The Rise of Palestinian Nationalism
We will continue the peace process as if there is no terror. And we will fight the terror as if there is no peace process.
—Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin
When Begin’s election ended decades of Labor’s hegemony, it brought into the prime minister’s office a man whose devotion to Jewish tradition differed radically from all those who had preceded him. Yet the reentrance of religion into the public sphere was most markedly represented by the sudden rise to political stardom of a precocious politician by the name of Aryeh Deri.
Deri’s family were immigrants from Morocco who came to Israel when Arab states turned on their Jewish populations after Israel’s 1967 victory in the Six-Day War—just as they had after the War of Independence. The Deri family arrived in Israel both poor and deeply committed to its traditional way of life. Animated by a belief that mainstream Israel was not giving immigrants like his family a fair chance, the singularly talented Deri entered political life. His rise was meteoric. By 1985, at the age of twenty-six, Deri was a close adviser to the minister of the interior, and by twenty-nine, he himself had taken over the position. Deri was, in the words of a leading Israeli journalist, “the most electrifying, promising figure of a new Israel.”1 Deri was eventually toppled by a series of scandals in the 1990s, but by the time he disappeared (temporarily) from public life, he had indelibly changed Israeli politics.
In 1984, as Deri was rising to political prominence, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had just retired from the position as Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel.* Rabbi Yosef was both a legal genius who had produced an extraordinary corpus of rulings on a wide array of Jewish legal topics and also a populist with a knack for vitriol directed at non-Orthodox Jews, Arabs, or anyone else of whom he disapproved at any given moment. Leveraging his great popularity among the Mizrachim (and with the guidance of another leading rabbi, Rabbi Elazar Shach), Rav Ovadia, as his flock referred to him, formed a political party called Shas.* The party’s name was the product of two Hebrew letters that are the acronym of Shomrei Sefarad (“The Sephardi Guards”), meaning the Sephardic guardians of the Torah. But the name was a double entendre, since the Hebrew could also be understood as “Guardians of the Sephardim.”
That, in fact, is precisely how the Mizrachi community saw Shas. Religiously, Shas had an unabashedly Orthodox, highly traditional agenda, but Shas also took care of Mizrachi social and educational needs. Even Mizrachim who were not particularly religious were attracted to the party. Instead of supporting the largely secular Likud, Mizrachim now had their own—explicitly religious and politically successful—party to represent their interests.
Eventually, thanks to the charismatic and politically astute Aryeh Deri as its public face, Shas experienced a rapid rise in popularity and power. In 1984, the year it was founded, Shas received a mere 4 seats in the Knesset. By 1999, though, the same year that Deri was convicted of corruption (for which he ultimately went to prison), Shas received 13 percent of the vote, and 17 seats in the Knesset.
The rise of Shas heralded a new vision of what Zionism was and could be. Deri described his radical departure from the old Zionist ideal with no attempt at concealing his bitterness:
Now secular Israelis are afraid that Shas will change the secular character of the state. They call themselves Zionists, but they are not really Zionists. Their movement is a movement of heresy. They see our fathers and mothers as primitives. They wanted to convert them. They sent them to remote towns and villages where life was hard. They gave their children a good-for-nothing education. Until we came and began taking care of all these people who were suffering in all these remote places. That’s why they are afraid of us. That’s why they persecute us. And this persecution is both ethnic and religious. But the more they humiliate us, the more we will grow. We shall change the character of the State of Israel.2
It was a promise that Shas kept.
AS RELIGION BEGAN TO OCCUPY a more prominent place in the Israeli public square, a similar phenomenon was transpiring elsewhere in the Middle East, particularly in the countries that bordered Israel.
In the mid-1980s, the Arab world was still reeling from the death of the secular pan-Arab dream. The community organizers who were most successful at cultivating a following during this period were those who urged their listeners to put their faith in a new vision for the restoration of the Arab world’s former glory: an Islamic revolution. With many of the repressive secular regimes that had ruled the Arab countries in the previous decades now weakened (the most prominent case being Sadat’s regime in Egypt), the setting was ripe for an alternative source of hope. In many of the Arab countries surrounding Israel, due in part to the regional influence of the successful Iranian revolution that brought the regime of the ayatollahs to power in 1979, it was Islamism that filled the vacuum.*
During the 1970s and 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood became the most prominent of the Islamist organizations. In many places in the Arab world, it began developing effective systems for providing critical social services—services that the secular governments had failed to provide.3 Its social service organizations, though, brought with them a distinct, highly traditionalist religious message, which spread rapidly. Soon, the impact could be seen plainly on the Arab street. There were more women donning a hijab (a traditional Muslim headdress), more bearded men (also a sign of greater religious devotion). Twenty years after the Six-Day War, a new devotion to Islam could be seen in the religious institutions being created everywhere Israelis looked.
