I’m not big on counterfactual historical musings. The hypothetical is tempting and tantalizing, but valueless. History happens but only just. Still, it happens. That events are not inevitable does not make them reversible.
There is one exception to my impatience with historical hypotheticals. It haunts me. That is the assassination almost a quarter-century ago of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who, with the weary wisdom of the warrior, sought peace with the Palestinians through the Oslo Accords. The bullets fired by Yigal Amir, a fanatical religious-nationalist Jew, on Nov. 4, 1995, killed that effort. The “peace process” became a lazy phrase devoid of meaning.
In this case I find it impossible not to think, “If only.”
Rabin gritted his teeth to shake hands with Yasir Arafat, whom he cordially loathed. He spoke with a solemnity somehow accentuated by his awkwardness, in contrast to the slick sloganeering of his nemesis, Benjamin Netanyahu. Rabin looked at the sweep of history, not the latest polls. Rabin knew that there is no escaping the moral corrosion involved in subjugating another people. With Israelis and Palestinians claiming the same land, only compromise between them could bring security in the end.
I was reminded of all this watching “Incitement,” the fine new Israeli movie directed by Yaron Zilberman that takes a fresh look at the assassination, and particularly at the world of Messianic zealotry that produced and sustained and motivated Amir, a 25-year-old law student at Bar-Ilan University. He was no loner. He emerged from the significant section of Israeli society that viewed Rabin as a traitor.
For Israelis convinced the West Bank is God-given real estate, Rabin’s preparedness for territorial compromise with the Palestinians violated Jews’ right to their biblical heritage. Amir believed this merited the death penalty for Rabin, whom he viewed as a “rodef,” or pursuer, who threatened Jewish lives with his peace mongering.
Amir, brilliantly played in the movie by Yehuda Nahari Halevi (who also grew up in an Orthodox Yemenite family), was successful. A two-state peace has receded, almost to vanishing point. Messianic Zionism, of Amir’s variety, has gained the upper hand. Israel has drifted rightward, cheered on of late by the Trump administration. Netanyahu, now Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has made it his life’s work to deny Palestinian statehood. Indicted on corruption charges against which his best defense is clinging to power, Netanyahu now advocates annexation of swathes of the West Bank.
So I can’t help wondering. If only Rabin had lived. If only Israel had confronted the fanatical scourge in its midst before it was too late. If only Israel had understood earlier the poison of the occupation. If only enormous security lapses had not allowed Amir to lurk for a long time close to Rabin’s car and fire at point-blank range. If only Shimon Peres, Rabin’s successor, had not proved so inept, squandering an enormous lead to allow Netanyahu to win the 1996 election. If only the honor of the warrior had not given way to the dishonor of the indicted politician.
“Incitement,” which will be released in the United States in January, is based on years of research and many conversations with Amir, who is serving a life sentence. It is most powerful in deconstructing its title. Who and what exactly incited Amir? He viewed Baruch Goldstein, the American-born killer of 29 Palestinian worshipers in Hebron in 1994, as an exemplar. He parsed religious texts and rabbis’ words for justification in killing Rabin as a “pursuer” or “informer” (discussion around these themes was commonplace in Israeli settlements). In short, he became convinced he was doing God’s will.
As a dark-skinned Mizrahi in an Israel dominated by descendants of Ashkenazi European Jews, jilted by his pale-skinned girlfriend, feverish in his rejection of Rabin’s outreach to the Palestinians, Amir was susceptible to delusions of greatness under divine direction. He changed history.
Another element in the incitement, however unwitting, was political. The fury of Netanyahu’s right wing Likud party knew no bounds. Footage shows Netanyahu speaking at a big rally on Oct. 5, 1995, a month before the assassination. As he speaks, chants rise from the crowd: “Rabin is a traitor,” “In blood and fire we will get rid of Rabin.” Posters were raised of Rabin in Nazi SS uniform. David Levy, a prominent member of Likud, left. Netanyahu carried on.
On March 4, 1994, at an anti-Oslo protest, Netanyahu led a procession bearing a coffin with the inscription, “Rabin kills Zionism.” Whether the coffin was for Zionism or Rabin is disputed but hardly relevant. As Zilberman, the director, wrote in an email, “A prime minister that kills Zionism is a traitor.” That is how Amir saw Rabin: as a traitor.
Netanyahu compared Rabin to Neville Chamberlain in the pages of The New York Times. After 21 Israelis and one Dutch citizen were killed in a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv on Oct. 19, 1994, he said: “Prime Minister Rabin chose to favor Arafat and the well-being of the people of Gaza over the security of Israeli citizens.” This is scurrilous — and that is putting it kindly.
Now, 24 years later, Netanyahu clings to power. A third Israeli election in a year is likely. The hope that Rabin brought has gone. But Israel deserves a fresh start under a new leader who can imagine the unimaginable and, through statesmanship, honor Rabin’s legacy at last.
If only it could happen.