Revisiting Rabin's Assassination, And The Peace That Might Have Been
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we have the story of a right-wing religious zealot who succeeded in killing the leader of his country. November 4 marks the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He was shot by a devout Jewish law student named Yigal Amir, who claimed the Torah justified the killing. My guest, Dan Ephron, is the author of the new book "Killing A King: The Assassination Of Yitzhak Rabin And The Remaking Of Israel." Ephron has served as Jerusalem bureau chief of Newsweek and the Daily Beast. He writes that the assassination came at a critical juncture for Israel. Rabin's diplomacy had just led to his second peace accord with the Palestinians, triggering a violent backlash by both Palestinians and Israelis opposed to the conciliation process. There were demonstrations opposed to peacemaking and demonstrations in favor of it. Amir killed Rabin at the end of a demonstration Rabin attended which supported the agreement with the Palestinians. Ephron covered that demonstration and Amir's trial.
Dan Ephron, welcome to FRESH AIR. You can't help but wonder - I mean, I can't help but wonder, reading the book, what would've happened had Rabin not been assassinated. Would there have been a clearer road to peace with the Palestinians? Would that story be partially resolved? Would Bibi Netanyahu have risen to power? And when you think of the role Bibi Netanyahu is now playing in opposing the Iran nuclear agreement, he's such a powerful figure internationally. He wins the election after Rabin is assassinated. So I'm sure you must be thinking a lot about how the world would have been different if not for this assassination.
DAN EPHRON: Sure, absolutely, and some of those trends, I think, were inevitable. I think Israel was on this trajectory where - for a couple of decades by 1995 - where it was moving away from the pragmatists who led Israel for decades and towards the ideologues like Netanyahu. I certainly think of him as an ideologue and I covered him for a long time. But I think 1995 is this moment - and I think this became clear to me when writing the book - it's this moment when the conditions for peace are more ripe than, let's say, at any time in the 20 years since then. And I think that's the most agonizing part of this whole thing. Because Amir managed to get close enough to kill Rabin, we just don't know what would've happened had he survived, how far he would have gone on that road to peace.
GROSS: Yigal Amir had religious reasons for opposing peace talks and for assassinating Rabin. What were his religious reasons for opposing peace talks?
EPHRON: Yigal Amir grows up in an Orthodox home. It's really on the seam between Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. And on the day that Rabin shakes hands with Arafat in 1993 in the White House - and you probably remember that image, it's kind of this awkward handshake where Clinton is bringing together these two leaders - Amir is watching that scene on television at home. And already then, he tells himself this process is a disaster for Israel, but it's also a betrayal of Judaism. It's a betrayal of Judaism for him because the agreement calls for handing back parts of the West Bank, at least parts of the West Bank, to the Palestinians so that Palestinians can run their own lives after a couple of decades of Israeli military rule in the West Bank and Gaza. And the West Bank, for Amir, and certainly for other religious or deeply religious Jews, is the birthright of Jews. And so this idea of handing back land is deeply offensive to him, and he tells himself that day that if the peace process takes its course and seems to be successful, there will be a point where he will have to intervene and kill Rabin, assassinate the prime minister, in order to knock it off course.
GROSS: So the territories - the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank - to people like the assassin, these are lands that God gave the Jews in the Bible era - like, the Bible says that land is Jewish and therefore it's a betrayal to give any kind of authority to the Palestinians there.
EPHRON: That's exactly right. And there are other arguments against the peace process. You know, the people who are opposed to Oslo, who are opposed to Rabin, make all kinds of arguments, primarily a security argument, you know, the idea that if Israel gives back the West Bank and Gaza it will expose itself and potentially be less secure than it had been. But that argument is vulnerable because Rabin is a military man. Rabin led the military in the 1967 war, in that war when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza. So it's a difficult argument to make when it's Rabin standing up and saying, Israel can afford to take these risks. The more emotional argument, the religious argument, certainly resonates with religious Jews in Israel, a large section of religious Jews, and I would say a lot of right-wing Jews as well. There is a kind of romantic attachment to the idea that Israel returned to the lands of the Bible when it captured the West Bank and Gaza in 1967.