Stalled economic opportunity helped shift the dynamics of Muslim religiosity in the West Bank and in Gaza, as well. In many ways, Israeli rule had improved Palestinians’ economic lot. In the years after the Six-Day War, between 1967 and the 1980s, annual per capita income in the Gaza Strip increased from $80 to $1,700. In the West Bank, the GDP tripled in the same period. The number of cars in the territories increased tenfold. In 1967, only 18 percent of households in Gaza had electricity. But in 1981, when Gazan communities were connected to the Israeli electric grid, that number rose to 89 percent.
But Israeli rule had not erased crushing poverty among parts of the populations of Gaza; Gaza was still densely populated and overcrowded. Untreated sewage ran in the streets, and many homes did not have running water. Then, economic growth stalled in the mid-1980s. The frustration with the economic downturn was particularly acute in the Palestinian refugee camps, where masses of people lived in squalor.
The well-mobilized Islamist movements, with their promises for brighter futures, resonated with the Palestinian refugees who had again and again been sorely disappointed by movements—such as Pan-Arabism—that had claimed that they would bring about change but had done nothing. The Muslim Brotherhood found itself with more influence, more power—and increasing numbers of religiously devout followers.
Israel’s open policies, ironically, contributed to the spread of Muslim fundamentalism in both Gaza and the West Bank. Prior to the Six-Day War, there had been no universities in the territories. Hoping to foster the growth of more moderate movements, Israel encouraged higher education in the land it now controlled, and seven universities were established in the West Bank and Gaza. But to a large extent, the plan backfired. Many of the more radical Islamist movements grew exponentially in the university setting. When they did, Israel assumed—incorrectly as it turned out—that they were primarily religious movements and not political. That, however, was a major miscalculation and it would later cost Israel dearly.
In 1988, another Muslim organization, Hamas, was founded. For Hamas’s followers, a central religious obligation was the liberation of all of historic Palestine from “Zionist occupation,” claiming that the land “from the river to the sea” was a Muslim waqf, or “endowment.” They vowed to wage holy war, or jihad, against Israel.
Hamas adopted a founding charter blatantly anti-Semitic in tone and content, perpetuating tropes found in Nazi propaganda against Jews, including the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The language and its tenor were familiar to those who knew the history of the twentieth century:
Today it is Palestine and tomorrow it may be another country or other countries. For Zionist scheming has no end, and after Palestine they will covet expansion from the Nile to the Euphrates. Only when they have completed digesting the area on which they will have laid their hand, they will look forward to more expansion, etc. Their scheme has been laid out in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and their present [conduct] is the best proof of what is said there.4
Hamas insisted that the Jews “founded the United Nations and the Security Council in order to rule over all the world.”5 Hamas placed responsibility for almost all international wars—including the revolutions in France and Russia, and World Wars I and II—at the feet of the Jews. Most important was the organization’s attitude toward Israel. The introduction to Hamas’s charter promised that “Israel will rise and will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors.”
Nasser was dead. Israel’s military superiority had effectively neutralized any Syrian threat. Pan-Arabism was a thing of the past. Yet once again, Israel found itself arrayed against another enemy sworn to its destruction.
ON DECEMBER 9, 1987, an Israeli truck driver accidentally ran over four Arab workers in the Gaza Strip. The long-simmering Arab street in both the West Bank and Gaza exploded with fury and into violence. Hundreds, then thousands, of young people began seeking confrontations with Israeli soldiers, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at both soldiers and civilians. General strikes followed, enforced against reluctant store owners by gangs of thugs. With this new and unexpected resistance movement, dubbed the intifada (Arabic for “shaking off,” as in the way a dog shakes water off its fur, a metaphor for how the Palestinians were going to shake Israel off their backs), Israel now faced a new military frontier.
