How Is­rael squan­dered its chance for peace

Jour­nal­ist Dan Ephron chron­i­cles the mis­takes that fol­lowed Yitzhak Rabin’s 1995 as­sas­si­na­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @danephron Dan Ephron, a former Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, is the author of “Killing a King: The As­sas­si­na­tion of Yitzhak Rabin and the Re­mak­ing of Is­rael,” from which this ar­ti­cle is adapted.

As Is­rael pre­pares to mark the 20th an­niver­sary of Yitzhak Rabin’s as­sas­si­na­tion by a Jewish ex­trem­ist, the peace process the prime min­is­ter cham­pi­oned could not be in worse shape. A fresh wave of vi­o­lence be­tween the two sides has killed at least 30 Pales­tini­ans and seven Is­raelis in the past two weeks. The sig­na­ture peace deal Rabin cham­pi­oned, the Oslo Ac­cord, fur­ther un­rav­eled when Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas an­nounced last month that Pales­tini­ans would no longer be bound by it. The deal en­vi­sioned Is­rael’s grad­ual with­drawal from ter­ri­tory in the West Bank and Gaza in ex­change for peace­ful re­la­tions with the Pales­tini­ans af­ter nearly a cen­tury of con­flict. Af­ter two decades of in­ter­mit­tent vi­o­lence and re­lent­less Is­raeli set­tle­ment ex­pan­sion, it is now largely de­funct.

Al­though Rabin’s 1995 as­sas­si­na­tion dev­as­tated the peace camp in Is­rael, it seemed to of­fer his suc­ces­sor, No­bel Peace Lau­re­ate Shi­mon Peres, a real op­por­tu­nity to ful­fill the slain leader’s legacy. The killing launched a wave of sym­pa­thy for La­bor — the party Rabin had led — and a sharp rise in sup­port for his deals with the Pales­tini­ans. In opin­ion polls, some 60 per­cent of Is­raelis backed Peres, an im­pres­sive fig­ure in a coun­try ac­cus­tomed to 50-50 splits. Peace seemed, if not in­evitable, at least plau­si­ble.

Yet the months that fol­lowed the mur­der werethe­worstofPeres’s63-yearca­reer.Thanks to a com­bi­na­tion of na­tional se­cu­rity gam­bles, in­ept cam­paign man­age­ment and plain bad luck, Peres squan­dered his tail­winds. A litany of un­nec­es­sary mis­takes cost him the elec­tion — and, with it, Is­rael’s last best hope for peace.

Peres made the first of sev­eral key er­rors just weeks af­ter Rabin’s as­sas­si­na­tion. He de­cided against call­ing a snap elec­tion — al­though he would have won eas­ily. He opted to pur­sue a full-fledged peace ac­cord with Syria, even though a draft of the Pales­tinian deal al­ready had been drawn up. Some­how, Peres’s long-stand­ing ri­valry with Rabin had not ended with the as­sas­si­na­tion: Ev­ery de­ci­sion he made seemed to be aimed at prov­ing he was his own man, no less ca­pa­ble than Rabin, and tougher than him on se­cu­rity.

Those were prob­lems of his own mak­ing, but soon Per es would have to face some im­posed on him. In De­cem­ber 1995, Carmi Gil­lon, who headed the Shin Bet, a do­mes­tic se­cu­rity agency also known as Shabak, told the new prime min­is­ter that Is­rael now had an op­por­tu­nity to elim­i­nate a renowned Ha­mas bomb maker re­spon­si­ble for the deaths of more than 50 Is­rael is. Af­ter hid­ing in the West Bank for years, Yahya Ayyash, the most for­mi­da­ble ter­ror­ist Is­rael ever faced, had qui­etly crossed into Gaza, where his wife and child lived. Among the peo­ple he took into his con­fi­dence was a cer­tain Pales­tinian busi­ness­man who hap­pened to be an informer for Shabak. The agency knew the lo­ca­tion of his safe house.

To Gil­lon, the de­ci­sion to kill Ayyash seemed easy. The bomb maker had headed Is­rael’s most-wanted list since 1992. He ex­celled not only at en­gi­neer­ing but also at per­suad­ing young men to be­come sui­cide bombers, a skill that trou­bled Shabak al­most as much as his tech­ni­cal ap­ti­tude. Killing him would end a sus­tained man­hunt that had taxed the agency’s resources.

Gil­lon hoped it would do some­thing else as well: re­deem Shabak, and per­haps him­self, from the in­abil­ity to pre­vent the as­sas­si­na­tion of Rabin, whose se­cu­rity the agency han­dled. “The morale was low. In ad­di­tion to the grief and the feel­ing of fail­ure, the en­tire Sh ab a kw as talked about in the me­dia as in­com­pe­tent,” he ac­knowl­edged in a mem­oir years later.

