Sunday, October 31, 2010

Israel commemorates 15th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's death

20,000 people gathered in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square overnight to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In the spot where Rabin was shot dead, President Shimon Peres told the crowd those favouring peace would prevail but preferred to blame Arabs rather than Israelis for the delays. “There are still those that wish to remove the Jews from Israel and that these people do not make the way to peace any easier,” he said. "The road to peace is long and difficult, and our neighbours are not helping us, but we will not be denied the hope for peace nor from attaining it”.

But it wasn’t a neighbour that killed Rabin, it was one of the family. Rabin was murdered after a peace rally on 4 November 1995 by an Israeli. His assassin was Yigal Amir, an ultra-nationalist Jewish extremist who opposed Rabin's policy of trading land to the Palestinians for peace. Amir was sentenced to life in prison. Amir was egged on by the hostile spirit of the time with many political hard-liners branding Rabin a traitor for pursuing the Oslo Accords and some fringe extremists calling for his death.

The first native-born Prime Minister of Israel he was born in Jerusalem in 1922 of a Ukrainian-Belarusian family. Yitzhak Rabin grew up in a spirit of activism and both his parents were avid volunteers. After completing his studies at the School for Workers' Children, Rabin spent two years at a kibbutz before enrolling in the Kadoorie Agricultural School, at the foot of Mount Tabor. The school was surrounded by Arab villages, and the daily routine included defence training and guard duty. While at Kadoorie, Rabin joined the Haganah, the Zionist military organisation.

During the war years Rabin served as a scout for Allied Forces units invading Syria and Lebanon against Vichy French Army units. But his friendship with British forces ended in 1945 when his battalion attempted to free 200 Jews from a British internment camp near Haifa. He was arrested in June 1946 and served five months in prison. In the Israeli war of independence Rabin safeguarded convoys of food, ammunition and medical supplies to the beleaguered city of Jerusalem. He also served as chief operations officer in the campaign to drive Egyptian and Jordanian forces from the Negev. At one point in the war Rabin met Nasser, then an Egyptian army officer, where they discussed the military situation and shared a bowl of fruit.

Rabin rose through the ranks to become the second ranking officer in the IDF. He was chief of staff during the Six Days War and it was his recommendation to carry out a pre-emptive strike. He left the armed forces after Israel’s total victory in 1967 and he served as Israeli Ambassador to Washington for five years. On his return he joined the Labour Party and was appointed minister of labour in Prime Minister Golda Meir's 1973 government.

Protests over the poor preparation in the Yom Kippur war forced Meir’s resignation and Rabin was elected as head of the Labour Party, and prime minister. His first term of office was dominated by negotiations with Egypt and Syria mediated by Kissinger. He authorised the attack on the hijackers at Entebbe in Uganda in 1976 but was forced to resign a year later over reports his wife had a secret US bank account.

He returned to politics in 1984 as the Defence Minister in a new unity government. He held the post for six years during which time he was engrossed in trying to disentangle the IDF from the disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon. After the collapse of the unity government, Rabin took over the Labour leadership once more and won the 1992 election with the help of minor parties. His government made major advances in the peace process, signing the Oslo Accords with Arafat’s PLO in 1993 and the Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace in 1994. He was also planning to concede the Golan Heights to Syria. Rabin, Shimon Peres and Arafat were rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 “for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East”.

But if his efforts were lauded overseas, they were detested by many at home. His assassin, a far-right law student named Yigal Amir was one of many deeply unhappy with Rabin’s peace moves. Amir appealed to the traditional Jewish legal concept of din rodef (law of the pursuer) to justify the murder. The tradition comes from the Talmud which allows a bystander to kill someone who is pursuing someone else with the intention of murder. Amir claimed din rodef applied because Rabin was endangering Jewish lives with his peace plans.

On the night of 4 November 1995, Rabin was attending a Tel Aviv peace rally in what was then known as Kings of Israel Square. At the end of the rally, Rabin walked down the city hall steps towards the open door of his car. Amir emerged from the crowd and fired three shots with a semi-automatic weapon. Two bullets struck Rabin and a third injured a bodyguard. Rabin was pronounced dead 40 minutes later at Tel Aviv Medical Centre.

While Rabin’s death was a huge shock and embarrassment for Israel, his Labour Party did not benefit from his death. Hardliner Binyamin Netanyahu was a surprise winner of the Prime Ministerial election that followed in 1996 and he set Israel on a path of conflict with its neighbours it has yet to fully emerge from. Rabin was no saint and his “anti Israel” attitude was completely exaggerated by his political enemies. But in the 15 years since his death, no Israeli leader has come close to him in reaching out past the pain of Israel's history to confront the reality of its precarious geography.

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