Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday November 8th, 2015

I don’t remember the exact date, I was traveling with then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, so it was in late 1975 or 1976. He was on his way back to Washington from a routine diplomatic trip which most of the dozen or so reporters who usually traveled with him had decided to skip. (ABC News was then committed to cover this particular secretary of state everywhere he went.)

So I was one of a couple of reporters in Kissinger’s small entourage, who with a few members of his senior staff walked into one of the big name casinos on the Las Vegas strip. We were taken to tables in the front row of the club to join another small group. Kissinger was obviously pleased to greet a man with whom he had become personally close during the recent years of tough Middle East negotiations - then Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Rabin.

Why Las Vegas? Supposedly there were some loose ends to tie up from recent negotiations and they were both going to be in the general area. But the true purpose of being there seemed evident when who should step into the spotlight to perform for these two famous international stars – the biggest Vegas star himself - Frank Sinatra.  I was thrilled. I had been a fan for many years but had never heard him in person. By the mid 1970’s his voice was not what it once had been, but I had never heard “Send in the Clowns.” ever sung better and with such feeling. As for Henry, Yitzhak and Frank, they were clearly happy to share the pleasure of each other’s celebrity.

This perhaps frivolous but no less human event sprung to mind as I began to read this past week’s reflections on Rabin’s assassination by a right wing Israeli zealot on November 4, 1995. I first met Rabin some time after the 1967 Middle East War and had journalistic contacts with him in his various posts as Defense and Prime Minister.  When those who knew him well describe him as a “pragmatic idealist,” that sounds right to me. 

The twentieth anniversary of Rabin’s death has inspired an international debate over the question- if Rabin had not been assassinated, would he have been able to lead Israel to a final peace with the Palestinians, or at least bring peace much closer to reality? There of course is no way of knowing.

It is often argued that President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination deprived the country of the leadership of the one man who wanted more than anything else to bind the wounds of America’s Civil War. Absent that leadership, on matters of race the South increasingly behaved as though it had won the war. In implementing the discriminatory Jim Crow laws, the South would keep African Americans in virtual bondage for nearly another century.

On the other hand, President John Kennedy’s assassination actually helped create the political climate in which President Lyndon Johnson and Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King were able to finally free “the slaves” with the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and ‘65.

After two decades it would appear that the impact of Rabin’s death has been closer to the Lincoln model than Kennedy’s, in that nothing good has come from it.

This is one of the conclusions of a new book on Rabin’s assassination titled “Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of ­Israel,” by Dan Ephron, former Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek. In this account, the assassin freely admits that he killed Rabin to derail the Arab-Israeli peace process which had been given new life when Rabin signed the Oslo Accords with PLO Chief Yassir Arafat in September 1993. (Part two of the Accords, called an Interim Agreement, signed in September 1995, took the parties considerably closer to an actual peace treaty.)

The Israeli Courts found the assassin had acted alone and that there was no conspiracy. But author Ephron explains how the killer had been caught up in the toxic political atmosphere that was created by opponents of any agreement that involved giving land captured by Israel in 1967, back to the Palestinians for the creation of their own state. (This is what the Oslo Accords envisioned.) 

Ephron describes how members of the right-wing Israeli Likud Party joined in many of the anti-agreement protests, In some of these, protesters carried effigies of Rabin dressed as a Nazi officer. In at least one such rally, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then an opposition leader in the Israeli Knesset, stood on a balcony in Jerusalem with other hard line opponents of Oslo as the crowd below chanted “Death to Rabin.” Ephron writes that Netanyahu seemed “unfazed by the mayhem – even as protesters threw burning torches at the line of policemen.” Later Netanyahu would say he did not see the Rabin images, nor hear the chants for his death.

Rabin was succeeded by Shimon Peres, a Labor Party colleague but long- time political rival. Ephron believes Peres’ failure to call an immediate election after he took office, allowed opposition to a peace agreement to build among hardliners among both Israelis and Palestinians. Acts of terrorism spiked during this period.  When an election was finally called six months after Rabin’s death, Netanyahu and his Likud party won it, albeit by a small margin.

Had Rabin lived is another matter for Ephron. One of his conclusions is that the assassin was able to “tip the balance in the right’s favor by killing the one man who had both a vision for peace with the Palestinians, and the public confidence required to keep it going, even in the face of terrorist attacks.”

In the last two decades, no new such leader has emerged. What’s more, Israeli support for the concept of the exchange of land for peace has all but vanished.  For me, that is the real tragedy of Rabin’s death.

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