For Peres, the arith­metic was more com­pli­cated. Ha­mas had not car­ried out a sui­cide at­tack in more than four months, the longest stretch since a Jewish ter­ror­ist had opened fire at a Mus­lim shrine, killing 29 wor­shipers. Would killing Ayyash re­in­force the trend or trig­ger a new wave of bomb­ings and un­der­mine Peres’s po­lit­i­cal stand­ing? In ef­fect, Is­rael would be gambling on the idea that Ayyash alone pos­sessed the skills to engi­neer large at­tacks. If he had trained oth­ers, a rea­son­able as­sump­tion, they would cer­tainly want to avenge his death.

Like Gil­lon, Peres seemed to have had mo­ti­va­tions be­yond the im­me­di­ate bat­tle with Ha­mas, in­clud­ing a drive to match Rabin’s se­cu­rity record so he could stand on his own, not merely as Rabin’s heir, as a can­di­date for prime min­is­ter. He needed a stand­out achieve­ment. He had in­vested con­sid­er­able ef­fort in a peace deal with Syria, but Pres­i­dent Hafez al-As­sad was un­in­ter­ested. Peres au­tho­rized the strike on Ayyash.

On the first Fri­day of 1996, Ayyash an­swered a call on a cell­phone he had re­ceived from the Pales­tinian busi­ness­man, ex­pect­ing to hear his fa­ther. Shabak tech­ni­cians had em­bed­ded a small ex­plo­sive in the phone with a min­i­mal blast ra­dius. When a sur­veil­lance team iden­ti­fiedAy ya sh’ s voice on the line, sol­diers in a plane over­head trig­gered the ex­plo­sive, blow­ing out the side of the man’s head. Gil­lon felt enor­mous re­lief. “Af­ter the killing of Ye­hiya Ayyash, peo­ple . . . stopped talk­ing about the agency as worth­less,” he wrote in his mem­oir. “I had now made good on my prom­ise to Peres that I would put the agency back on track and re­store its sense of con­fi­dence.” Gil­lon ten­dered his res­ig­na­tion two days af­ter the cell­phone strike.

He would not be around to face the con­se­quences.

Within weeks, Peres set the date for an elec­tion against his Likud Party ri­val, Benjamin Ne­tanyahu. It would be a ref­er­en­dum on the peace deals with the Pales­tini­ans and a con­test over the sta­tus of the West Bank and Gaza: Would they con­tinue to be mil­i­tary-ruled en­claves where settlers strove to bring about Jewish re­demp­tion—or would Is­rael ce de them to the Pales­tini­ans? With his com­mand­ing lead, his in­cum­bent sta­tus and the tele­vised as­sas­si­na­tion trial of Yi­gal Amir to re­mind peo­ple of Rabin’s quest for peace, the elec­tion was Peres’s to lose. But it would not take place un­til late May, al­most six months af­ter Rabin’s death.

The win­ter of 1996 was colder than usual; the cam­paign ramped up slowly. The two can­di­dates rented of­fice space for their head­quar­ters and hired Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tants. Peres en­gaged Dou­glas Schoen, who had worked for Bill Clin­ton; Ne­tanyahu hired Arthur Finkel­stein, who had worked for Ron­ald Rea­gan. Both sched­uled po­lit­i­cal events around the coun­try, and Is­raelis seemed to think this elec­tion car­ried par­tic­u­lar weight. Al­though his cam­paign was off to a strong start, Peres had squan­dered large leads in three pre­vi­ous elec­tions.

In mid-Fe­bru­ary, the tra­di­tional Mus­lim 40day mourn­ing pe­riod for Ayyash came to an end. Sh ab ak had as­sumed that if Ham as had the ca­pac­ity to avenge his death, it would do so im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing the in­ter­lude. So as the days passed and the group re­mained pas­sive, Peres felt a wave of re­lief. On a Wed­nes­day in Fe­bru­ary, Gill on re­tired from Sh ab aka nd handed over con­trol to his suc­ces­sor, former navy chief Ami Ayalon. The next day, Ayalon con­vened the agency’s top of­fi­cers and an­nounced that, start­ing Sun­day, he would be re­view­ing all of Shabak’s old poli­cies and di­rec­tives. He spent the week­end at his home in the Carmel Moun­tains near Haifa and told his driver to pick him up at 6 a.m. Sun­day for an early start.

