The Assassination of Rabin
on November 4, 1995, Yigal Amir fired three bullets, killing Prime Minister Rabin. Amir had been waiting patiently, unbothered by police who believed him to be a plain clothes agent, in the Kings of Israel parking lot in Tel Aviv for 40 minutes until the prime minister returned to his waiting vehicle after participating in a well-attended peace rally.
Rabin descended the stairs into the parking lot and was shot at point blank range as he approached the door of his car, two bullets hitting him in the chest. Rabin was pronounced dead at 11:10 p.m., an hour and 20 minutes later. After his arrest, Amir complained that “a Palestinian state is starting to be established” because “Rabin wants to give our country to the Arabs.”Amir was born in Herzliyya, to a family of Yemeni heritage.
He had attended a haredi (ultra-orthodox) elementary school belonging to Agudat Israel and a haredi yeshiva secondary school in Tel Aviv and was enrolled at Bar-Ilan University’s law school. During his time at Bar-Ilan, he studied Jewish law and became involved in the activities of radical groups such as Zo Artzeinu and Eyal. These groups considered the Middle East peace process and Israeli politicians’ willingness to relinquish land in the West Bank to the Arabs as part of achieving peace as a betrayal of Jewish tradition because the land was promised to the Jews by God.
These groups were prepared to use violent means to prevent such perfidy. With a small group of trusted friends from the university, Amir discussed a religiously-based “obligation” to kill Rabin and Peres. After consultation with several rabbis, none of whom approved of his decision to act, Amir still believed that the only authority he needed came from the halacha (Jewish religious law).
The assassination of Rabin threw Israel and the peace process into turmoil. In the initial aftermath of the event, it remained uncertain whether Peres, who became acting prime minister, would be able to convince Israelis that making concessions and turning over land to the Palestinians would not jeopardize the country’s security. While Rabin had been seen as “Mr. Security,” Peres was seen as too much of a politician and did not generate the same trust and respect among Israelis as Rabin had. Rabin also brought unparalleled military credentials to the peace process; Peres was seen as more visionary but less realistic.
Israelis were shaken and sobered by the assassination. Nevertheless, they soon returned to the raucous debates typical of Israeli public life and politics. The assassination of Rabin did not substantially alter the views of those who believed in a “Greater Israel,” which includes the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and who opposed a Palestinian state.
Although there were modifications in the perspectives and rhetoric of some Israelis, major opinion shifts did not follow. Most Israelis did not alter lifelong, fervently held beliefs because of a single, albeit tragic event. In the short term, Peres gained support, in part as a sympathy factor, from among those young and new Israeli voters who appeared to be the most affected by the assassination.
Killing the Peacemaker but Not the Peace Process
In retrospect it is clear that although Amir sought to abort the peace process by killing Rabin, he succeeded only in killing a peacemaker, not the peace process. In fact, in the weeks immediately following the assassination of Rabin, the peace effort gained new vigor and proceeded with a new intensity toward implementation of the agreements Rabin had signed and toward a renewed Israel-Syria dialogue.
Prime Minister Peres’s government was approved by the Knesset in a vote of confidence 62 to 8, with 32 abstentions, on November 22, 1995. In announcing the new government, Peres noted that his main objective would be to arrive at a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, if possible by the end of the 20th century.
To achieve this, he suggested beginning with Damascus and appealed to the president of Syria, observing there was no longer any logic to war. He suggested that the differences that remained could be resolved through negotiations based on mutual respect.
The interim agreement (oslo II) signed between Israel and the Palestinians was carried out with relative dispatch. At the time of the assassination, Israel had already begun to redeploy its forces from the major West Bank cities, except Hebron, and to turn them over to the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian self-rule.
This process now continued: Jericho had been turned over earlier; Jenin, Tulkarm, Nablus, Qalqilya, and, just prior to christmas Day, Bethlehem followed. on December 27, 1995, Israeli troops withdrew from Ramallah (and the neighboring El Birah), completing the withdrawal from six West Bank cities and more than 400 towns and villages, as scheduled, and in preparation for Palestinian elections in January 1996.
This essentially ended Israeli control over most of the Palestinians and much of the West Bank. Virtually all Palestinians were now accountable to the PA. The only major West Bank city left in Israeli hands was Hebron, which was to be turned over in March 1996, albeit leaving Israeli settlers in the center of the city and Israeli soldiers to provide for their security.
For the Palestinians, this marked self-rule in much of the West Bank and Gaza Strip for the first time. While this was not independence, nor statehood, nor sovereignty, it included much of what is normally seen as the characteristics of an independent sovereign state. The PA, at the beginning of 1996, governed much of the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip and Jericho.
In the Palestinian elections held on January 20, 1996, more than 700 candidates competed for 88 seats on the Palestinian self-governing council. Despite this large number of candidates, the process was not truly diverse and was not truly democratic.
It was dominated by Arafat and Fatah, which supplied the candidates; Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement, which seeks to establish an Islamic Palestinian state in place of Israel) and like-minded groups and individuals failed to participate, and their perspectives were absent from the choices available.
