The price of peace

Murder in the name of God: the plot to kill Yitzhak Rabin

Michael Karpin and Ina Friedman<em> Gran

I finished this book returning from Belfast to London. The Northern Ireland Assembly had just approved the framework for devolved power. Once again, David Trimble and the bulk of the Ulster Unionists had voted with Irish nationalists and republicans. Once again, Ian Paisley and those unionists who opposed last year's multi-party agreement voted against. Immediately afterwards, Paisley rushed into the central hall of Stormont, and called Trimble a traitor. I've heard Paisley use the label before. This time, it sounded like a clanging admonition.

The charge of treachery dominates Ina Friedman and Michael Karpin's new book. Yitzhak Rabin was labelled a traitor from the moment he signed the Oslo peace accord in September 1993. Two years later he was dead. Words matter in Israeli politics. Orthodox Jews believe the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) was dictated by God. To challenge a word of the book is to blaspheme. The skill (and controversy) ever since has been to convert the stories and instructions of the Bible into a code of behaviour. Once certain ultra-orthodox rabbis had pronounced Rabin a rodef (traitor), he could be judged by the din rodef (law of the traitor) and, in effect, sentenced to death.

But those weasel words - "in effect" - are at the heart of the problem in this book. It may be subtitled "the plot to kill Yitzhak Rabin", but it is impossible to draw clear lines between opposition, incitement and conspiracy. What the authors do not show is an easy linear plot. Rather they draw concentric, overlapping circles. At the centre is Yigal Amir, the young, arrogant assassin around whom gather a tiny cabal of fellow conspirators. Then come the haredim (ultra-orthodox), the West Bank settlers, the Likud and other right-wing parties and the American fund-raisers.

Friedman and Karpin animate the remorselessly unpleasant opposition politics of the run-up to the assassination. A photograph shows Binyamin Netanyahu at a demonstration in 1994 walking just in front of a coffin bearing Rabin's name. In October 1995, as Yitzhak Rabin was poised to deliver a speech, Tsachi Hanegbi, a leading Likud member, tapped into the public address system, cut the prime minister's microphone, and began broadcasting anti-government messages. Hanegbi is presently justice minister.

The catalogue of nastiness bulges. A photo-montage shows Rabin in SS uniform. An American rabbi informs a convention of the International Rabbinical Coalition for Israel that surrendering any part of the biblical land of Israel (as promised by the Oslo agreement) is a violation of Jewish law, and so assassinating Rabin is permissible and necessary. On the other side, the Labour Party is badly organised, the secular public apathetic, and the security services myopic in the face of Jewish fanaticism.

Israel has not yet recovered from the trauma of the assassination, of the killing of the Israeli prime minister by a Jew. The right feels victimised; the left feels the right is to blame. In that sense, this book will only entrench feelings; it points a big, fat, quivering finger of culpability at the right.

The central question, as Israeli elections approach in May, is whether Rabin's killing was an aberration or whether, as Karpin and Friedman suggest, the fanatical right is inexorably strengthening. If so the schism within the Jewish people, both in Israel and in the diaspora, will widen. Only a year after the assassination, Netanyahu was recorded telling a haredi rabbi that the left had forgotten what it was to be Jewish. In 1993, the British chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, asked in his book One People? whether disunity between the orthodox and non-orthodox was an unavoidable tragedy. Three years later he seemed to answer his own question by privately describing the non-orthodox as destroyers of the faith.

But perhaps there is another possibility. In 1989, as David Landau reminded us in Piety and Power, his study of Jewish fundamentalism, the then sephardi chief rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, ruled that "if we can give back the [occupied] territories and thereby avoid war and bloodshed, we are obliged to do so, under the Rule of Saving Life". The religious right may despise secular Jewry, but it is not one-dimensional. There are pragmatists among its number.

There is also the whisper - in Whitehall at least - that the Netanyahu years may not have been an absolute disaster for the peace process. The opposition has been able to pursue the type of secret diplomacy that characterised the Oslo channel. Clandestine meetings with Palestinians could take place in Paris. A final deal on Jerusalem could be hammered out on an ex-minister's table-tennis table. The May general election looks very open. The Rabin legacy may yet live.

Tim Franks is the political correspondent for BBC World Service

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