Here’s an article in The Times of Israel (an English language Israeli news website) about Bill Clinton reflecting on the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Clinton is warm with praise. A much younger man at the time, Clinton developed a deep bond with Rabin. And it still shows. I think he may be a little optimistic when he says he’s certain that Rabin would have been able to make peace within three years. Rabin faced the same escalating round of terrorist violence and the campaign of incitement against him and the peace process led by Benjamin Netanyahu. But he’s right that Rabin had a credibility both with Israelis and the Palestinian leadership that made it possible. Clinton is in Israel to memorialize the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s murder on Nov. 4.
Every assassination is a human tragedy. Think about the deaths of Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy. For all the loss and human tragedy of Lincoln’s death, his murder at age of 56 is by now woven tightly, by history and national memory, into the fabric of his life. Yet if every assassination is a human – even national – tragedy, not every one is political or historical tragedy. Rabin’s death is both. It’s difficult for me to think of an assassination as effective in its aims as this one.
And it simply doesn’t get better. There is no fabric of memory and acceptance Rabin’s can be folded into. Its implications and import never get better.
Abraham Lincoln, final portrait prior to assassination
Another comparison might be Martin Luther King. Certainly King’s contributions to American life were not over at the incredibly young age of 38, his age when he died. But I do not think the arc of civil rights or African-American life would have been radically different had he lived a full life (even today he would only be 86 years old).
Indeed, for better or worse, King was already being marginalized at the time of his death by his increasing embrace of the anti-war movement and democratic socialism. In American civic culture, King’s death is a profound martyrdom at the altar of essential American ideals which he advanced with his life. There is some parallelism with Lincoln, and the place of his death in the fabric of our understanding of our collective past and identity. Since these men’s deaths came after great accomplishments, what we now see as their core or essential accomplishments, the passage of decades can be a measure of acceptance and even completeness to the story.
Martin Luther King, Jr., just prior to his final public appearance in Memphis
Yet, with Rabin, had he lived I think it is quite possible that the lives of Israelis and Palestinians today might indeed be radically different. None of this is to say that Rabin was some sort of superman. He was very human and flawed. In the bizarre hypothetical in which we could imagine him returning today, could he restart the peace process? Not at all. Indeed, it is worth remembering Rabin was governing with a tiny working majority. It is simply that he intersected, with a certain personal history and set of characteristics, at a pivotal moment of historical opportunity.
As the years go by, the magnitude and – painful as it is to say – success of the crime become all the more apparent. Because the opportunity didn’t come again 5 years later or 10 years later. It’s increasingly difficult to believe it ever will.
Yitzhak Rabin sings during peace rally in Kings Of Israel Square moments before his assassination
Because Lincoln and King achieved what we now see as their critical achievements prior to their deaths, the passage of time has allowed us to weave their tragic murders into a complete and comprehensible story. This is what humans do. We take things as brutally simple as two gunshot murders and wrap them into something more profound, even satisfying and complete. But what Rabin was meant to do, could have done, maybe simply had the chance to do just never happened. It never gets better.