In a separate contest, the Palestinians elected a rais (the formal term for what the Israelis call a chairman or head and the Palestinians call a president) of the PA. In that vote, Arafat was challenged by only one candidate, Samiha Khalil, an opponent of the accords with Israel.
Renewed Talks with Syria
In the months preceding Rabin’s assassination, the chances of achieving an agreement between Israel and Syria in 1996 were appraised as virtually nonexistent. Rabin had retained full control over the Syrian negotiating track, even keeping his foreign minister (Shimon Peres) only partially informed, and had seemed determined not to rush toward a deal with Assad at the expense of Israel’s security interests.
After his endorsement as prime minister, Peres acted quickly to assume control of the process and the policy. Peres’s views of Syria, the negotiations, and the importance and value of the Golan Heights were different from those of Rabin. Peres believed that the Golan Heights were of limited strategic utility but could be a bargaining chip for peace. He believed it possible for Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights to the international border established in the mandate period.
Syria, meanwhile, sought an Israeli withdrawal to the lines that existed on June 4, 1967, and withdrawal from key areas such as the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee and the area of Hamat Gader. Although the amount of territory that separated these two positions was not substantial (less than 50 square kilometers, or 20 square miles), it was a wide symbolic gap.
At the same time, Peres wanted the definition of peace to be more expansive—a comprehensive peace to involve all of the Arab world. He believed that the path was through Damascus. Thus, Assad would lead the Arab world—excluding such rogue states as Iraq, libya, and Sudan—toward peace with Israel.
Syria’s putative ally, Iran, a Muslim but not Arab state, would be similarly excluded from this new peace. Syria would assume leadership in the Arab world by making peace with Israel. In turn, Israel would gain overall peace and security and integration into the Middle East.
Peres articulated a new approach to reactivating negotiations with Syria. He aimed to accelerate the pace of negotiations and conclude them by the spring of 1996. He would hold parallel discussions, in public or in private, on different issues and raise them to the foreign ministerial level.
Peres suggested that a summit meeting with Assad would be an appropriate way to open negotiations, without preconditions, concerning the Golan Heights. Peres believed that an agreement with Syria would lead to the end of wars in the region and that the United States would continue to play a central role in the negotiations.
Peres retained the defense portfolio and appointed Ehud Barak, former chief of staff of the IDF, as foreign minister. He initially chose not to seek an early parliamentary election, thus allowing time for an approach to Syria to mature. He hoped that the process would lead to an agreement with Syria and the election could then serve as a referendum on the peace process and specifically on the Golan Heights. Further, Peres sought to portray a peace agreement with Syria and the relinquishing of the Golan Heights as a means of creating a broad peace in the Middle East rather than a narrow one involving only Israel and Syria.
Everything depended on Assad. In Israel-Syria relations, as well as in the overall peace process, Assad had clearly been the dominating and manipulating element. Assad, in control of Syria for a quarter of a century, had survived by developing extraordinary political skills that helped to sustain his position and posture. The “sphinx of Damascus” remained an enigma. However, within weeks of the assassination of Rabin, there was a growing view that the Syrians seemed ready to deal.
When Peres visited Washington, D.c., in December 1995, there was an opportunity to move the process along. U.S. president clinton telephoned Assad while Peres was there, and after a subsequent visit by U.S. secretary of state christopher to Damascus, agreement was reached for meetings near the U.S. capital between Israeli and Syrian representatives.
At the end of December 1995, and continuing into 1996, negotiations between Israel and Syria were resumed at the Wye Plantation in Maryland. These meetings marked the unfreezing of the Syrian track. The United States sponsored the talks and participated at the table, partly because the Syrians opposed direct contact with their Israeli counterparts without an American presence.
The atmosphere was designed to be off the record with no news leaks; the meetings were to be intense and unstructured. The framework was designed to elicit some progress. These talks were announced by christopher as opening a new phase of intensive and broad negotiations with American mediators. Both positive and negative signs emerged.
The issues between Israel and Syria at the beginning of 1996 were clear and required substantial negotiation to reach accord. They included such agenda items as security, water rights, and regional development. Talk of full withdrawal revolved around territorial definitions and the lines to which the Israelis would withdraw. Talk of full peace was more complicated.
Israel saw a broad interpretation of the term—open borders; exchanges of ambassadors, tourists, and businesspeople; in effect, an opening of a closed society. Among the specifics to be determined was the question of how to assure Israeli security once the Golan Heights were returned to Syria. other matters were the timetable for Israeli withdrawal, demilitarization of the Golan Heights and possibly other sectors, and access to water.
In the spring of 1996, Israel launched operation Grapes of Wrath in response to Hizballah (a radical Shiite terrorist group) attacks on northern Israel. Peres had been under pressure to take action to improve security after Palestinian rocket attacks and suicide bombings in Israel claimed more than 50 victims in February and March 1996. In April, Israel fired artillery and missiles and launched air strikes on bases of Hizballah and of the Popular Front for the liberation of Palestine– General command in southern lebanon. The operation was ended by a cease-fire on April 26, 1996.