There had been warning signs for quite some time. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Israel had begun to face a round of mass Palestinian violence unlike the targeted PLO attacks Israelis were used to. At first, there had been periodic flare-ups of rock throwing, stabbings, and burning tires. None of this particularly worried the Israeli security establishment, however. Now, after the reaction to the December 1987 accident, the leaders understood that they had a major problem, one unlike anything else they had ever had to face, and that they were not sure how to counter. Sari Nusseibeh, a Palestinian professor of philosophy and a public intellectual, likened the uprising to a volcano. “No one starts a volcano,” he said. The conditions for the explosion simply build up, and when it erupts, it does so with fury.6
Never before had Israeli soldiers been on a battlefront in which they were facing teenagers with stones. This was not an enemy that elite IDF units could identify and then eliminate. Now, Israel’s young men and women found themselves arrayed against frustrated, angry civilian populations, which while not carrying arms for the most part, used rocks and Molotov cocktails. Israel’s technological edge was mostly useless in this new battle. Suddenly, the IDF was fighting in densely populated civilian areas, using rubber bullets, tear gas, clubs, and on occasion, more lethal weaponry. Rabin, some IDF officers said, had ordered the army to “break their arms and legs.”7 But that did not work, either; the resentment and despair ran too deep.
The intifada, during which Israelis came face-to-face with Palestinian rage over decades of being occupied since Israel had won the Six-Day War, exacted a heavy price from both sides. Schools in the territories, which served as centers of the uprising, were frequently closed. One Hebrew University professor of criminology reported that “In the academic year 1987–1988, pupils in the West Bank lost some 175 out of 201 school days because of forced closures.”8 The school closures and many other disruptions to daily Palestinian life—including curfews, roadblocks, and searches—further infuriated the Palestinians and fanned the flames of violence.
CHANGE IN JORDAN ALSO complicated the region. Jordan had lost the West Bank to Israel after Hussein’s decision to join Egypt and Syria in the Six-Day War, but the kingdom had never renounced its claim to that territory. Palestinians from the West Bank continued to serve in the Jordanian Parliament and thousands of Jordanian civil service employees worked in the West Bank and were paid in part through Amman.
Hussein’s kingdom, however, was governed by a Hashemite minority in which the Palestinian majority were decidedly second-class citizens, constituting a “disaffected majority.”9 The last thing the king needed was a spillover of the violence and instability from the West Bank across the Jordan River and into the center of Jordan; in light of the intifada, Jordan renounced its claim to the West Bank in July 1988.10
As long as they assumed that Jordan would one day take the West Bank back, Palestinians hedged their bets and hesitated to give their open support to the PLO, which was still an archenemy of Jordan. With Jordan out of the picture, however, the PLO was now viewed by local residents as the uncontestably rightful representative of the Palestinians in the West Bank. Israel’s political predicament—in large measure because of an occupation it had never planned to begin and now could not end without a responsible party to assume control of the occupied territories—was becoming ever more complex.
The intifada (later called the First Intifada) was challenging Israeli society in ways it had never been challenged before. Eighteen- and nineteen-year-old conscripts had grown up hearing stories of the IDF’s heroic exploits, of defending Israel against deadly and decidedly evil enemies. Their own service, though, was proving very different; they were busy with what felt like the dirty work of policing a civilian enemy population. One Israeli journalist coined a term for this disillusionment: yorim v’bochim, or “shooting and crying.”11 One reserve officer observed with sadness, “Eighteen year olds ask me if it is frightening to serve in the territories. I tell them the greatest fear is of myself—what I would become, what I could be drawn into. It’s a jungle with its own laws.”12
The intifada worked. Israelis were now worrying not only about the impact of the occupation on the Palestinians living under Israeli rule, but also about what being occupiers was doing to them, their children, and their humanity. Many were coming to agree with the Israeli Orthodox philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who had warned as early as 1967 that “Israel had to ‘liberate itself from this curse of dominating another people,’” if it did not wish to “bring about a catastrophe for the Jewish people as a whole.”13
The intifada also dealt a devastating blow to the Israeli political Right. As Yossi Klein Halevi noted, many Israelis, faced with this outburst of Palestinian rage, began to understand that the mere notion that peace could be had while Israel held on to Gaza and the West Bank and the millions of Palestinians who lived there was the stuff of sheer fantasy. As the West Bank continued to burn, the notion of an “enlightened” occupation that had pervaded Israeli discourse in the years after the Six-Day War—but that had its earliest roots in Herzl’s Altneuland with its image of Arabs welcoming Jews because of the progress they would bring with them—went up in flames as well. The writing was on the wall—Palestinians had shown Israelis that Palestinian nationalism was not a force that Israel could ignore. It might take years or decades, but for increasing numbers of Israelis, there was now little doubt that Israel would have to leave most of the West Bank, sooner or later.
