Matti Friedman is a journalist in Jerusalem and author of “The Aleppo Codex.”
One Saturday night in late 1995, I was with a few other 18-year-olds at a kibbutz in northern Israel, watching a Hebrew B-movie called “Lemon Popsicle” on TV. Words began scrolling urgently at the bottom of the screen, a news flash: The prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, had been shot at a peace rally in Tel Aviv. Soon the movie winked off, newscasters took over, and we learned that Rabin was dead. Israelis are used to instability and sudden tragedy, but nothing like this had ever happened, and the country was plunged into grief and discord. I remember being crushed in a crowd of tens of thousands filing past Rabin’s coffin in Jerusalem a day or two later, the crowd so big I never actually saw the coffin. Hanging over it all was a sense that something significant had changed for the worse — a sense that lingers 20 years later.
That moment, on Nov. 4, 1995, is the subject of Dan Ephron’s “Killing a King.” Ephron, a veteran journalist who was at the rally that night, spent years reporting in Israel and has a firm grasp of the country’s complexities. For this book, he had the cooperation of Rabin’s family and that of the assassin, Yigal Amir. The result is a narrative that is carefully reported, clearly presented, concise and gripping.
Ephron follows Rabin and Amir over two turbulent years as fate draws them closer to their fatal collision. Rabin, a hero of Israel’s founding generation and the leader of the pragmatic left, is intent on achieving a peace deal that disentangles Israel from millions of Palestinians under military occupation since the 1967 war (which Rabin led as chief of staff). Amir, an undistinguished law student moving on the fringes of the Israeli right, sees Rabin’s plan as an existential danger to Israel and a crime against God. He likes the idea of being an actor in great events and an agent of divine disfavor, and he thinks Jews should be as ready to die for their beliefs as the Palestinian suicide bombers blowing themselves up with terrifying frequency on Israeli streets in those days. He decides to kill the prime minister, an act he realizes will almost certainly cost him his own life.
In recounting the buildup to the killing, Ephron reminds us of the giddiness of the early years of the peace process, when it seemed a better future might actually be in store for the Middle East. It is jarring to read this amid the maelstrom of 2015; the region is unrecognizable in these pages, its problems almost quaint. The signing ceremony on the White House lawn in 1993, Ephron writes, saw Rabin and Yasser Arafat meet for the first time, and “the sheer enormity of the moment, the unscripted interactions, the nervous asides, all generated currents of electricity.” When the two shook hands, the crowd gasped, then cheered. An Israeli daily newspaper “ran a large map showing roads Israel might soon build from its main cities to the capitals of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.”
If much seemed possible at the time, what seemed impossible to many Israelis was a political murder. Those Israelis included the prime minister. Debates in Israel had always been vehement but conformed to certain familial rules — the country was small and fragile, everyone knew each other, and people drew back before they went too far. Ephron describes Rabin rejecting security measures pushed by increasingly nervous bodyguards: “Are you out of your mind?” he says. “I’ll never wear a bulletproof vest in my own country.” As incitement against Rabin mounts, one journalist writes, “Israel is not a country of political assassinations, thank God.” Amir, an amateur, goes unnoticed by intelligence agents tracking Jewish extremists, easily surprises Rabin’s small security detail, and not only shoots the prime minister at point-blank range but lives to gloat. Ephron’s account of how all this happened is dramatic and painful.
“Killing a King” doesn’t delve too deeply into the ways the murder is still felt in Israeli society, and Ephron avoids speculation — wisely, I think — about what might have been had Rabin lived. It is tempting to claim, as Amir does, that killing Rabin ended the peace process, but history isn’t that simple: Violent interventions of this kind rarely work the way their perpetrators imagine, and this one was no exception. The peace idea lived on among Israelis for years afterward and was pursued by subsequent governments, and the causes listed on its death certificate are complex.
But that news flash I remember as an 18-year-old was a crucial moment, one when Israelis were forced to look not outward at our enemies but inward at ourselves. What we saw was ugly and frightening, and it still matters very much. The assassination has been nearly submerged by the torrent of events, which makes this book timely and useful — a reminder that what happened on a Tel Aviv sidewalk 20 years ago is as important to understanding Israel as any of its wars, though the death toll that night was just one.
By Dan Ephron
Norton. 290 pp. $27.95