Assassinations are by definition significant because they involve the murder of a prominent individual for political purposes. But not all assassinations constitute turning points. World War I, for example, would likely have happened even without the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The stage was already set for what was to become The Great War, and something else would have provided the spark.
Nor is it obvious that the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy, as significant as it was, was a historical turning point. Some say that, had he lived, he would have limited US involvement in Vietnam, a war that in the hands of his successors ultimately claimed some 58,000 American lives. Obviously, there is no way of knowing. What can be said with some confidence, though, is that the US political system was sufficiently robust that the broad direction of domestic and foreign policy alike were not dependent on a single person.
By contrast, the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 25 years ago by a right-wing Jewish extremist almost certainly was a turning point in the Middle East. The reason is clear: Rabin may well have been the only Israeli leader of his generation both willing and able to make peace with the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. He saw the need to compromise and was strong enough to take calculated risks and persuade a majority of Israelis that it was wise to do so.
By contrast, Rabin’s rival and successor, Shimon Peres, had the desire to make peace, but his very enthusiasm undermined his ability to rally skeptical Israelis behind him. Rabin’s reluctance proved invaluable. And several subsequent Israeli prime ministers, including the incumbent, Binyamin Netanyahu, possessed the hardline credentials to make a deal with the Palestinians, in the sense that the anti-communist Richard Nixon could broker the US breakthrough with China a half-century ago. But, unlike Nixon, they lacked the desire to do so on terms that had any chance of being accepted.
This is not to say that Rabin would have succeeded had he lived. It takes two to make peace. It was Nelson Mandela’s – and South Africa’s – good fortune that President F.W. de Klerk was a willing partner in ending apartheid. Peace requires leaders who are both willing and able to compromise and sustain their commitments. And here it is not obvious that Rabin had a viable partner in Yasir Arafat, although it is instructive that Rabin ultimately judged that it was worth pursuing, because only Arafat possessed the authority to make a deal.
What also made Rabin remarkable was his openness to change. As Israel’s defense minister from 1984 to 1990, he imposed harsh measures on Palestinians living in Israeli-occupied territories and cracked down on violent protest. I was working on the Middle East at the White House at the time. When I challenged Rabin on the wisdom of saying Israel would break the bones of the protesters, he responded, “What would you have us do? Kill them?”
For Rabin, it was a legal and political necessity to maintain order, but it was also a moral imperative to minimize the loss of life. Using non-lethal force was to him the right approach.
Over time, however, Rabin concluded that force alone would not succeed. He came to see political and economic incentives as essential as well. And in his second term as prime minister, he accepted the Palestine Liberation Organization as a negotiating partner despite its history of terrorism, and approved the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords that established a path designed to bring about ever greater political autonomy for Palestinians.
As we know, the Oslo Accords were never implemented in full. Rabin was assassinated, subsequent attempts at negotiating peace failed, Arafat died, and no Palestinian state materialized.
All this is relevant now given the recent diplomatic breakthrough between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Arab governments, motivated by the threat from Iran and a desire for access to Israeli technology and US arms, have determined not to allow the unresolved Palestinian issue to stand between them and normal relations with Israel. Other Arab states eventually will do much the same.
The Palestinian reaction has been equal parts predictable and disappointing. Most Palestinians still seem unprepared to accept that the path to a state of their own does not run through the Arab League or the United Nations or even Washington, DC, but rather through direct talks with Israel.
As Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank continue to expand, time is running out. Israel’s government has agreed to postpone annexation of significant portions of the West Bank for just three years. The question is whether the next generation of Palestinian leaders will, like Rabin, be willing and able to compromise for peace.
But Israelis would be wise to learn from Rabin as well. He believed that Israel must remain both Jewish and democratic, and understood that this requires separate states. The only alternatives are to make Palestinians citizens of Israel (thereby ending Israel’s Jewish character), or deny Palestinians voting rights (thereby ending Israel’s democratic character).
For good reason, Rabin rejected both alternatives. There would be no better way to honor his legacy than by reviving a diplomatic process leading to the creation of two separate states living side by side in peace.