Book Review // Killing a King

November, 02 2015


Killing a King:
The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel
Dan Ephron
W.W. Norton & Company
2015, pp. 304, $27.95

by David K. Shipler

The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 20 years ago produced instant analysis of unusual accuracy. Typically, it takes decades for the air to clear enough for history to make a sound judgment, especially in the Middle East. But when Rabin was shot in the back in November 1995 after a huge peace rally in Tel Aviv, the Israelis of various camps who either mourned or celebrated what they thought the murder meant for their country turned out to be exactly right.

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They were right that Rabin’s death would result in a loss of momentum toward the concessions necessary to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians. And they were right that the assassin, a religious extremist named Yigal Amir, did not act alone, in a sense: He drew ideological sustenance from a significant segment of Israeli society where Rabin was detested and denounced as traitor, Nazi, Arab-lover and defiler of God’s plan for the Jews. Amir was an activist and organizer, and within circles of like-minded friends, he made little secret of his lust to kill Rabin. He staked out positions at Rabin’s apartment and elsewhere several times, and finally pulled the trigger in complete harmony with the hatred purveyed by a radical absolutism that has gained in political power ever since.

This turning point is meticulously documented by the journalist Dan Ephron in his compelling account, Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel. A former Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek who covered the rally and the murder trial, Ephron interviewed both Rabin’s and Amir’s families and associates, sifted through court and investigative records, and pieced together an authoritative narrative that will serve as a valuable record of history.

It is also a page-turner. You don’t want to put it down, because even though you know the outcome, Ephron does such diligent reporting in getting inside the mind of the assassin, the thinking of Rabin, and the miscalculations of the Shin Bet units charged with providing security that practically every page carries the tense energy of fresh insight.

Along with fellow right-wingers, Amir was deeply alarmed when the Oslo accords signed in 1993 by Rabin and the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, laid the groundwork for an Israeli military withdrawal from Palestinian population centers in the West Bank and Gaza. A Palestinian Authority governed by Arafat would get limited control over a patchwork of zones, a prospect that sent Amir and others “scouring the Talmud for laws that Rabin might be violating,” Ephron reports. Although Arafat would have no authority over Jewish settlers, who would remain under Israeli law and security protection, Amir concluded that the prime minister had become a moser, “a person who handed over Jews to a hostile power.” The idea had been discussed in the haredi press, which had raised the question of whether Rabin might be subject to the Talmudic concept of din rodef, defined as “the law of the pursuer,” which “permitted a bystander to kill the aggressor in order to save the innocent victim,” Ephron notes. This argument came to constitute Amir’s religious rationale for the assassination.

“Amir clearly stood on the margins of the right-wing camp,” Ephron concludes. “But its mainstream leaders had goaded the extremists with their ugly rhetoric and its rabbis had furnished the religious justification for violence.”

Intelligence officials worried about an assassination attempt, but Rabin gruffly rebuffed their pleas that he wear a bulletproof vest. And Amir was not on the radar of the Shin Bet, whose monitoring concentrated on Palestinians; the agency underestimated the threat from Jews. Those Jews who did come under surveillance were mostly “national religious” settlers on the West Bank, and Amir did not fit the obvious profile. He was ultra-Orthodox, lived not in a settlement but in the coastal town of Herzliya and studied law at Bar-Ilan University.

The Shin Bet’s entire file on Amir, Ephron found, consisted of a single page with a few sentences noting that he tried to organize a militia to attack Palestinians and that he took students for weekend visits to settlements. But, according to Ephron, his boasts about plans to kill Rabin went unreported by a Shin Bet informant, who thought him “nothing but a blowhard.”

Amir was especially inspired by Baruch Goldstein, a settler who stormed into Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994, spraying gunfire across the sea of kneeling Muslim worshipers and killing 29 before survivors beat him to death. “The Goldstein massacre captivated Amir and also taunted him,” Ephron writes. “Amir regarded himself as a doer and others as talkers and compromisers… If Amir thought sacrificing himself might be a courageous way to derail the peace train, Goldstein had beat him to it.”

Indeed, Amir’s sense of urgency to kill Rabin rose and fell as the prospects for a peace agreement advanced and faltered. The more hopeful the diplomatic progress, the more driven Amir became to end it. With a 9mm Beretta stuck in his belt and a clip containing armor-piercing bullets made by his brother Hagai, he traveled to demonstrations and showed up at Rabin events, trolling for an opportunity. Once, riding on a bus full of protesters to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, he thought his chance had come. But at the last minute, Rabin canceled his appearance to rush to the scene of a bombing elsewhere, part of a series of attacks by Palestinian radicals who were as eager as the Israeli right to torpedo the peace process. 

Hagai spent 16-and-a-half years in prison as an accomplice and was then mined by Ephron on points of Yigal’s thinking. Rabin’s daughter, Dalia, provided the author with intimate details and even with her father’s blood-stained clothing, which Ephron carried in hand luggage to a forensic expert in the United States to answer a key question: whether a hole in the front of Rabin’s shirt had been made by a bullet. Since Amir had shot him in the back, a frontal wound would have suggested a second shooter, perhaps a conspiracy. The expert’s verdict: not a bullet hole, but probably a surgeon’s rapid work to get a tube into the dying prime minister’s chest.

The great sorrow in this story is the fragility of the middle ground. Neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli side could hold the posture of accommodation and compromise against the fierce winds of violence. Those forces of moderation deserve more attention than they usually receive, and in these pages, too, Ephron might have explored them more thoroughly.

Yet his solid reporting leaves the reader space to reflect on what might have been. Could Rabin have survived politically amid the suicide bombings? Would Arafat have been more conciliatory with Rabin than he was with subsequent prime ministers? Could more astute politicians have used the country’s surge of raw grief to sustain the peace process?

“The opponents of compromise in both camps had nowhere near the power and influence they hold now,” Ephron notes. “The process itself had yet to be contaminated by sustained waves of violence and settlement expansion. And the rapport between Rabin and Arafat—the deciders of their generation—had evolved into something workable. For all those reasons, Rabin probably stood a better chance of forging a durable reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians than any leader before or since.”

David K. Shipler is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land, a revised edition of which is to be published in November.

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