GROSS: So Amir and his brother - who was also in favor of assassinating Rabin, but the brother didn't want to risk his life to do it, whereas the actual assassin was willing to do it as a suicide mission - they had been talking for a couple of years about how to assassinate Rabin before Yigal Amir actually succeeded in doing it. And Yigal Amir, the shooter, actually tried to find some kind of religious justification for this. And he found a couple of things that he deeply believed were his, you know, like, God-inspired, religiously coherent reasons for assassinating Rabin. Would you explain why he thought this was, like, religiously justified?
EPHRON: Sure, both Yigal Amir and Hagai Amir, his older brother - Yigal is 25 when the assassination takes place. Hagai, his older brother, is 27. Both of them study in Orthodox schools. Both of them are smart young men, by the way. This was, I think, not entirely clear to me when I covered the trial in 1995, but it became very clear to me when I went back and researched the book and met with Hagai Amir, the brother, many times. Yigal Amir is still in prison so the Israeli prison service doesn't let journalists in to conduct interviews with him. But they are smart young men and they certainly know the Torah, the Jewish Bible, and they know religious law. And Yigal Amir focuses on these two tenets of religious law - in Hebrew it is din moser and din rodef. And essentially what these say are - is that if someone is pursuing Jews with the intent of harming them, or if someone is handing over Jews to the enemy and that will cause them harm, then you have the right, or even the obligation, let's say, to prevent it and to prevent it even by killing the pursuer. And Amir determines pretty early on that these Jewish laws apply to Rabin and that there is a death sentence hanging over Rabin. And he's not alone, I would say. This kind of talk was not in the mainstream discourse in Israel. I don't remember hearing the words moser or rodef up until the assassination. Later, it comes out. But I think in the religious seminaries, in the yeshivas in Israel and the Orthodox schools, rabbis are talking about these issues. And as the Oslo process progresses, they're talking quite a lot about it. Sometimes in kind of vague terms, let's say, they raise the question, does it apply to Rabin? Is there a death sentence hanging over Rabin? But sometimes very explicitly among, let's say, at least a small number of rabbis.
GROSS: So in what sense is Rabin pursuing Jews to kill them, which is what would qualify him for this death sentence that Yigal Amir wanted to carry out himself?
EPHRON: Well, the idea is Rabin is handing over - you know, part of the Oslo plan is to hand over parts of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians. And there are settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. And so the idea is - and this doesn't really hold up because none of the settlements are being handed over. None of the settlers end up being under Palestinian jurisdiction. But I think the idea generally is that by doing the things that Rabin wants to do - by coming to an agreement with the Palestinians, by allowing the Palestinians to create a police force, an armed police force - that these things endanger Israelis, and specifically the Israelis who live in settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. You know, we should say, to be honest, there is this uptick in violence against Israelis almost as soon as the Oslo process begins. The Oslo process rouses the hardliners on both sides and gets them in this position where they want to derail the process. And one way to do that, one very effective way, is to launch attacks on the other side.
GROSS: We should also mention that Yigal Amir was a racist. I mean, he despised Palestinians. One of his political heroes was Meir Kahane, who was himself assassinated later, but he was so extreme that the party that he led was banned in Israel because it was so racist and so filled with hatred.
EPHRON: That's exactly right. You know, Yigal Amir is out of Israel. He's out of the country in 1992 in that election that brings Rabin to power, but he talks about - in his confession - about which party he would've voted for, and it's the most extreme. It's not the Kahane party because by then Israel had outlawed the party. But he talks about the idea that he would vote for the most extreme party in Israel's parliament, an anti-Arab party that advocated what Israelis call transfer - basically, a mass expulsion of Palestinians out of the West Bank.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Dan Ephron. He's the author of the new book "Killing A King: The Assassination Of Yitzhak Rabin And The Remaking Of Israel," and he's the former Jerusalem bureau chief for both Newsweek and the Daily Beast. Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Dan Ephron. He's the author of the new book "Killing A King: The Assassination Of Yitzhak Rabin And The Remaking Of Israel." And he's the former Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek and The Daily Beast.
