On Nov. 4, 1995, 20 years ago today, former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was shot twice in the back with hollow-point rounds from a Beretta 84F semi-automatic pistol. Within minutes, the man whose personal history paralleled the development of Israel itself had ended.
The similarities are striking. Rabin, like the state he would later head, was born in Jerusalem but matured in Tel Aviv. A lifelong secularist, he embodied the Zionist Sabra spirit of self-dependence, socialism and the joyful exercise of powerful personal agency. He found his passion in agriculture, and longed to build, irrigate and develop the earth. As the contradiction between Jewish and Arab nationalism erupted into sustained violence, he, like the movement he loved, was forced to shed the aura of peaceful development and learn to handle a gun.
As an early Zionist military leader, Rabin’s career reflected the complex position of the Jewish community in British Palestine. He fought against the Nazi-aligned Vichy French in Lebanon, but regarded the British as an enemy. He helped suppress the violent Jewish terrorists in favor of the newly formed Israel Defense Forces, and directed defensive campaigns that saved the Jewish community of Jerusalem. At the same time, he also expelled the Palestinians in the cities of Lydda and Ramle when he saw a strategic aim in doing so. Rabin had risen to IDF chief of staff by the Six Day War of 1967, when Israel pre-empted a combined Egyptian and Syrian attack and seized control of the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula.
When Rabin finally became prime minister in 1974, he governed an Israel that was no longer intoxicated by the confidence of military prowess; the Yom Kippur War in 1973, which Rabin had missed while serving as ambassador to the U.S., had shattered Israel’s sense of security. As Rabin moved himself from a military to a political role, he moved Israel away from military solutions, and pursued peace with Egypt through diplomatic channels. The Sinai Interim Agreement of 1975 that he signed would lead to the Camp David Accords under later Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
But the conflict with the Palestinians remained, and Rabin retained his Israeli pragmatism and willingness to do what was dirty and necessary. When the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza rose up in the First Intifada, Rabin, as defense minister, was willing to use force to put down the uprising, earning himself the moniker “Bone Breaker.” But when he was again prime minister in 1992, he came to see the necessity of recognizing Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Just mere months before, taking such a step would have been inconceivable. He was able to sign the Oslo accords and obtain the PLO recognition of Israel and a renunciation of violence, clearing two of the largest stumbling blocks to peace.
It’s not known how Rabin would have handled the thorny issues that have emerged in peace talks that emerged since his death. He was famously muddled when it came to policies and speeches, but what we do know is that he was committed to always finding a way. He summed up his ideology best in a quote that would later be referred to by others as ‘Rabin’s Law’: “We will fight terror as if there were no negotiations, but we will negotiate as if there were no terror.”
If Rabin’s life follows Israel’s trajectory, it is the grim truth that his death was, in a way, the death of the old Israel. Rabin was killed by a man who represented everything in the later generations of Israelis that the original European Zionists feared: a fanatically religious, right-wing Oriental Jew who saw violence as the most powerful tool at his disposal. Rabin’s death was a clear product of Israel’s shift rightward, as religious settlers of the West Bank increasingly drove the national conversation. Toxic extremism killed Rabin in an instant, but this radicalism may now be giving Israel’s founding principles a slow smothering instead.
When we remember Rabin today, we remember how he successfully navigated contradictions to achieve breathtaking results for five decades. We remember the founding spirit of Israel, a spirit that, though no longer whetted by the same hardship and necessity, lives on still. And we acknowledge the way forward that Rabin charted for us: peace through negotiations. Finally, we present the tragedy of his death as a warning to both the Israeli and Palestinian societies that the sprouts of extremism must never be allowed to take root.
Rabin was a man who lived, and eventually died, by his ability and courage to make hard choices. He was a good man. May we inherit his brilliance, his strength and his compassion. Zikrono l’vrakha, may his memory be a blessing.
Bernard Stanford is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .