A toxic and inflammatory political atmosphere. An assassination. A rumored conspiracy and cover-up. The 1995 murder of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing fanatic bears more than a passing resemblance to JFK in Dallas, except for this—Rabin’s murder had more far-reaching consequences, and its effects can still be seen on Israeli and Middle Eastern politics.
That, at least, is one of the takeaways from Rabin, The Last Day, director Amos Gitai’s film about the Prime Minister’s assassination, the events surrounding it, and the commission set up to find out what happened, and why.
The picture, which opens this weekend in New York, followed by a national rollout, features a combination of archival footage and recreations that help illuminate not only what occurred on November 4, 1995, but how those events gave a push to the reactionary settler movement. It also explains the rise of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Rabin was killed by the Israel extreme right, who wanted to destabilize his government,” says Gitai, who spoke to The Daily Beast during a New York publicity tour. “He was the victim of a crazy coalition—you had hallucinating rabbis, who came up with ancient curses, the strong lobby of the settlers, and the parliamentary right. We cannot say they all wanted to kill him, but they did want to weaken him.”
Rabin’s ‘crime,’ in the eyes of these groups, was his 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords, a series of agreements with Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization. These agreements, for which Rabin, Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, provided for an interim Palestinian government that would administer areas under its control, and called for the withdrawal of the Israel Defense Force from parts of Gaza and the West Bank. The PLO also recognized the State of Israel, and Israel recognized the PLO as representatives of the Palestinian people.
Rabin had already frozen settlement construction which, according to the film, had grown from 31 settlements and 4,400 settlers in 1977 to 120 settlements and 100,000 settlers in 1992.
This growth had occurred even though the settlements were considered illegal under international law, a violation of the Geneva Convention concerning civilian rights. Not that this mattered to the extreme right in Israel, who saw their country’s victory in the 1967 war—after which Israel annexed Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights and the West Bank—as an opportunity to realize their dream of a Greater Israel. So the Accords were viewed as a traitorous enterprise, with reactionary rabbis claiming they violated the Torah by putting Jewish lives at risk.
This mindset led at least one rabbi to compare the Rabin government to the Nazis, and some rabbis placed a Pulsa DiNura, an ancient curse, on Rabin, followed up by a din rodef, an ancient Jewish law which allowed for extrajudicial killings.
Influenced by all this, and a legal system which refused to bring charges against the seditious statements coming from the right wing, a 25-year old law student named Yigal Amir shot and killed Rabin following a massive Tel Aviv rally held to enlist support for the Accords.
Much of Rabin, the Last Day details the ensuing investigation by the Shamgar Commission, which was set up to investigate the assassination.
Using the commission’s official transcripts, Gitai’s film features recreations of interviews with Rabin’s driver, and various security personnel. The picture that emerges is of a security force that was utterly incompetent, or seriously compromised. The area where the actual shooting occurred was lightly patrolled, allowing Amir to go unnoticed for nearly 40 minutes. After the shooting, it took the car carrying Rabin’s still breathing body eight minutes to drive the 500 yards to the nearest hospital, since no one had schooled the driver on an escape route, and no one called the hospital to inform it of the emergency, which meant no medical personnel were waiting when the vehicle finally arrived.
Gitai says he is “not sure there was any conspiracy,” that “it’s just the Israeli chaos, a mixture of voluntary things and just negligence. It’s a sequence of problematic signals. At least politically, they saw all the signs [that something like this could happen]. But I chose to give all the ingredients and let everybody make their own interpretation.”
Amir, who is considered a hero by the radical right, was sentenced to life in prison.
The real beneficiary of the assassination turned out to be Netanyahu, who was the leader of the right-wing Likud party at the time of the shooting, and was elected Prime Minister in 1996. He is shown in archival footage giving impassioned, ultra-nationalistic speeches and, in one chilling shot, smirking in a corner while reactionary Israeli politicians keep interrupting a speech Rabin is trying to give before the country’s parliament.
“Netanyahu is a cynical guy,” says Gitai, “so you have a confrontation between someone who wants to reconcile Israel with the region, and someone who wants to get power back to the right wing. It’s a general strategy up until today.”
Although the film raises the question of whether or not Rabin was naïve about the strength of the forces arrayed against him, Gitai says of the former leader that “you have to be determined, not naïve, but also understand that peace is about a dialogue. So when you make peace it cannot be unilateral; the ‘other’ should exist. And this is the big difference between what is happening now, the others don’t exist; it’s them [Israelis and Palestinians] and their culture.”
With grassroots Palestinian violence against Israelis on the rise, and settler vs. Palestinian violence becoming an increasing problem, Gitai is not overly optimistic about the future. “If it will continue this way, it will be self-destruction,” he says. “Netanyahu is talented but cynical, and he is using hatred between sub-groups—Jews vs. Arabs, religious vs. non-religious—to get elected. This is extremely dangerous in a country that is so fragile.”
Ultimately, Gitai feels his film shows that Rabin’s assassination was a historical tragedy not only because it set back the Middle East peace process, but because in the intervening years, no Israeli politician has come along to replace him.
“Every year, more than 100,000 people go to Rabin Square [site of the killing] to mark the day of his assassination,” he says. “I think the only political figure alarming to Netanyahu is this dead man. I don’t think there are any living ones.”