EUROPE, TOO, WAS EXPERIENCING seismic shifts. In late 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. By 1991, the Soviet Union had dissolved, and the United States stood alone as the world’s uncontested superpower. Ever since Israel’s founding, Israel and its Arab neighbor-enemies had been caught in a larger battle between the world’s two superpowers. American-Russian relations impacted the wars of 1956, 1967, and 1973, and much in between. The United States had voted at the United Nations in favor of the creation of a Jewish state, though there had been difficult periods in relations between the two countries. By the time the Soviet Union fell, the United States was seen as Israel’s protector while the Soviet Union had stood behind the Arab states. Now, the Arabs were going to have to find a new source of backing; in the years to come, European countries would play a much more central role in the conflict.
The fall of the Soviet Union changed Israel internally, as well. The Jewish state was about to embrace the largest infusion of immigrants since its founding. The exodus of Soviet Jews had not come about overnight and had been, in fact, one of the key projects to which American Jewry had long devoted itself. Ever since Stalin had come to power, Soviet Jews had been living under a repressive, authoritarian regime that sought to snuff out Jewish learning, Zionist activity, and Jewish identity writ large. Stalin and the Soviet leaders who followed him here were successful in dramatically decreasing the levels of Jewish knowledge among Soviet Jews over a period of some seventy years, but they failed to stem the desire of many to join their fellow Jews in Israel. That desire took on new energy in 1967, when Soviet Jews saw in Israel a new model of what it meant to be Jewish, a model in which Jews were no longer victims and of which they therefore wanted to be a part.
Because the gates of the USSR were closed, freeing Soviet Jews became a central project of American Jews and the Israeli government. Organizations such as the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and political efforts like the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the U.S. Trade Act of 1974 (designed to punish Communist-bloc countries that prohibited immigration) all played a role. So, too, did protests and demonstrations, and no small number of intrepid American Jews who applied for and received visas to visit Russia and used their visits there to take books, music, and other educational and religious items to bolster the spirits and deepen the education of the repressed community.
Slowly, the gates opened. In 1970, 992 immigrants to Israel came from the Soviet Union. By 1980, that number was 7,570. In 1990, it was 185,227. By the time the mass immigration had subsided, shortly after 2000, some one million Soviet Jews had made their way to the Jewish state, changing its character dramatically.
Like many who had come before them, Soviet immigrants often arrived with little money and needed significant support upon arrival. Many who had been highly trained in the Soviet Union had to settle for menial jobs in the competitive Israeli job market. The massive number of Soviet immigrants enabled them to publish their own newspapers and magazines, and often to live in largely Russian neighborhoods. Not infrequently, all this aroused resentment in some Israelis, who viewed it as a disinclination to acculturate.
But this population was very different from the earlier Mizrachi immigrants. While it took time for them to be integrated into Israel society, this was a Western aliyah in many ways, comprised in part of highly educated university graduates. The new immigrants included engineers and physicians and others specializing in the arts and particularly in music. Soviet Jews joined Israel’s scientific and artistic communities, both supplying talent and creating a demand for educational and cultural services.
The man who became the public face of Soviet immigrants was the now iconic former Soviet Jewish “refusenik” Natan Sharansky. After having applied for permission to emigrate to Israel, Sharansky was imprisoned for nine years on trumped-up charges of having spied for the American Defense Intelligence Agency. After U.S. president Reagan finally placed great pressure on Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, Sharansky was released from prison. He immigrated to Israel, where he became an internationally acclaimed human rights activist and a Jewish symbol of courage. In 1996, he founded a political party named Yisrael Ba-Aliyah (a name that can mean both “Israel Making Aliyah” or “Israel on the Rise”) that catered primarily to the needs of Russians, leading him to a prominent place in the Knesset. With time, as Russian immigrants felt less of a need for their own party, Sharansky left formal politics, but he retained his standing as one of Israel’s leading statesmen and is among the Jewish people’s greatest living heroes.
JEWS IN THE SOVIET UNION were not the only ones who would find refuge and forge new lives in the Jewish state. As civil war raged in Ethiopia, with famine contributing to its dire state of affairs, world Jewry became particularly concerned for the fate of the Jewish community there. Taking a page from Operation Magic Carpet some thirty-five years earlier, in which the IDF had airlifted the Yemenite Jews to safety in Israel, the Israeli government decided once again that Jews in danger—anywhere in the world—were its responsibility.
As early as 1984, Israel had sent both activists and Mossad agents to the Sudan to facilitate the covert immigration of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. But many more still remained. By 1991, conditions in Ethiopia were deteriorating, and dangers to the local Jews increased dramatically.
