Fifteen Jewish years ago today, I was leaving a Domino’s Pizza one block from Kings of Israel Square (today’s Rabin Square) in the heart of Tel Aviv. The largest peace rally in Israel’s history was in full swing, and someone said that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was speaking. I wanted to return to the rally in time to hear at least some of his remarks. Unfortunately, I would never hear him speak again. With pizza in hand, I arrived at the square just as pandemonium broke out and people started screaming that Rabin had been shot. I distinctly remember two thoughts running through my head: “God, please let him live,” and “If he had to be shot, I pray it was not an Arab who did it.”
I made my way to Ichilov Hospital with a heavy heart and a camcorder. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity with a gathering crowd at the gates of the hospital, I saw a stricken Eitan Haber, Rabin’s aide, make his way towards us and deliver the announcement that no one wanted to hear: “The government of Israel announces in dismay, in great sadness, and in deep sorrow, the death of Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Yitzhak Rabin, who was murdered by an assassin tonight in Tel Aviv. May his memory be blessed.”
Well, almost no one. While wailing and sobs immediately rang out from our group, I will never forget watching in stunned silence as a small group of Orthodox Jews immediately to our right began cheering, singing and dancing. I taped their short-lived celebration of Rabin’s death, which made me sick to my stomach. These idiots were soon set upon by outraged members of our crowd, and the police had to intervene. As I trudged home that night, a very distinct impression settled on my mind that any real opportunity for a comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians had died on the operating table with Rabin. I spent the remaining seven months of my diplomatic tour in a country in deep mourning, and regret very much that the intervening years have done little to dispel my pessimistic impression.
Israelis are debating Rabin’s peacemaking legacy this week, but I frankly don’t see much of a legacy to discuss apart from his personal achievements and service to his country. When Rabin originally signed on to the peace process with the Palestinians, he did so after calculating that a signed peace treaty with the Arab states would allow Israel to have a freer hand to focus on its mortal enemy in the region, Iran. Well, Iran is still Israel’s mortal enemy; in fact, it’s even more mortal today. As is Gaza, which is now indirectly controlled by Iran. An unsightly (albeit necessary) security barrier/wall/fence separates most of eastern Israel from the West Bank, which is still under Israeli rule. Relations with the U.S. are strained, and Israel is increasingly isolated in the international arena. Internally, it remains a country riven by deep religious, ethnic, and political divisions. It is not necessary to blame Israel (or Rabin) for failure to make peace in order to realize that a comprehensive peace is far less likely now than it was 15 years ago.
I recall having mixed reactions to Rabin’s peacemaking odyssey. While I admired his personal courage in signing the Oslo Accords and negotiating with Palestinian leaders, I never understood why he thought he could make peace with a Jew-hating terrorist. During my two years in Israel, the peace process served only to provide cover for the horrific bus bombings, kidnappings and shootings that brought terror to Israel’s streets. I was outraged when Arafat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 along with Rabin and Shimon Peres “for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East.” I was only too pleased to attend a press conference at the Jerusalem Hilton in December of that year called by Kaare Kristiansen, a principled Norwegian mensch who had resigned from the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in protest at the ill-considered decision to award the peace prize to a terrorist. I recall that he was accompanied by the father of a soldier who had been kidnapped and murdered by Hamas. Kristiansen apologized to Israelis for the Nobel committee’s decision and heaped abuse on Arafat. It was one of the more memorable speeches I heard in Israel, and it crystallized in my mind why the Rabin approach to peacemaking was ultimately doomed to fail. If there is anything that we can learn from the well-intentioned peacemaking efforts of this courageous man, it’s that peace can only be made between partners who are ready, willing, and able to do so. If anyone sees this happening in the foreseeable future in today’s Middle East, he is a far more visionary person than I.