It has been 20 years since the assassination of Israel's fifth prime minister in Tel Aviv by Yigal Amir, a right-wing Jewish fanatic who considered Rabin a traitor and bitterly opposed the Oslo process. The murder traumatized Israel and its friends, and the recriminations still reverberate. To this day there are those who argue that Amir's terrible crime killed not only the country's democratically-elected leader and renowned military hero, but also the "land-for-peace" paradigm with the Palestinians that he had championed.
From the perspective of two decades, however, it seems clear that Rabin's assassination, far from sinking the Oslo process, actually prolonged it.
Oslo was a disaster from the outset, arguably the worst self-inflicted wound in Israel's history. By 1995, it was widely regarded as a failure by Israelis; polls showed public approval of Rabin and his Labor Party sinking to record lows. Oslo's architects had promised that empowering Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization with their own quasi-state in Gaza and the West Bank was the best way to suppress terror attacks and improve Israel's security. Rabin's government took the gamble, but the "peace process" didn't deliver peace. It delivered bus bombings and suicide attacks. More Israelis were killed by Palestinian terrorists in the 24 months following the famous handshake on the White House lawn than in any similar period in Israel's history.
In public, Rabin professed to be undaunted, repeatedly insisting that the engagement with Arafat must proceed: "We have to fight terror as if there were no peace talks, and we have to pursue peace as if there were no terror."
But privately, Rabin was having grave doubts.
Twenty-three passengers were murdered when a powerful bomb tore apart a crowded bus in the heart of Tel Aviv on Oct. 19, 1994. More Israelis were killed by Palestinian terrorists in the 24 months following the signing of the Oslo Accords than in any similar period in Israel's history and far worse was to come.
According to Efraim Inbar, head of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University and the author of Rabin and Israel's National Security, Rabin was no starry-eyed peacenik. He was a pragmatic leader for whom peace, in and of itself, was never a core value. The Oslo concessions could be justified only to the extent that they left Israel more secure. As it became apparent that instead of land for peace, Israel had exchanged land for terror, incitement, and hatred, Inbar said Wednesday in a lecture at Boston University, there is good reason to believe he would have pulled the plug.
Others have said the same thing. Dalia Rabin, the prime minister's daughter (and a former deputy defense minister), recalled in 2010 that she had been told by many of her father's confidants "that on the eve of the murder he considered stopping the Oslo process because of the terror that was running rampant in the streets, and because he felt that Yasser Arafat was not delivering on his promises." And Moshe Ya'alon, who in 1995 was Israel's chief of military intelligence, was told by Rabin that he intended to "set things straight" with Oslo after the 1996 election, since Arafat's commitments were plainly worthless.
Would he have done so? Of course we cannot know for sure, but as Inbar notes, Rabin did believe that Oslo was reversible. When critics expressed alarm at an agreement committing Israel to arm a Palestinian police force, he replied that there was nothing to fear. "There is no danger that these guns will be used against us," Rabin said. "The purpose of this ammunition for the Palestinian police is to . . . fight against Hamas. They won't dream of using it against us, since they know very well that if they use these guns against us once, at that moment the Oslo Accord will be annulled."
But he waited too long.
Amid the emotional public backlash that followed Rabin's assassination, any repudiation of Oslo would have been deemed a victory for his assassin. So even though the Labor Party was defeated in the 1996 election, the new Likud prime minister a young Benjamin Netanyahu could claim no mandate to annul the accords. The Oslo process continued. Follow-up agreements were negotiated and signed. But fresh concessions from Israel only encouraged fresh violence from the Palestinians. Ten years after Rabin's death, the "land-for-peace" mindset reached its apotheosis with Israel's unilateral retreat from the entire Gaza Strip. Result: a takeover of Gaza by Hamas, more than 16,000 rockets and mortars fired at Israeli civilians, and torrents of lurid propaganda that extol the spilling of Jewish blood.
Had Rabin lived, the Oslo calamity might have been reversed long ago and the "peace now" delusion abandoned as a gamble that failed. But the bullets that killed a courageous prime minister also killed the chance of undoing his greatest blunder. The worst self-inflicted wound in Israel's history still bleeds.