So when we left off, we were talking about Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir. He assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 after Rabin won the Nobel Peace Prize, shared with Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat. So Yigal Amir and his brother, Hagai Amir - they both knew how to use weapons. They'd both been in the Israeli military, even though they could have had a religious exemption, which is often given to the Orthodox in Israel. So they must have been pretty good with weapons, having been in the military.
EPHRON: Yeah, they both served in infantry units, so they both learned how to use guns. And Hagai Amir, the brother - the older brother - he likes to tinker with things. He's got this shed in the backyard. He showed it to me during one of the interviews. So he talks about various ways to kill Rabin. The two of them talked together about the idea of putting a bomb under Rabin's car or getting a rifle and shooting him from a long distance. There's a point where Hagai Amir, the brother, is machining these kinds of bullets. He's buying bullets and then modifying them, kind of drilling into the top of the bullet and placing this little ball bearing inside in order to make them more effective in penetrating a bulletproof vest. They're not sure whether Rabin would be wearing one when Amir - when Yigal Amir gets close enough and tries to kill him. But these modified bullets end up in Amir's magazine on the night of the assassination.
GROSS: Those are the ones he used, these modified bullets?
EPHRON: They're not the bullets that kill Rabin. They end up in the bottom of Amir's magazine, and Amir fires three shots. Two of them hit Rabin in the back. They're standard hollow-point bullets. And then a third bullet enters the arm of a bodyguard.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about what Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was up against before he was assassinated. He's signed a peace agreement with Yasser Arafat and trying to move the country forward on this peace process. The Knesset hasn't yet signed it. He's hoping that they will. It's going to be a really close call. In the meantime, three Orthodox rabbis give a religious ruling, an edict saying that it's forbidden for a Jew to take part in any activity which aids in the evacuation of the occupied territories. And they cite the Torah, scholar Maimonides, as saying, even if the king orders you to violate the laws of the Torah, it is forbidden to obey. Why is it so upsetting to Rabin when these rabbis issue this edict?
EPHRON: Well, what the rabbis are doing is they're calling on Israeli soldiers to disobey orders. Rabin is a military man so the idea that authority would flow, not from the government to the generals and on down to the soldiers, but there would be this alternative authority that rabbis would somehow be able to use their influence over religious soldiers to try to subvert the chain of command or the process, I think, even just in principle, is offensive for Rabin. And so the idea that Rabin would sign a deal and then give the order to evacuate settlers but that some number of soldiers would say no, we're not going to do this because our rabbis are saying don't do it, is very troubling in practical terms.
GROSS: So a month before Rabin's assassination in 1995, there's this huge anti-peace rally. I'd like you to describe the rally and how significant it was.
EPHRON: The rally was one of the bigger rallies that the right wing had held in Israel. The right wing is staging rallies throughout this two-year period between the signing of Oslo and until the assassination. And they are becoming bigger and bigger and rowdier and rowdier. And on this particular night - it's in October. It's a few weeks before the assassination, and it's a rally in Jerusalem. About 50,000 people show up. And there are people holding up signs showing Rabin dressed in a keffiyeh to make him look like Yasser Arafat and people chanting death to Rabin; Rabin is a murderer; Rabin is a traitor. One person circulates this bill, this handbill, where there's a photomontage of Rabin dressed in an SS uniform. It gets very rowdy and violent. And the leadership of the right-wing Likud Party - and this is - Benjamin Netanyahu, at the time, is the leader of Likud. He and others are standing on the stage overlooking the crowd and then addressing the crowd. And I know from my reporting that some Likud leaders felt very uncomfortable about what was going on in the crowd, and a couple of them said, we're not going to address the crowd; we're not going to go out on the balcony when people are chanting that Rabin is a murderer. But Netanyahu does address the crowd, and this becomes a turning point. It's one of these moments where Rabin begins to think that he's losing the support of Israelis or he's losing the street, which is very, very important. And it persuades him to agree to have a counter-rally - a rally in favor of peace that, of course, becomes the rally where he is assassinated.
GROSS: So the Labor Party kind of organizes its own pro-peace rally, which, you write, Rabin is really ambivalent about because he doesn't like the idea of politicians staging a rally. But it ends up being a really big rally. And this is the rally that - where Rabin is assassinated. Would you just - you covered that rally. Would you just describe that rally?