In May 1991, in a daring mission known as Operation Solomon, Israeli pilots landed lumbering converted C-130 jets on narrow airstrips in Ethiopia in the midst of the civil war. Planes were stripped of their seats to allow for the maximum number of passengers, and in some cases, more than eleven hundred people were jammed onto a single plane. Many of the desperately poor immigrants boarded their flight with nothing but the clothes on their backs and some basic cooking utensils. Many were so frail that 140 of them were met by ambulances upon landing in Israel and received medical care on the tarmac. Several women gave birth on the plane. In total, the nonstop flights of thirty-five Israeli Air Force C-130s and El Al Boeing 747s transported 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in a mere thirty-six hours.
Whatever the historical origins of the Ethiopian Jewish community (a highly contested issue itself), those Ethiopians being rescued had virtually nothing in common with the mostly Ashkenazi pilots who were risking their lives to save them. For thousands of years, Ethiopian Jews had been completely cut off from Jewish life in Babylonia, Palestine, Europe, and North Africa; they had preserved an ancient Jewish way of life that was now very different from what Israelis saw as “authentic” Judaism. Any Jewish development or tradition that was less than two thousand years old was largely foreign to these new immigrants. They knew nothing of the Talmud, which was written after they were exiled. Purim and Hanukkah had entered the Jewish calendar after the Ethiopians were cut off from the rest of the Jewish people. They knew nothing of the Holocaust or of any dimension of the rest of the Jewish experience over the past two millennia. They spoke Amharic, not Hebrew. For all intents and purposes, they knew virtually nothing about the modern State of Israel when they arrived. Modernity, too, was new to them. Their utter unfamiliarity with electricity, running water, or modern technology (some tried to light fires in the planes ferrying them to Israel because they were cold) just added to the challenge.
This was an immigration project unlike anything Israel had ever attempted before. Sadly, many Ethiopians became an Israeli underclass. There were, unfortunately, some cases of overt racism, and it would take decades for their children and grandchildren to begin to make their way up Israel’s social, economic, educational, and military ladders. At the same time, Israel saved thousands of lives in bringing the Ethiopian Jewish community to Israel, and in so doing, with Caucasian pilots landing their planes to load up with thousands of black immigrants, illustrated that the Jewish state’s commitment to saving the Jewish people transcended race and color.
There were, without question, instances of discrimination, and occasional outrageous examples of racism. For the most part, though, the barrier that Ethiopians faced had to do with the very different culture from which they hailed, the vast difference between their Judaism and the religious culture of the country to which they arrived—and the challenges that face immigrants all over the world. As different as the Ethiopian Jews looked, sounded, and behaved from the other Jews who already inhabited Israel, and despite the significant absorption challenges that the Ethiopian community represented, Israelis were convinced that bringing them had absolutely been the right thing to do. They were part of the Jewish people, and saving that people was Israel’s raison d’être.
IRONICALLY AND SADLY, one thing that the Ethiopian and Russian waves of immigration shared was uncertainty on the part of the rabbinate as to whether or not they were actually Jewish. In the case of the Russians, it was clear that many of those who were immigrating to Israel were not Jewish according to halakhah (Jewish law). The Jewish community in the USSR had intermarried extensively; according to some estimates, only 25 percent of those who came to Israel under the Law of Return (which defined Jewishness the way that the Nazis had—having one Jewish grandparent—and not as classic Jewish law did) were technically Jewish. Time and again, the rabbinate was criticized (by many people, including Orthodox rabbis), though not for determining that these new immigrants were not Jewish, but for putting up roadblocks as these people sought to convert.14
Matters were even worse for the Ethiopians. It was the Sephardic chief rabbi who first ruled that these Ethiopians (whom he referred to as Falashas, another commonly used name for that community) were Jews. In a historic 1973 ruling (issued long before the masses of Ethiopian immigrants arrived), Rabbi Ovadia Yosef said:
I have therefore come to the conclusion that the Falashas are descendants of the Tribes of Israel, who went southward to Ethiopia, and there is no doubt that the above sages established that they [the Falashas] are of the Tribe of Dan . . . and [have] reached the conclusion on the basis of the most reliable witnesses and evidence . . . and have decided in my humble opinion, the Falashas are Jews.15
Rabbi Shlomo Goren (a deeply learned scholar who had often issued cutting-edge pathbreaking rulings), the Ashkenazi chief rabbi, was far less courageous on this issue. It was not until 1981 that any piece of his own writing even suggested that he approved the immigrants’ status as Jews.16
IN AUGUST 1990, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The United States, along with a coalition of other primarily Western nations, went to war against Hussein. As retaliation for the American-led counterattack, Hussein fired missiles at Israel in January 1991. Israeli leadership had never been willing to sit passively while Israeli civilians were attacked, but this time, Israel had no choice but to stand down; U.S. president George H. W. Bush was adamant that he would not abide Israel’s involvement in the battle (the United States, for example, refused to give the Israeli Air Force the codes it would need to ensure that coalition forces did not shoot down IAF planes). Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who as head of the Lechi in the prestate era had never shied away from the use of force to protect Jews, understood that this time he had no options.
