Talking Middle East Peace With The Man Who Helped to Kill An Israeli Prime Minister
Twenty years after Yitzhak Rabin’s murder, and with another Netanyahu term secured, is Israel headed for peace or apartheid?
TEL AVIV—In a dimly lit apartment in central Tel Aviv, the brother of an assassin and accomplice to the most infamous murder in Israeli history wants to talk peace. Or at least as he sees it.
Hagai Amir, 47, the brother of Yigal Amir, who murdered Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin nearly 20 years ago, sat down for an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast this month, shortly before Israeli national elections, and laid out his vision for the future of the country.
He served 16-and-a-half years for his role in planning the murder—a far-right act of nationalist violence Israel had not seen before or since. He now espouses a view on the peace process that may seem stunning to those who remember those hopeful days after Oslo and before the second Intifada, a worldview that appears to be gaining ground in Israel, if slowly—that of the one-state solution. A binational state where Israelis and Palestinians have equal rights under law, a cause which ironically unites many on the extreme right and the extreme left.
“The situation today is very difficult. We cannot have two states [one for Israelis, one for Palestinians] here. The land is too small, it’s too crowded and there will be many unforeseen complications. To create a Palestinian state, you need to reach an ‘end of claims’ with the Palestinians, which means they have to give up their right of return [a key point of contention in any negotiations],” he said. “And that won’t happen. You can do a disengagement, like in Gaza, from the West Bank, but then what’s the point of that? We should annex the West Bank, and give everyone equal rights under law. Live all together. It can’t be like South Africa.”
“A return to the 1967 borders, which is what Rabin was aiming for, would have destroyed the State of Israel. When I ask people what could have been done to stop the process, instead of murder, they have no answer. We didn’t have a choice, we had to stop the process. In my opinion, a peace agreement would involve the return to the 1948 borders [meaning a binational state], not 1967.”
A return to 1948 would not destroy the State of Israel, the state of the Jews?
“We cannot divide this land and give up access to our holy sites and make Jews leave their homes [in the settlements], God forbid,” Amir said. “The only way is to share it.”
The conversation took place late at night, at his request, not far from Rabin Square, named for the prime minister he helped assassinate. He’d canceled twice before but he showed up this night, at our predetermined meeting place, which he chose. It was not his apartment.
Dressed in a gray sweater and gray jeans, and sporting a small, black skullcap, he greeted us courteously and spoke openly. No question seemed to make him uncomfortable.
After 16-and-a-half years in prison, that may not be surprising. Behind the prison walls, he spoke to everyone, about everything, he said, including Palestinian terrorists.
It was one of his most surprising revelations, that understanding—sympathy, even—for convicted Hamas terrorist masterminds. He regards them as soldiers fighting for a land they deem theirs, and describes long and enriching political discussions.
“I have no problem with Palestinians. I understand their war. I would fight in the same way,” he said. “If people from all over the world come here, from Europe and wherever else and take my land... What? Stand by and do nothing? Israelis have lost it. They can’t understand the other side, whose land they took? You can’t understand that that side doesn’t like you? Is it so complicated?”
But there is a big difference between the Palestinian people, civilians, and terrorists who kill innocents.
“We are soldiers in opposing armies who fight each other. We are at war. I’m referring to them just like they refer to Israeli Air Force commanders who kill or harm thousands of innocent Palestinians and who are not sitting in prison today like they are.”
“They don’t have planes. They have bombers. If they had planes, they would take out whole neighborhoods in Tel Aviv. Is that better?” he asks. “Look at what happened in Gaza [this past summer]. Neighborhoods were wiped out. Believe me, they would have preferred we had blown up a bus. This is a war. People use what weapons they have.”
“On the one hand, I understand them,” he explained. “On the other, I will fight them if necessary. But Israelis have a way of demonizing the other side that I don’t like. This whole conflict is about land. The Jewish people fight the Arabs and vice versa. For this land. Why do I have to make them monsters to fight them? It’s a war.”
“They direct their terror against my people. That’s the problem. It’s my family, my friends, the Jewish people. These were the ones getting killed. People riding on buses, people shopping for food. If they were targeting politicians, symbols of the state, that’s another story.”
You sound a bit confused. On the one hand, you are expressing views that are considered very left-wing; on the other hand, some would think you sound like a Hamas spokesman.
“I’m not a leftist,” he countered. “They are my enemy and I fight them. What are the labels for? I know my views can be problematic for the right-wing in this country but... My conclusion from my time in prison is that the Israelis want more rights than the Palestinians. They think they can do whatever they like, but should the other side do the same, then they’re terrorists and criminals and cruel and so on. Why? Because! And should you ask this question, you will automatically be labeled a traitor, a leftist. There’s no consistency.”
Amir has been a frree man for two years. He has a welding shop in the coastal town of Herzliya, just north of Tel Aviv, and is studying construction engineering even though he dreamed of learning physics and was a physics student at the time of Rabin’s murder.