EPHRON: Sure. I lived in Tel Aviv at the time. And I remember walking from my apartment a few blocks to the town square, and it's huge. It's the size of a few football fields. And I remember seeing people already blocks away kind of streaming in large numbers towards the square. And then I remember getting to the square and seeing it completely full, which is a really impressive sight, and then seeing more people on the side streets. I think Rabin was surprised at the number of people who showed up because I think, by then, it was not entirely clear to him the extent to which his peace policies still had the support of a majority of Israelis. And Rabin was very excited. Rabin is not kind of a hugger. He's not particularly charismatic. He's not a good speech giver. But you can kind of tell on stage that he's moved by this event, and he's very excited by this event. I remember going on stage and interviewing people and then coming out into the crowd and interviewing some of the people in the rally and then starting to head back to my apartment because the rally really ended and then getting a beeper message saying shots were fired at the square near Rabin, so go back.
GROSS: Right. So this was the day that Yigal Amir chose to assassinate Rabin. Why did he think this would be his opportunity?
EPHRON: Well, Amir had been stalking Rabin for sometime. And that meant he would read in the paper about events where Rabin is slated to show up and to give a speech or a ribbon-cutting. He'd already gone to two or three events where he thought Rabin would be there and maybe he could get close. And each time, he's thwarted in some way, either because Rabin doesn't show up or guards keep Amir out. And he reads about this rally, and he makes a decision, really, on Friday, just the day before, to go. Hagai, Amir's brother, told me that, in fact, they had talked about another plan altogether - maybe driving out to their uncle's house and spending the weekend there. And if they had done that, Amir would never have gone to the rally. But he decides to go to the rally, and there's this key moment as he's walking around. And then, he spots Rabin's Cadillac. He spots Rabin's car, and it's in a parking lot - an outdoor parking lot right behind the stage. And he figures out that, if the car is there, that is where Rabin will end up. And he just stands by the car, and he waits for him.
GROSS: And how does he get close enough to actually shoot?
EPHRON: Well, so that parking lot is supposed to be sealed off. And it's a big security lapse, the fact that Amir managed to get in. And he's not the only one. There's an amateur video of the shooting itself, and you see how many people are in this area of the parking lot that is supposed to be secured. It's Amir, and it's roadies who are waiting for people to come off stage. Amir manages to wait there for 40 minutes. And we know from his confessions later that he's telling himself, I'm willing to die in order to kill Rabin, but I don't want to get caught and not have the opportunity. So he says to himself, if a policeman comes over to me, I'm going to leave. And for 40 minutes, no one comes over to him to check, neither the policemen or members of the security detail, the Israeli secret service, who are sort of surrounding the car and kind of walking around the parking lot area. And Rabin comes down the stairs surrounded by four or five bodyguards, and he gets to the bottom of the stairs. Amir sees him. He sees that one of his bodyguards has sort of peeled off in order to move a piece of equipment, and Amir circles behind Rabin. He sees this gap in the security, and he pulls out his Beretta. He takes it everywhere. It's a 9 mm Beretta. He pulls it out, and he's very, very close to Rabin - about a foot, maybe a little bit more , away. And he fires three shots.
GROSS: My guest is Dan Ephron, author of the new book "Killing A King: The Assassination Of Yitzhak Rabin And The Remaking Of Israel." After we take a short break, we'll talk about his interviews with members of the assassin's family. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Dan Ephron, the author of the new book "Killing A King: The Assassination Of Yitzhak Rabin And The Remaking Of Israel." He served as Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. November 4 is the 20th anniversary of the assassination. The book focuses on Rabin and his assassin, Yigal Amir, a devout Jewish Israeli who claimed that killing Rabin was biblically justified. When we left off, Ephron was describing how Yigal Amir shot Rabin at the end of a rally Rabin attended, a rally that supported Rabin's peace accord with the Palestinians. Rabin said he refused to wear a bulletproof vest in his own country. There's something so poignant about that.
