a brief moment of hope for a solution to the world’s most intractable and divisive conflict.