Israelis huddled in bomb shelters with stockpiles of food and gas masks (there were fears that Hussein would use the chemical weapons he had deployed during the invasion of Iran). They waited out the war in sealed rooms, gas masks and even gas-proof cribs for infants at the ready. They were both fearful of Hussein and—while grateful that their government was adopting a pragmatic approach to the Americans, who were also providing them with Patriot missiles for defense—dumbfounded that almost a century after Kishinev, Jews were hiding again, their men in shelters unable to protect their wives and children.
In one of his best-known poems, “On the Slaughter” (not to be confused with the “City of Slaughter,” discussed earier), Hayim Nachman Bialik railed against God in fury after the massacre of Jews. “If there is justice—let it appear!” Bialik cried in one of the poem’s most famous lines; the role of the Jew as victim-in-waiting simply had to end. Now, just about a century later, an Israeli political commentator responded to the IDF’s being ordered to do nothing while missiles rained on Tel Aviv and wrote: “And if there is an IDF—let it appear immediately.” The allusion was lost on very few.
AS EARLY AS THE YOM KIPPUR WAR, Shlomo Gazit (head of Israeli military intelligence in the late 1970s) said Israel and Egypt had battled to a stalemate; there were, he said, no winners in that war. In the battle with the Palestinians, too, the conflict continued to grind on with no decisive victory or accomplishment for either side. It was becoming increasingly obvious to many Israelis that the sides were going to have to talk.
Just as it had been a right-wing, Likud administration that had made peace with Egypt, it was a Likud administration that agreed to the first indirect talks with the Palestinians. In October 1991, with Yitzhak Shamir still prime minister, Israeli officials sat with Syrian, Lebanese, and Jordanian delegations in Spain, in what would become known as the Madrid Conference. Israel still refused to engage in direct negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Israeli law defined as a terrorist organization. In a compromise, therefore, Israelis did allow Palestinian representatives from the West Bank and Jordan who were not formal PLO officials to join the Jordanian delegation. For the first time, Israelis and Palestinians sat across from one another at the negotiating table.
The goal of the Madrid Conference was not to produce a deal, but to launch bilateral negotiations. At that, it succeeded—the sides were finally talking. With peace with the Palestinians now clearly on the Israeli public agenda, in 1992, Israelis elected the man they believed could make that peace happen—Yitzhak Rabin. The man involved in some of the most decisive battles in the War of Independence and the lightning victory of 1967, Rabin was someone who Israelis were confident understood their security needs. Though he had resigned under a cloud, Israelis now wanted him back; a deal he would make would be a deal they could live with.
In a speech upon his swearing in, Rabin insisted that the Jewish condition had changed, and that Israelis could now take risks for peace:
No longer are we necessarily “a people that dwells alone,” and no longer is it true that “the whole world is against us.” We must overcome the sense of isolation that has held us in its thrall for almost half a century. . . . We believe wholeheartedly that peace is possible, that it is imperative, and that it will ensue. “I shall believe in the future,” wrote the poet Shaul Tchernikovsky. “Even if it is far off, the day will come when peace and blessings are borne from nation to nation”—and I want to believe that the day is not far off.17
Early in 1993, Israel repealed the law forbidding Israelis from negotiating with the PLO. The next day, secret back-channel negotiations began in Oslo, Norway, between Israeli and Palestinian representatives. In time, the parties agreed upon the basic framework of Oslo I, itself the first set of agreements in what would become known as the Oslo Accords.
The accords, which outlined an arrangement that was intended to last for up to five years while a permanent settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians was negotiated, provided for the creation of a Palestinian Authority, which would administer the territory under Palestinian control. Israeli forces, in turn, would pull back from portions of Gaza and the West Bank.
Shimon Peres signed the accord, in secret, when he visited Oslo in August 1993. As part of a “mutual recognition” agreement, the PLO recognized the State of Israel and pledged to abandon violence against the Jewish state. Israel, in turn, recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and permitted Yasser Arafat—along with tens of thousands of his fighters from abroad—to return to the West Bank and Gaza.
Another agreement, Oslo II, followed in September 1995, dividing the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C (see Map 10), which would be controlled by the Palestinians, a joint Israeli-Palestinian authority, and the Israelis, respectively. Neither Oslo I nor Oslo II guaranteed the Palestinians that they would have a state, but the framework was intended to lead to that, eventually. In September 1993, Arafat, Rabin, and U.S. president Bill Clinton gathered on the Great Lawn of the White House and, with a handshake between Rabin and Arafat, seemed to usher in a new era for the Middle East.
