Killing of a King

Killing of a King

Shown here appearing before the Israeli Supreme Court in 2004, Yigal Amir shot the prime minister in the back and killed him in 1995. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Shown here appearing before the Israeli Supreme Court in 2004, Yigal Amir shot the prime minister in the back and killed him in 1995. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

The queasy sensation isn’t imagined.

It quickly develops by design, fully informing Dan Ephron’s “Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel.” Readers feel it immediately as they plunge into the warped and chilling realm of the extremist; the parallel universe of the self-radicalized outlier; the holier-than-thou reaches of the messianic mind.

Consider that this toxic pathology is embedded in one person. He is a fundamentalist Jew, not a Palestinian, or an Arab, or an Islamic jihadist. This self-righteous sociopath stands convicted of murdering a battle-hardened but peace-making prime minister by the laws and courts of Israel and by his own repeated admissions, often delivered in giddy outbursts.

It took this particular miscreant several years of festering and plotting (think San Bernardino perpetrators) and two aborted attempts before he finally succeeded in felling Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995, with two hollow-point bullets to the back from his 9mm Beretta. The attack took place in the parking lot of Tel Aviv’s Kings of Israel Square after a massive peace rally. The 73-year-old prime minister died on the operating table shortly thereafter.

The shots did much more than claim one victim. They exposed gaping fault lines in the nation, its sense of itself, its worldview, its security services, the settlements agenda, the peace process, relations with Arab neighbors, and the dialogue and comity between ordinary Israelis. It was a watershed, a tipping point, with the reverberations continuing unabated today.

Despite profound fallout, the assassin would still strongly contend and proudly boast that in the eyes of his creator he is anything but guilty of precipitating one of the darkest chapters in Israeli history. He has, he insists, brought clarity to the nation by helping undermine the peace process. And, distressingly, many countrymen might agree with him. He feels no remorse, only a sense of cleansing and catharsis.

During 19 years in prison, he marries, gains conjugal rights, fathers a son, and anticipates the day when the political terrain will shift even further right, allowing him to taste freedom. His brother, a co-conspirator in the drama, already has been released from prison.

This is Yigal Amir, now in his forties. At the time of the assassination the cocky, brooding, 25-year-old, of Yemenite descent and with a seminary education, had served in the army and was half-heartedly enrolled at Bar-Ilan University, studying law. But his real intent, shared with his older brother Hagai, also a vet and an explosives and ammo hoarder, was to upend the Oslo peace accord by assassinating Rabin.

The brothers Amir, both deeply drawn to conspiracy theories, focused their hatred on Rabin as the architect of Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank and Gaza, and as the man who had frozen settlements. Yigal Amir actually “shopped” rabbis in charedi enclaves to find those who would sanction the talmudic prescriptions of din rodef (law of the pursuer) and din moser (law of the informer) to furnish them with justification for their heinous act.

Dan Ephron’s grippingly paced and meticulously researched reconstruction of the assassination binds the clashing back stories of the Amirs, Rabin, Shimon Peres, Yasser Arafat, Benjamin Netanyahu, and other principals. Prepare yourself for a bumpy ride where the basest, least ennobling human values compete against aspirational impulses of nationhood and healing.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Flash90)
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Flash90)

Mr. Ephron honed his investigative and reporting skills during stints as Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek and the Daily Beast. He has writ large and with freeze-frame clarity about an episode that deserves no less. The reference to “King” in the somewhat lengthy title conveys scope and gravitas and seems to be born more of admiration for Rabin than the ground zero of a Tel Aviv location. His profile of “the martyr for peace” dovetails nicely with the late Yehuda Avner’s descriptions in “The Prime Ministers.”

Readers will come to know the dour, secular, chain-smoking, tennis-playing Rabin as a reluctant risk taker who liked to consume his liquor with family or confidantes rather than at diplomatic functions. Rabin’s last term as prime minister was his second; first he had been Golda Meir’s successor from 1974 to 1977, until a scandal involving his wife’s Washington bank accounts forced him to resign.

But Rabin’s distinguished performance as chief of staff during the Six Day War, and his bona fides as the first sabra elected to the nation’s highest position, made a rehabilitation possible. After years as defense minister in coalition governments during the 1980s, Rabin again was elected to the top office in 1992. A bold strategy was beginning to coalesce in his mind.

He would partner in an imperfect, awkward minuet with Arafat to tamp down the growing violence from Hamas and the second intifada on the one side and the increasingly restive and vigilante settlers on the other by crafting a framework for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, supplanted by Palestinian semi-autonomy in the regions.

Enter Shimon Peres, the three-time loser for the premiership who had been the dominant force in the Labor Party until Rabin’s emergence in the 1970s. Without his knowledge, his aides had been negotiating secretly with Arafat’s team for what would evolve as the essence of the Oslo agreements. When Peres learned about the back channel, he made every effort to take ownership of the initiative.

Competition flared once again between Rabin and Peres, who served as foreign minister in his rival’s cabinet. The two had jousted over just about every issue for decades, including credit for the Entebbe raid. Where Peres felt slighted, Rabin drew strength. While Peres had a thicker government resume than Rabin, he had not served in the military. And Peres, though more lyric and articulate than Rabin, had been born in Poland, not mandate Palestine.

Rabin, who acted as his own defense minister, soon took charge of the negotiations, and events began unfolding at a dizzying pace by Mideast standards. In September 1993 the initial Oslo accords were signed during an elaborate White House ceremony after last minute-bickering about how Rabin could stiff-arm Arafat into a handshake rather than endure twin kisses on the cheek; whether Arafat would wear his uniform with “medals” (he didn’t); and what role would Peres play (he actually signed the document).

Mr. Ephron’s description of the flight from Israel to D.C. aboard the prime minister’s ancient 707 (which doubled as an IDF tanker) is striking. While Peres stewed over his “steerage class” seating, Rabin worried about the unintended consequences of the deal. He was informed midflight that a lone Palestinian had tried to blow up a bus to Ashkelon, then stabbed the driver and was killed by an IDF soldier aboard. At that moment Rabin realized how just one person on either side of the divide could imperil the accords.

Leah and Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s ambassador to the United States, in 1968. (Israel Government Press Office)
Leah and Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s ambassador to the United States, in 1968. (Israel Government Press Office)

But the momentum continued. In 1994, Rabin, Peres, and Arafat shared the Nobel Peace Prize. That year, Israel signed a historic treaty with Jordan, ending a 46-year state of war. Rabin and King Hussein were said to be almost soul mates. In 1995, an enhancement of the Oslo deal was sealed, which expanded the Israeli withdrawal from the territories.

All the while the violence increased. And then Yigal Amir struck.

After the assassination, Peres became prime minister and dithered over whether to call a snap election or serve the final year of Rabin’s term. He chose the latter course, and by the time he decided to run he had virtually frittered away what seemed an insurmountable lead over Netanyahu. He lost the vote by a hair.

The nation had opted for settlements and security over two-state risk-taking, an equilibrium that prevails today. Peres proved much more palatable later on as president of Israel rather than prime minister. He didn’t have to run for the office.

In an intriguing epilogue, Ephron tells of his role in a forensic investigation prompted by Rabin’s daughter, Dalia, into a mysterious tear in the front of Rabin’s bloodied shirt. Ephron smuggled the garment into the United States and submitted it to a ballistics expert who concluded it wasn’t a bullet hole overlooked in the official autopsy but probably a rip caused by the surgeons desperately trying to save the life of Rabin — the object of Yigal Amir’s misguided wrath.

Jonathan E. Lazarus is the former news editor of the Star-Ledger

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