At the time of our meeting, the campaigns were in full swing. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in a fight for his political life against opposition leader Isaac Herzog. Bat all that made no impression on Amir. He’s not voted in years. He says it gives him peace.
Not far from our meeting place, over at Rabin Square, two radically different protests would take place in the following weeks, presenting opposite ways forward for Israel. Herzog (and Tzipi Livni) of the Zionist Union Party, made up of Labor and Hatnua—the main challengers of Netanyahu—had one vision for Israel. Netanyahu, and the nationalist camp in general, had another. In the square that night, Netanyahu vowed never to divide Jerusalem and to continue building in settlements and denounced the “Left and its friends in the media.” A few days later, he would promise that a Palestinian state would not be created on his watch, a remark, combined with an ominous warning on election day that “Arabs are moving in droves to the polling stations,” that sparked the ire of the White House. Again.
Almost 20 years prior, Rabin stood in that same square, on the last night of his life, and told thousands of Israelis that his government was “prepared to take risks for peace” and that “peace would solve most of the problems of the State of Israel.”
How was the murder planned?
“My brother and I have always been politically aware. Even though it was known back then that [the] Oslo [Accords] would lead to disaster, we didn’t do anything for two years. We gave Rabin a chance. Maybe we were wrong, and we thought maybe it would lead to peace. When the waves of devastating terror attacks started on the buses, the Right organized large-scale demonstrations. And when Rabin signed Oslo II [in September 1995], we decided that this couldn’t go on. Oslo I could have been considered a foolish mistake, but Oslo II was a crime. Until then, Yigal and I had an agreement that we were prepared to go to prison, but not to die. But three months prior, Yigal told me he was also prepared to pay with his life, and I told him I wasn’t. He started developing new ways of trying to carry it out. After all, in order to do something like that without endangering your life, you need some sort of technology, and that’s what I busied myself with in those days. My brother decided to just skip all that and didn’t wait for me to think of a more sophisticated plan, and he acted alone in the square [that night]. At the time of the murder, I was at home. It was a real miracle that he stayed alive among the furious crowd. I was sure they would kill him.”
What were you doing at home?
“I watched a movie.”
“Silence of the Lambs.”
Why did you choose to express your ideology with murder instead of through the democratic process?
“There was no way to make the government fall, and a return to the 1967 borders, which is what Rabin was aiming for, would have destroyed the State of Israel. When I ask people what could have been done to stop the process, instead of murder, they have no answer. ”
But the majority of Israelis chose Rabin, meaning that they believed in his way of making peace. The majority decides in a democracy, no?
“People forget the many demonstrations organized by the Right, right before that night he was murdered. The public didn’t elect Rabin for peace in this way. People forgot how many terrorist attacks took place every day. Is that peace? If Rabin had put forth the Oslo plan during his election campaign, of course no one would have voted for him. No one knew that Rabin would start handing over Israeli land to [then-Palestinian Authority chairman] Yasser Arafat, who was a murderer himself.”
Could the murder have been prevented?
“In the period in which we talked about the murder, there was a girl I was in contact with. We weren’t officially together but I loved her a lot. I would harass her a lot,” he says with a smile. “We would meet during organized Shabbat gatherings in the settlements. If she had known, she could have broken me, she could definitely have prevented me from going through with it. And Gali [Yigal] would not have done it without me so it’s likely that the whole thing would have been prevented. After I was imprisoned, she would still go and visit my parents. For many years, she didn’t marry, I thought it was because of me. In the end, she got married.”
How is life for Yigal Amir in prison today?
“Since my release [in May 2012], Hagai’s conditions in prison have changed. He’s no longer in solitary confinement, and the prisoners love him. He’s considered an ‘arbitrator’ for heads of crime families and they respect his rulings. The prison guards also respect him more and more and he’s allowed outside for two hours a day now to hand out his rulings to criminal organizations.”
Since that night in Rabin Square, many of the same names and faces remain in Israeli politics, as well as the same fears on the Right and Left—that a withdrawal by Israel would be met with a wave of terror, as was the case after Oslo—and that a failure by Israel to make compromises would lead it on the path to apartheid and global isolation.
Twenty years is a lifetime anywhere, especially in the Middle East, though in some ways it still feels just like yesterday. Commemorations are held in the square every year on the anniversary of the assassination, and the pain and shock of the crime—the murder of a Jewish head of state by a fellow Jew—still linger today. As does the deep wedge the act drove through Israeli society.
Bibi’s victory at the polls last week brought this intense division back into sharp focus, and the frame comes complete with ugly accusations from both sides (Bibi voters were called Neanderthals and racists; anti-Bibi voters the usual fare of bleeding-heart leftists and traitors).
In the end, this election was defined largely by fear and racism, with the same worrying talk of incitement and whispers of the Oslo era. In another 20 years, it’s uncertain the same themes won’t define a national election for Israel, a country whose status and borders are still not final, decades after statehood.