The weapon of assassination is threaded throughout the history of modern Israel. It was a tool of Jewish extremists in the fight for independence. It is a weapon in the state’s struggle against militant non-state actors that seek Israel’s destruction. And we have tragically turned it against ourselves in the struggle to define the narrative and boundaries of the state and its relationship with its closest neighbor.
The Lehi (Stern gang) terrorists who assassinated Lord Moyne, the British governor of Egypt in 1944 during the pre-state period, sought to strike a blow for independence. They were executed by the British. Today they have streets named after them in Israeli towns and cities. Those who assassinated Count Folke Bernadotte in the early days of independence in 1948 in an effort to thwart United Nations compromise proposals served brief and symbolic prison sentences in Israel. Their commander, Yitzhak Shamir, went on to become prime minister in the 1980s. If the Israeli mainstream was uncomfortable at the time with this use of the assassination tactic and condemned it, the public has long since embraced the killers as heroes of Israel’s independence.
The unnamed Mossad, IDF commando and Israel Air Force personnel responsible for fighting first Fateh, then Hamas and Hizballah leaders with a variety of assassination tactics are certainly viewed by Israelis as heroes. From the assassination of Fateh no. 2 leader Abu Jihad (Khalil al-Wazir) in Tunis in 1988, through the Mossad’s alleged assassination of Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Fathi Shikaki in Malta in 1995 and the air strike that killed Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Gaza in 2004, to Israel’s reported involvement in the recent assassination in Damascus of Imad Mughniyeh, the elimination of Palestinian and other terrorist leaders who seek Israel’s destruction is seen by the Israeli public as a legitimate act–for a number of reasons.
For one, it is perceived to deter and deprive a ruthless terrorist enemy of a key leader, thereby constituting a net security achievement. This, of course, has not always been the case: witness, for example, the acts of mass revenge for Israeli assassinations enacted by Iran and Hizballah in Argentina in 1982 and 1984. On the other hand, note the success of the elimination of Shikaki in virtually shutting down PIJ for years and the effect of the Yassin and Rantisi assassinations in ceasing Hamas rocket fire from Gaza into Israel for around half a year. Indeed these assassinations, it can be argued, ultimately saved a lot of Israeli and Palestinian lives. Assassination of terrorist leaders is also understood as a legitimate act of revenge in the biblical "eye for an eye" sense, and is seen as a debt owed by Israel’s leaders to the civilian victims of terrorism.
But when Yigal Amir shot and killed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995, he almost certainly did not draw inspiration from the events and episodes described above. Rather, he was motivated by extremist religious interpretations of biblical injunctions regarding the punishment of traitors. Rabin was leading a peace process that involved territorial compromise with the PLO; Amir saw himself as the savior of the Land of Israel. His act had been preceded by murders of a Jewish peace activist and of Arab day laborers by similarly motivated Jewish assassins.
Sadly, the murder of Rabin caused a massive setback to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that is felt to this day. It is an outstanding example of the political gain that can be achieved by a determined assassin; it was not accidental that the Israeli majority narrative of the event compared it to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 in terms of its effect on peace and national unity.
In some ways, Israel’s judgment and treatment of Rabin’s assassin are even more troubling. With no death penalty and a highly developed judicial tradition of protecting prisoners’ rights regardless of the nature of their crime, the penal system has enabled Amir to live a comfortable life in his cell, to marry and to produce a son. A small band of fanatic supporters hope one day to obtain a presidential pardon for him, perhaps within the framework of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that comprises a comprehensive release of Palestinian prisoners guilty of murdering Israelis.
Given the intimacy of Israeli society, for Yigal Amir to walk among us as a free man thanks to a successful two-state peace solution would be the ultimate irony.