EPHRON: That's right, and the security agencies in Israel, in the months leading up to the assassination, are getting this intelligence information about threats to Rabin's life. You know, as this Oslo deal progresses, more and more signs that there could be potentially violence perpetrated against Rabin or perpetrated against other members of the government. And the head of the domestic security agency, the equivalent of the FBI, really pleads with Rabin to take his own security more seriously. I think Israel was a - it remains, in some ways, a very informal country - but I think even in terms of the security of its leaders at the time much more. So Rabin would - on a Saturday morning he might leave his home and walk to the tennis courts near his home with one bodyguard or maybe two bodyguards. For a long time, he was transported in a car that was not armored. It didn't have bulletproof windows. In the months leading up to the assassination, that is one concession that Rabin is willing to make. He approves the purchase of this armored Cadillac, the Cadillac that Amir spots when he comes to the rally, but he refuses to wear a bulletproof vest. He says, I'm the general who led Israel in the 1967 war. I am not going to wear a vest in my own country. And I think part of it is pride, but I think part of it is just, like many other people in the country, he underestimated the possibility that this might happen.
GROSS: Yigal Amir confessed immediately to the crime. In the police car, you write, he was bragging about the fact that he did it. He expected to die after assassinating Rabin. He was surprised to find himself alive. You actually got a chance to watch the interrogation videotapes. Would you share with us some of what you learned that you found were the most interesting insights into Yigal Amir's, like, personal motivation or, you know, just his psychology?
EPHRON: Sure, yeah, first of all, the - you know, I think Yigal Amir, at that moment in the car, already believes that he was the instrument of God, that he was doing what God intended. And he believes that because he did something that really defied the odds. He managed to get close enough to Rabin to shoot him. He doesn't know yet that Rabin is dead, but he knows that he managed to get close enough to shoot him. He managed to outmaneuver these very well-trained bodyguards. And he's not dead. He survives this assassination attempt. So he believes that God placed him there, and God gave him this opening to kill Rabin and then God protected him. And so he's very, very calm in the interrogation. He's smug. He says at some point, don't insult my intelligence, when one of the interrogators asks him about, did you really know what the Oslo deal was? And when the interrogator learns that Rabin has died of his wounds in the hospital, he then turns to Amir and says, I'm now charging you with murder. And Amir understands that he succeeded. His hands are handcuffed in front of his body, and he raises his hands and says, yes, yes, I did it. So he's very, very confident. He's very calm. Outside, Israel is in turmoil. There is no tradition of political assassination in Israel. And this is an assassination of a Jewish prime minister by a Jewish gunman. That becomes clear very quickly. So outside, there's all this turmoil, but inside, he is utterly relaxed.
GROSS: I think one of the more perplexing parts of this story is that after a far right, ultra-religious zealot assassinates a Jewish zealot, assassinates the Jewish prime minister of the Jewish state of Israel, then Benjamin Netanyahu becomes the prime minister in the election that follows. And Netanyahu had been a supporter of a lot of the far right things that the assassin stood for. Often in a situation like this, the people who are representative of the assassin are shunned politically. People back away from that. People rally around a more moderate cause. How do you explain that this assassination actually empowered the right?
EPHRON: Well, it's a little complicated, and I think the thing that you're describing - the phenomenon where there - where an assassination lends momentum to the ideas or the policies of the victim, of the person who's killed - was true in the first weeks and even couple of months in Israel. You see the spike for Rabin and the spike for his successor, Shimon Peres, who eventually becomes Israel's president years later, and kind of a groundswell of support for the Oslo process. But I think two things happen in the aftermath. One is that Peres really makes all the mistakes he could possibly make.
GROSS: When he's running - he becomes prime minister immediately after Rabin's assassinated and then runs against Netanyahu in the election.
