The night Rabin died
When he was gunned down 10 years ago, Israel's hope and innocence fell with him.

By David Grossman
November 4, 2005

I WAS THERE, at the square in front of Tel Aviv's City Hall, on the night Yitzhak Rabin was murdered. It was supposed to be a different kind of rally, different from all the other demonstrations I had gone to in my life.

Instead of a protest, it was a demonstration in support, a demonstration of gratitude to Rabin and Shimon Peres for what they had done for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. We wanted to declare our appreciation for these two no-longer-young gentlemen who had managed, for the most part, to break free of the old patterns of thinking and action that had fixed their attitudes toward the Palestinians for decades.

It was Nov. 4, 1995. The square was packed with people. Tens of thousands of peace activists and supporters had arrived. We were all well aware of the huge obstacles Rabin faced in moving toward peace. We had seen the angry demonstrations by the right wing in this very square and others, and the venomous vigils each Friday in front of his official residence in Jerusalem. We had heard the incitement of the right's leaders, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, and of the right-wing rabbis who considered Rabin a traitor and declared that he should be judged.

Our support for Rabin was neither blind nor automatic. Along with our profound appreciation for his metamorphosis, we never stopped doubting and wondering — even that very evening, as we talked among ourselves on the square — if Rabin really meant to conclude a meaningful, comprehensive, lasting peace with the Palestinians.

Was he really capable of breaking free from the trust in military strength that had shaped his worldview from childhood? (This was a man, after all, who had been accused only seven years earlier of ordering soldiers to break the bones of Palestinian militants at the beginning of the first intifada.) Or would it turn out that he really meant what others had meant before him when they used the word "peace": a rearrangement of our defenses tailored to meet only Israel's security needs?

That night in the square, at the height of the Oslo process, it was hard not to believe that our struggle was coming to an end and that real peace was only a matter of time. It was as if Rabin had opened a window through which fresh, clear air suddenly began to blow. But even then, at that very moment, we knew that the process wasn't perfect. In the occupied territories, Israel was still confiscating vast swaths of land, paving roads meant for Israelis alone and moving in tens of thousands of Jewish settlers.

That night we wanted not just to thank Rabin for how far he'd already come but to encourage him to stride forward, to be more determined and unequivocal. We wanted to remind him that he still had more support among us than he had opponents among those who demonstrated against him and called him a murderer and traitor.

We wanted to remind him that to achieve peace, it was not enough to meet your enemy halfway. In a certain sense, each side must walk the entire way toward the other, because if you don't walk the full length of the road toward your enemy's fears, wounds and devastation, you haven't moved at all. We felt that the peace process was reversible, fragile, almost hopeless, and that for it to succeed, we would have to act against our most profound fears, against the survival instinct we had attained through so many wars.

I remember how he spoke. Short, straightforward sentences, in simple, informal, direct Hebrew. I remember him smiling with bashful delight at the sight of the crowd and self-consciously singing the "Song of Peace," the peace movement's anthem. "Don't just say, 'A day will come'/Bring that day yourself/For it is no dream!"

And a few minutes later — three gunshots, chaos, confusion. In the days that followed, a sense of personal and public loss, the end of an era, the end of hope, a feeling that a polluted, fanatic, violent flood had suddenly welled up from Israel's subconscious depths and become reality and would determine our fate from that moment onward.

Ten years. Rabin's murderer failed, it seems, to turn the clock back, or to utterly destroy the process of conciliation between the two nations. But he was able to slow it down, to tangle it up, to splatter it with more and more blood, Israeli and Palestinian.

There is no room here to lay out the tremors and disasters that Israel has undergone these last 10 years. Most of them have been detailed over and over in these pages. Today, Israel is a prosperous, dynamic country, but at the same time it is a torn, tormented country. Israelis have accepted — not with great enthusiasm but out of exhaustion — that the land must be divided into two countries. Yet this has still not been translated into the determined and courageous action necessary to provide the Palestinians with a free and independent state in the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip. And violence has again broken out on both sides.

Today, Israel is ruled by Ariel Sharon, the man who worked with all his might against Rabin's peace policy. Ironically, Sharon has become Rabin's heir — in his daring, in the political and personal risk he has assumed, but also in his elusive ambivalence about the continuation of the occupation and the possibility of real peace.

These have been 10 grueling, bitter years.

With Rabin's murder, a sense of innocence was torn to shreds. We lost the simple hope for a normal, tranquil life and for a demilitarized, open, tolerant Israeli society that had seemed, at that moment, to be within reach.

How much we hoped, that night on the square, that we were coming close to the end of the conflict, to the beginning of a healthier and saner new era. How innocent we were while the murderer walked among us with a pistol in his pocket.

Israeli novelist DAVID GROSSMAN is the author of "Death as a Way of Life: Israel Ten Years After Oslo" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003). This article was translated by Haim Watzman.

Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times