Killing a King by Dan Ephron

Nonfiction — print. W.W. Norton & Company, 2015. Print. 304 pgs. Library copy.

On November 4, 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel was assassinated as he left a pro-Oslo Accords peace rally in Israel by a twenty-five-year-old Israeli citizen named Yigal Amir, who justified his actions through the Talmudic concept of “rodef”. The law of “din rodef” allows an individual to kill a person in order to save innocent lives and, according to Amir, Rabin was guilt of murdering Israeli settlers in the West Bank because he signed and promoted the Oslo Accords, which enshrined the ideals of Palestinian authority over the West Bank and for which Rabin, Arafat, and the Israeli Foreign Minister (and Rabin’s longtime political rival) Shimon Peres won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.

Although Amir was not a settler himself, his orthodox faith meant he believed Jews have a biblical right to the lands of Gaza and the West Bank and that the Messiah will return if the Jewish people call the land of Israel, with its borders extended to include the West Bank, Gaza, and parts of Jordan, as home. This belief was the underpinning of the early settler movement, although this since changed as more secular Jews have moved into the settlements in search of more spacious and cheaper homes than those in Israel proper. If the West Bank and Gaza fell under the control of Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization, then these settlers would likely be forced from their homes and the Messiah would not return.

Settlers and the right-wing politicians who supported them, including present-day Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, vilified Rabin and the Oslo Accords in the press and in public demonstrations. Photographs of Rabin dressed as a Nazi were carried during demonstrations, and Amir worked on establishing his own militia to defend the rights of settlers while he and his classmates traveled to the settlements to support the settlers. The religious zealotry of the settlers and the racism within Israeli society was either vocally or, at the very least, passively supported by rabbis and right-wing political leaders who refused to denounce the violent rhetoric and characterizations being used.

The peace process would also set off a wave of violence in Israel/Palestine with the American-born Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein committing the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in Hebron, a city in the West Bank. Goldstein would enter the Muslim mosque killing 29 Palestinian worshipers and wounding an additional 125. While his actions were denounced by Rabin and other Israelis, those from Goldstein’s settlement would call him a marytr for the cause and the Cave of the Patriarchs as well as other areas near Jewish settlements in Hebron would be closed to Palestinians (but not Jewish Irsaelis) exasperating tensions and leading a wave of Palestinian violence in retaliation. An eye for an eye over and over again.

During this time, Amir would attempt to assassinate Rabin at least three times before succeeding, and Ephron walks the reader through each attempt in “real-time” to demonstrate both Amir’s determination and how little regard the Israeli internal security service, Shin Bet or Shabak, had for threats on Rabin’s life from Irsaelis rather than Palestinians. Prestige and financial support within the organization were generated towards the department investigating Arabs; the Jewish terrorism department was where careers went to die.

The parallels between the political climate of Israel in 1995 and today’s presidential election in the United States — the comparisons of politicians to Nazis, the demand for a whole group of people to deported based solely on religion —  would be difficult to miss, although Ephron never explicitly calls them out.  More importantly, though, I think the book helps to explain why the peace process died and why Israel has continued to elect such right-wing politicians in recent years.

So many people, including President Obama, were horrified to hear Prime Minister Netanyahu plead with Jewish Israelis to turn out in the March 2015 election because Arab Israelis were voting in “droves” and threatening the Jewish-nature of Israel’s democracy. Yet, according to Ephron, this is largely in line with Netanyahu’s comments in 1993-1995 about how Arab Israelis should not be allowed to vote on or participate in the peace process because they do not represent the desires of the nation of Israel as a Jewish state. Netanyahu was also present at an anti-Oslo Accords rally, which lead to the pro-peace rally at which Rabin was killed, where Rabin and Peres were depicted as Nazis and murders and participants clamored for their death. He stood on a balcony watching the parade and said nothing.

There is, simply, no opportunity for peace between Israelis and Palestinians when the leader of Israel is determined to disenfranchise the non-Jewish citizens of his nation and is dependent upon the support of the settler populations who believe they have Biblical (and, at least for some, racial) authority over the Palestinians. And that, sadly, is the lasting legacy of Rabin’s assassination and his attempts to bring peace to his country.

Of course, Ephron says at the beginning of his book that it would be impossible to determine if peace would have come had Rabin lived. The escalating violence, including the capture and murder of several Israeli Defense Force members, damaged the public’s perception of the peace process. But the mounting rhetoric and the vacuum left by his death within his party and in the left-wing of Israeli politics brought the settlers’ perception to the forefront of Israeli politics.

His explanation of this development helps to construct an understanding of why Israel is the way it is today and why the peace process has failed to move forward in any meaningful way. Arafat lost the man he had come to respect, Israel gained a leader with evident disdain for non-Jewish people dependent upon those Israelis living in settlements in order to continue holding power, and hatred towards each other came back to the forefront of the political realm for both the Palestinians and the Israelis destroying any of the hope about peace still palpable before Rabin’s assassination in November 1995.

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