EPHRON: Right, and even before an election is called, Peres is the successor. So he becomes prime minister right away, on the night of the assassination. And the first decision he has to make is do I call an early election - a snap election - so that it would take place within 60 days or 90 days, or do I keep the date of the election as it was? It was slated for a year from then. And in some ways, the most obvious decision is to call a snap election because of this spike in support for Oslo and for Rabin's Labor Party, which included Peres. But Peres and Rabin were lifelong rivals. And I think in some ways - and Peres talks about this in an interview I conducted with him - it was very hard for him to fathom the idea that he would win an election because of this support for - this sympathy for his rival, for Rabin, in the aftermath of the assassination. He wants to take that year and have some of his own achievements and then win the election on his merits. And the opposite happens. His months in power are marked by a string of failures and also marked by violence - by Palestinian violence. The worst bout of suicide attacks at the time to date occur in February and March of 1996. In this two-week period, three or four devastating suicide bombings, two of them on the same bus line in Jerusalem, a week apart, where 60 Israelis were killed. And this really turns public sentiment away from this sympathy for Rabin and towards this kind of anger at the Palestinians. And Netanyahu was very skilled at capitalizing on that anger. He's not a military general the way Rabin was, but he did serve in an antiterrorism unit - a very distinguished antiterrorism unit. He wrote a book about terrorism. And this is Netanyahu's moment. He makes a case that Israel's security is collapsing and only he can save Israel.
GROSS: How does the assassination of Rabin look different to you now, 20 years after the fact, than it did when it happened and you were covering it?
EPHRON: Well, one way it looks different is that I felt, in the immediate aftermath and even for a chunk of time after that - for months and years - that the assassination was this setback in terms of this quest of Israelis and Palestinians to get to a peace deal, that it was a setback but that there was an inevitability to the prospect of peace between the two sides and that eventually, there would be an Israeli leader and a Palestinian leader and an American leader who would kind of be in power at the same time and come to an agreement. You know, in some ways, the terms of the agreement between Israelis and Palestinians - the terms have already been written out in various drafts. It's very clear what concessions Israel has to make and what concessions the Palestinians have to make. It's a matter of these two sides having leaders who are amenable at the same time. By the time I started writing this book, my feeling about the future was a lot darker. It's hard for me to imagine, given everything that's happened over the past 20 years - rounds of violence, intifadas, dramatic expansion of settlements in the West Bank - it's hard for me to imagine the two sides ever sitting down and reaching a real peace agreement, the kind that I think people expected in 1995 - people expected would happen between Rabin and Arafat. You know, Martin Indyk was the American ambassador to Israel in 1995. And when that second Oslo deal is signed a few weeks before the assassination, Indyk says to himself - and he talks about this in his memoir - he says, there was a turning point here. Peace had become inevitable. There were still problems. There were many obstacles. There was a kind of a violent backlash by the opponents of peace on both the Israeli and Palestinian side. But a reconciliation has become inevitable. I think today, the opposite is true. It's just very hard to imagine any kind of peace deal between the two sides.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Dan Ephron. His new book is called "Killing A King: The Assassination Of Yitzhak Rabin And The Remaking Of Israel." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Dan Ephron. He's the author of the new book, "Killing A King: The Assassination Of Yitzhak Rabin And The Remaking of Israel." And Dan Ephron is the former Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. You interviewed some of the family of Rabin's assassin. You interviewed the assassin's brother, Hagai Amir. And you - I think you interviewed his parents as well. Let's start with his brother. His brother was a conspirator in the assassination. He wasn't a participant on the day of it, but he designed the bullets that were in the gun that Yigal Amir used to shoot Rabin. He served 16 and a half years in prison. When you spoke to him after his release, what was his attitude toward the assassination?
EPHRON: Well, there was no regret. Hagai did not come to feel that the assassination was wrong. On the contrary, I think he feels that the effect that it had was generally positive, that it kind of ended the reign of the pragmatists in Israel. But Hagai - and I'm not sure this is true, by the way, about his brother - Hagai did change in other ways. Hagai was very sharply anti-Arab and racist towards Arabs and Palestinians in particular. Hagai and Yigal Amir both were certainly in the time of the assassination. And you see this in the comments they made to interrogators at the time. In prison, something changed in Hagai. I think his, let's say, very strong anti-Arab views shifted to a feeling of antipathy towards the institutions of the state of Israel and kind of away from this antipathy towards Arabs. And the institutions are the courts and the prison system and the security establishment and even the army that he served in and, you know, 20 years earlier was very proud of. I think he came to view, in prison, the people who are in prison alongside him - many of them were Palestinians - as victims of these institutions in the same way he was. And it was a - it was kind of a weird thing to hear from him because he would say things that you generally hear from the other side of the political map, from people on the left, things like, you know, the security establishment has too much power. Generals make war in order to sustain their own careers. He'd become, I guess, you know, the Israeli version of a libertarian. And one thing that really surprised me, he told me that he tried to help Palestinians in prison because he felt that because they didn't speak Hebrew, they weren't getting the rights that they deserved within the context of their imprisonment. And these are little things, maybe get a television in your cell. And so he would sit down with them and write their petitions out in Hebrew. They would tell him what they want, and he would write these petitions out in Hebrew so that those petitions could then be taken to the court and granted so that a Palestinian might have a television in his cell.