FOR HARD-LINE MUSLIMS, the accords were heresy. Israel had no right to exist on Arab land, they insisted, and they would never accept a deal. As a result, rather than heralding a period of peace, the signing of the Oslo Accords began a period of renewed and intensified Palestinian violence against Israelis. Now, the violence was far more deadly than it had been during the intifada. Hamas and other extremist Islamist groups in Gaza and the West Bank were carrying out suicide bombings, aimed mostly at Israeli civilians in Tel Aviv as well as cities within the Green Line (the 1949 armistice line), including Jerusalem, seeking massive casualties wherever possible in the hopes that they could derail the accords. More Israelis died in these attacks between 1994 and 1996 than had ever been killed by terror in such a short span of time in Israel’s history.18 Arafat only rarely publicly denounced the culpable parties. Occasionally, he had them arrested, only to release them when the world’s attention had shifted. To many Israelis, it was the ultimate unmasking of the Arafat at the UN General Assembly in 1974, who while extending an “olive branch” was wearing a holster. It was time for Arafat, many Israelis said, to tell his own people, in Arabic, that the violence had to cease. But Arafat would not do it.
THEN, AN INSTANCE OF Jewish terrorism made the region even more explosive. On February 25, 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a religious American immigrant to Israel, entered the Cave of the Patriarchs,* heavily armed, and opened fire on Muslims in the middle of prayer. He murdered twenty-nine Palestinian worshippers before he himself was killed by the enraged crowd.
Once again, Hebron had proved incendiary. In 1929, Hebron had been the site of the riots during which Arabs not only murdered Jews who lived there and destroyed the Jewish community there, but in effect inaugurated the Arab-Jewish armed conflict in the Middle East. After the 1967 Six-Day War, it was to Hebron that a group of young people moved to establish one of the first Jewish communities over the Green Line. Now, with the region at the height of tension and the future of the Oslo Accords very much in doubt, Hebron was once more the site of a massacre, this time at the Cave of the Patriarchs. Now, though, it was a Jew who had committed the atrocity and Muslims at prayer who were the victims.
Israelis were horrified by Goldstein’s attack, and Jewish religious leaders across the spectrum decried his actions. But the damage had been done. Arab terror continued and grew even more violent, and the region was unraveling. According to some sources, even Rabin was privately beginning to give up on Oslo due to the terror it had unleashed. Former defense minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon wrote years later, in 2008, that Rabin had told him that the prime minister “was going to ‘set things straight’ with the Oslo process, because Arafat could no longer be trusted.”19And in an interview with one of Israel’s leading newspapers, Dalia Rabin, the prime minister’s daughter, said in 2010, “many people who were close to Father told me that on the eve of the murder he considered stopping the Oslo process because of the terror that was running rampant in the streets, and because he felt that Yasser Arafat was not delivering on his promises.”20
Whatever his personal and private misgivings, Rabin remained publicly undeterred. Echoing Ben-Gurion’s determination that the Yishuv would fight the White Paper as if there were no war and would fight the war as if there were no White Paper, he declared, “We will continue the peace process as if there is no terror. And we will fight the terror as if there is no peace process.”21 Despite its exasperation with Arafat’s duplicitousness, Israel continued to carry out its obligations under the Oslo Accords. In May 1994, the IDF departed Jericho and almost all of the Gaza Strip, a mere nine days after the details of this agreement were finalized. Later, the IDF began withdrawing from large cities and territories in the West Bank and Gaza.
PEACE PROGRESSED ON ANOTHER FRONT, as well. In 1994, Jordan and Israel began serious negotiations designed to end the state of war between the two countries. King Hussein had officially renounced any claim to the West Bank (which he did not want because its large Palestinian population would make his Hashemite ruling minority an even smaller minority), so there were no insurmountable issues still dividing the two countries. When Shimon Peres, who was then serving as minister of foreign affairs, flew to Jordan that year to meet with King Hussein, he remarked that “the flight took only fifteen minutes . . . but it crossed a gulf of forty-six years of hatred and war.”22
Israel and Jordan signed a peace agreement in October 1994. The two nations had agreed upon the border between them, had settled water rights, and now had full mutual recognition. Israel was officially at peace with two of its neighbors. For King Hussein, who as a young man had witnessed his grandfather, King Abdullah I, murdered by Palestinians in July 1951 for contemplating peace with the Israelis—the accomplishment had not only political and economic significance, but deep personal resonance as well.
