It was one of the most notable political assassinations in recent history.
The Jewish ultranationalist Yigal Amir pulled the trigger on Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995 and, with two accurate shots, not only murdered the man but also the idea he defended: the possibility of Israelis and Palestinians having lasting peace.
With fierce opposition led by current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right, Yitzhak Rabin faced an aggressive smear campaign.
Israeli cities, as Jeremy Bowen, BBC international editor, recalls, were full of posters showing Rabin dressed as Arafat, with the kufiya (Palestinian scarf) on his head, or portrayed as a Nazi, wearing the SS uniform.
The extreme right has not forgiven him for giving up control of part of the Palestinian territories. Hamas, in turn, had already begun a campaign of suicide attacks, convinced that the Oslo Accords were a surrender to a state that they considered should not exist.
On that November 4, 1995, which has just turned 28 years old, Rabin brought together more than 100,000 people in Tel Aviv at an event in defense of the peace agreements.
“I was in the army for 27 years. I fought when peace had no chance. I think there is now, and a lot of it. We must take advantage of this on behalf of everyone present here and on behalf of those who are not here, who are many. I have always believed that most people want peace and are willing to take risks for peace,” he said that night, in what would become his last speech.
The square then sang “Shir LaShalom” (“Song for Peace”). In the inside pocket of the Prime Minister’s jacket they would later find a copy of the lyrics of this hymn for peace – soaked in his blood.
As soon as Rabin left the stage, Yigal Amin shot him twice in the back.
Rabin, the former army chief seeking peace
Yitzhak Rabin, a member of the Israeli Labor Party, was elected prime minister twice, most recently in the 1992 elections.
But for many Israelis, their cover letter was their service record.
Rabin began his military career in the Palmach, the elite unit of the Haganah, which would later become, after the proclamation of the State of Israel, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
By the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Rabin was already a prominent IDF commander, although this was only the beginning of his military career.
In 1967, in the Six-Day War, Yitzhak Rabin was chief of staff of the army that achieved a devastating victory over Arab enemies. In less than a week, Israel defeated Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq, and captured the territories of Sinai, the Golan Heights, Gaza and the West Bank.
After this victory, at the height of his military career, Rabin did what many other Israeli generals did: he entered politics.
He was Israel’s ambassador to Washington and upon his return in 1973, he was elected deputy of the Knesset for the Labor Party.
After Golda Meir’s resignation in 1974 (weakened by the Yom Kippur War), he held the position of Prime Minister for the first time (1974-1977), to which he would return in 1992 until his death.
For many historians, it was precisely his military past, impeccable in the eyes of many Israelis, that gave him the necessary legitimacy to embark on the Oslo peace process.
“Not that Rabin was the last chance for peace, but it was the best, precisely because of his experience as a pillar of the defense system, the important credibility he had and the genuine transformation he experienced in the last years and months of his life”, he explains. Derek Penslar, professor of Jewish History at Harvard University, told the BBC.
Rabin led the war, but came to believe that dialogue was important for Israel’s security, as he passionately demonstrated in speeches like this:
“I, serial number 30743, retired Lieutenant General Yitzhak Rabin, soldier of the Israel Defense Forces and peacekeeping army; I, who have sent armies to fire and soldiers to death, say today: we are sailing towards to a war without victims, without injuries, without blood, without suffering. It is the only war in which it is a pleasure to participate: the war for peace.”
As Dov Waxman, director of the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at the University of California, explains, Yitzhak Rabin “wasn’t exactly a left-wing pacifist,” but that’s why he became the most suitable person in Israel to lead the peace process. .
“Prime Minister Rabin was uniquely positioned to lead a successful peace process to its conclusion. Because of his long military experience, he could give assurances to Israelis, especially Israeli Jews, that he would not compromise their security,” Waxman told BBC Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish-language service.
With this support, and the groundwork laid with the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference and the 1978 Camp David accords, Rabin became a key actor in the Oslo Accords.
What were the Oslo Accords?
In a scenario as volatile as the Middle East, negotiating peace required discretion.
For this reason, Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams began secret talks in 1993 in the Norwegian capital, which would end with the signing of the first Oslo Agreement (Oslo I) in September of that same year at the White House.
In front of President Bill Clinton, Rabin and Arafat achieved with a handshake what until then seemed impossible: recognizing each other as interlocutors.
Both, as well as the then Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, were recognized in 1994 with the Nobel Peace Prize.
A second agreement (Oslo II) would be signed in 1995.
Until then, Israel refused to negotiate with the PLO, which it considered a terrorist organization. But from that moment on, the Palestine Liberation Organization became, in the eyes of Israel, “representative of the Palestinian people”.
In turn, the PLO recognized Israel as a State, renounced terrorism and its leaders were able to return from exile.
The Oslo Accords granted limited self-government to Palestinians in their urban areas and led to the creation of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).
But the arrangement created was supposed to be temporary. Oslo was designed so that, within five years and thanks to new negotiations, a permanent solution to the conflict could be reached.
30 years have passed since then and reality could not be further from the hopes of the time. Today almost no one talks about peace in the region.
Did Rabin’s assassination mark the end of the peace process?
The murder had a profound impact on the Oslo peace process, the analysts consulted recognize.
After Rabin’s death, Shimon Peres assumed leadership of the government that he lost, a year later, in disputed elections against Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Although Netanyahu did not stop the peace process, he did everything possible to derail it and ensure that it did not end with the creation of a Palestinian state,” argues the professor at the University of California.
For Orit Rozin, a professor of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University, Rabin’s assassination shook Israelis in the same way as the Hamas attack on October 7, in which around 1,400 people died, according to Israeli authorities.
“The circumstances are obviously very different but, then, as now, the Israelis and their leaders felt as if they had lost their balance”, argues Rozon, for whom Shimon Peres was “too distraught to summon the courage to move forward with the agreement “.
The Israeli far right, although it never recognized it, “celebrated Rabin’s assassination”, says the historian, who that night received a call from a rabbi who lived in the settlements, who said that “people were dancing on the balconies”.
Three weeks before the murder, a 19-year-old young man appeared on television with the emblem of Rabin’s Cadillac model car, which he himself tore from the vehicle: “We’ve reached his car and soon we’ll reach his as well,” he threatened.
His name was Itamar Ben Gvir, today Israel’s Minister of National Security.
In the end, Orit Rozin summarizes: “Hamas, with its campaign of suicide bombings, and the Israeli far right, ended up killing the peace process.”
After Rabin’s death, neither the Palestinian side nor the Israeli side emerged with the leadership needed to keep the flame of peace alive, analysts say.
It is impossible to predict what would have happened if Rabin had not been assassinated.
Negotiators had not yet begun to discuss the most complicated parts of the agreement, such as the future limits of the State of Palestine, the return of refugees, the status of Jerusalem or Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories.
Rabin himself “also never publicly stated that he supported the creation of a Palestinian state, although he clearly understood that this was the direction the agreements were headed,” notes Dov Waxman.
In fact, as historian Rachid Khalidi, who holds the Edward Said Chair in Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, recalls: “Rabin said on several occasions in the Knesset that Palestine would be less than a state, that Israel would maintain complete control of the valley of the Jordan River and Jerusalem.”
Today, the Oslo Accords, which in theory are still in force, are largely discredited. The ANP, which should have been replaced by an elected government, is losing its legitimacy.
Subsequent attempts to return to the path of peace also failed.
The last sincere effort, Derek Penslar maintains, was probably in 2008 between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and ANP President Mahmoud Abbas.
“As soon as Netanyahu became prime minister again, everything ended,” says the Harvard professor.