GROSS: And when Hagai Amir emerged from prison, he was not exactly an outcast. He got a job really quickly. He went on Facebook and immediately got, like, 600 friends on Facebook.
EPHRON: Yeah, I think this was something else that surprised me. I don't want to exaggerate the scope of this, but I guess I anticipated that everywhere Hagai would go, you know, 17 years after the assassination, 20 years now after the assassination, that people would either shun him or worse or, you know, would call him names. And he said that the contrary was true. He said, you know, I'm sure that there are people who oppose what I did, but they don't - they don't approach me on the street. They don't come up to me on the bus. But the opposite does happen, and it does happen with somewhat regularity. People come up to me and say, congratulations for getting out of prison, and I think what you did was brave. That surprised me.
The Amirs lead, I think, something akin to normal lives in Israel. And this was evident. Every time I visited them, it seemed like they were coming back - the family was coming back from some event, you know, a wedding of a friend or an outing at the beach. There was this kind of - and neighbors would come over and chit chat in that very normal way that, you know, neighbors talk to each other. All this was surprising to me because certainly in 1995 the event shocked Israelis. And it seemed to me that Amir would be - Amir and the family would be outcasts in Israel at the time and maybe forever going forward.
GROSS: You interviewed Yigal Amir's parents. Had they tried to distance themselves from their son? Did they embrace his cause?
EPHRON: They initially did distance themselves. And by initially, I mean in the first days or weeks after the murder. And then something changes. The Amir family - Yigal Amir's parents and specifically his mother - feels that her sons were not treated well, either by the press or the court system, that they got a bad rap. And eventually, Yigal Amir's mother begins to embrace these conspiracy theories about the assassination and really begins to believe that her son was not the shooter, that either he was set up in some way - I mean, she knows that he intended to kill him. She understands that. But she believes that some larger plot was at work, and in a way, he was the victim. He was set up for this, to take the fall for the murder.
GROSS: So looking at world politics today and looking specifically at the relationship between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama and the differences that they have over a nuclear agreement with Iran, do you see any repercussions being played out today from the assassination in '95?
EPHRON: It's very hard to know how things would've played out if Rabin had not been assassinated because, you know, once that kind of course of history tilts, you just don't know what would've happened without that change. But I think it's clear that the assassination set off this chain reaction that shifted power in Israel from the pragmatists to the ideologues, to Netanyahu. In some ways, that process was underway anyway. It was underway for decades, but the assassination accelerated it. Now, Netanyahu has been the dominant political figure of Israeli politics in the entire period since the assassination. He was prime minister for nine out of the 20 years since the murder. I don't - you know, I don't think - I wouldn't go so far as to say that there would be - if there was no assassination, there would be no political career for Netanyahu. I don't know. It's very hard to say. But this was a moment where things could've gone differently in terms of Israeli - the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. There were obstacles. There was trouble. But there was probably more hope than at any time since then. And had Rabin lived, had the peace process progressed in some significant way, I think everything would be different today.
GROSS: Well, Dan Ephron, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
EPHRON: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Dan Ephron is the author of "Killing A King: The Assassination Of Yitzhak Rabin And The Remaking Of Israel." Now I want to hear the story that he's doing for the next edition of This American Life. It will include Ephron's interviews with people who played key roles the night of the murder, including Yigal Amir's older brother, Hagai, who was convicted for conspiring to murder Rabin. The story is reported with Ephron's wife, Nancy Updike, who's one of This American Life's producers. So that's on the next episode of This American Life. Coming up on FRESH AIR, our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album by cellist Tomeka Reid. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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