INCREASING NUMBERS OF ISRAELIS, horrified that a “deal” with Arafat had unleashed terror rather than bringing peace, were beginning to believe that Israel had made a profound and existentially dangerous mistake. For some, the issue was explicitly theological; God had given the Land of Israel to the Jewish people, they believed, and any agreement to cede even a portion of it was heretical. Israel’s Jewish political and religious Far Right grew particularly vicious. At its rallies, there appeared signs with photos of Rabin made to look like Hitler—archenemy of the Jewish people. A few extremist rabbis referred to Rabin as a rodef (a person seeking the death of another), and a boged (traitor), categories that in Jewish law merit death. On one occasion, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, who would eventually become prime minister, was filmed speaking at a downtown Jerusalem rally above a sign (of which he may well have been unaware) that read DEATH TO RABIN.
Many Israelis worried that the unrestrained incitement would result in disaster. Sixty-two years after his own father had been gunned down on the Tel Aviv beach, Chaim Arlosoroff’s son pleaded with the nation in a column he wrote for one of Israel’s major newspapers. He believed it was incitement that had led to his father’s assassination, and that he was witnessing a chilling repeat of the same phenomenon. “The leaders of the right must cease to incite,” he wrote, “and must explain to their followers what can happen if incitement continues, otherwise all the blame will fall on them, as it did with the murder of Arlosoroff.”23
Despite his apparent private misgivings, Rabin continued to shore up support for the Oslo Accords. To demonstrate to Israel and to the world that the Jewish state remained behind the agreements it had signed with Arafat, he and Shimon Peres called for a massive pro-peace rally in Tel Aviv on November 4, 1995. En masse, Israelis answered the call. Estimates put the size of the crowd that gathered at 150,000, perhaps more.24 Speaking to the thousands of exultant Israelis who still believed that peace was possible, Rabin said:
I was a military man for twenty-seven years. I fought as long as there was no chance for peace. I believe that there is now a chance for peace, a great chance. We must take advantage of it for the sake of those standing here, and for those who are not here—and they are many. I have always believed that the majority of the people want peace and are ready to take risks for peace. In coming here today, you demonstrate, together with many others who did not come, that the people truly desire peace and oppose violence.
Violence erodes the basis of Israeli democracy. It must be condemned and isolated. This is not the way of the State of Israel. In a democracy there can be differences, but the final decision will be taken in democratic elections, as the 1992 elections which gave us the mandate to do what we are doing, continue on this course.25
When he concluded his speech, Rabin joined the rally in singing “Shir La-Shalom,” “A Song to Peace,” which had become the anthem of the pro-peace camp. The Tel Aviv square reverberated with the sounds of the refrain:
Don’t [just] say the day will come,
Bring that day about
For it is no dream
And in all the city’s squares
Cry out for peace!26
As Rabin made his way to the car that awaited him, Yigal Amir, a twenty-five-year-old religious law student at Bar Ilan University, managed to work his way through Rabin’s security detail and fired three bullets into the prime minister. Rabin was rushed to the hospital, and as news of the shooting spread, an anxious nation held its breath.
Not long thereafter, Rabin’s close associate Etan Haber exited Ichilov Hospital, where Rabin had been in surgery, and to a shocked, horrified, and frightened crowd read a brief announcement that many Israelis still know by heart:
The government of Israel announces in dismay, in great sadness, and in deep sorrow, the death of prime minister and minister of defense Yitzhak Rabin, who was murdered by an assassin tonight in Tel Aviv. May his memory be blessed.
A young state—that had never known peace and had experienced more than its share of tragedy—suddenly faced a horror unlike anything it had ever imagined. Deep shame hung in the air like a dark cloud that refused to dissipate. Thousands, spontaneously this time, returned to the square where the rally had been held and sang the same song they had sung earlier that night, in a country that was then very different. Thousands wept in the streets. Desperate to express what words could not convey, throngs of young Israelis lit hundreds of thousands of candles on the sidewalks of the entire country. Bewildered, they were slowly becoming aware of the magnitude of the tragedy of which they were all a part, of the dream that had died, of a country that might never be the same. They held one another and simply wept.
They sat, sang, and cried, staring at the flickering flames they had lit, seeking in the embrace of their friends some reassurance that somehow, sometime, their badly wounded nation would recover. They prayed for some glimmer of hope that all was not lost. And at the same time, they mourned for what they feared they might be losing—for the tiny country that had surpassed everyone’s expectations, for the vision that had become a state, for the new lease on Jewish life that their grandparents, against all odds, had built out of nothing.