But on his way in to be­gin the agency re­view, a ra­dio news an­nouncer broad­cast the first de­tails of what seemed like a sui­cide at­tack on a bus in Jerusalem. From the back seat of his Shabak car, Ayalon asked the driver to turn up the vol­ume. Bus num­ber 18, which fer­ries res­i­dents from the south­ern neigh­bor­hoods of the city to the busiest part of down­town and then on to the cen­tral bus sta­tion, blew up to­ward the end of its route. The dam­age to the bus and the build­ings sur­round­ing it ap­peared to be ex­ten­sive, a reporter on the scene said. Ayalon could hear the wail­ing of am­bu­lances through the ra­dio. The ca­su­alty toll prob­a­bly would be high.

Within days, Shabak pieced to­gether a chron­i­cle of the at­tack. Soon af­ter the strike on Ayyash, a Ha­mas op­er­a­tive had slipped out of Gaza and crossed to the West Bank to plot the group’s re­venge. He as­signed the Jerusalem bomb­ing to a cell in Al Fawar, near He­bron. Mem­bers of the cell, the agency learned, were now hid­ing out in Ra­mal­lah, one of the ci­ties that had come un­der Pales­tinian con­trol months ear­lier as part of Rabin’s peace process. A sec­ond sui­cide bomber they had sent to Ashkelon blew him­self up at a junc­tion an hour af­ter the Jerusalem at­tack but man­aged to kill just one per­son other than him­self.

Ayalon now faced a dilemma. Ar­rest­ing the cell would re­quire Is­raeli forces to en­ter a Pales­tinian-run city, which the Oslo II Ac­cord ex­pressly for­bade. But wait­ing un­til the Ha­mas men re­turned to Al Fawar, a town still un­der Is­raeli se­cu­rity con­trol, would mean putting off in­ter­ro­ga­tions that might pro­duce time-sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion. What if the cell had al­ready set an­other at­tack in mo­tion? Af­ter con­sult­ing Shabak’s top of­fi­cers, he chose to wait.

It would prove to be the wrong de­ci­sion. On Sun­day morn­ing, ex­actly a week af­ter the Jerusalem bomb­ing, the cell struck again — on the same bus line. This time, the as­sailant killed fewer peo­ple ,19, per­haps be­cause some reg­u­lar pas­sen­gers had de­cided to avoid pub­lic trans­porta­tion. But the psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pact of the third sui­cide at­tack in a week was dev­as­tat­ing. Is­raelis who had with­stood wars and sieges now talked about stay­ing away from buses and pub­lic events. The gov­ern­ment had sealed off the West Bank and Gaza, and yet Ha­mas con­tin­ued its cam­paign. Its at­tacks seemed un­pre­ventable.

Peres, who had been at his apart­ment in Tel Aviv when the sec­ond bus ex­ploded, set out to see the hor­ror for him­self. Years later, he would re­call it as a trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence. As he en­tered Jerusalem, about 90 min­utes af­ter the bomb­ing, a heavy rain be­gan to fall. “There were thou­sands of peo­ple around. The bod­ies of the dead were still there and the blood cov­ered the whole square. . . . As I came in, they all started to shout, ‘Mur­derer, look what he did to us.’ What could I say to them?” Peres left with­out ad­dress­ing the crowd.

Still, Ha­mas was not done. The day af­ter the sec­ond Jerusalem at­tack, a sui­cide bomber tried to en­ter Dizen­goff Cen­ter, Tel Aviv’s largest mall. When a po­lice­man turned him away, the as­sailant walked into a nearby in­ter­sec­tion and det­o­nated the 44-pound nail bomb he had strapped to him­self, killing 13 peo­ple. The af­ter­noon crowd out­side the mall in­cluded many chil­dren in cos­tumes — Is­raelis would be cel­e­brat­ing Purim that evening. Five teenagers were among the dead.

For the first time, Ayalon com­pre­hended the en­cum­brance he’d taken on in agree­ing to lead Shabak. Fifty-nine Is­raelis had been killed in his first 10 days on the job. He now rec­om­mended to Peres that the army im­pose a cor­don around the West Bank’s main ci­ties. Pales­tini­ans would not only be barred from en­ter­ing Is­rael; they also would be un­able to travel from one part of the West Bank to an­other. Af­ter this, would Is­raelis ever feel com­fort­able leav­ing the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries to Pales­tinian con­trol? Out­side the De­fense Min­istry, where Ayalon briefed cabi­net mem­bers, a few hun­dred pro­test­ers burned torches and shouted an­gry slo­gans — mostly di­rected at Arabs but also at Peres.

The emo­tional tide in Is­rael was now shift­ing from grief over Rabin’s as­sas­si­na­tion to anger at Pales­tinian vi­o­lence. For months, the coun­try’s most ubiq­ui­tous bumper sticker had been “SHALOM HAVER,” a line from Pres­i­dent Clin­ton’s re­marks af­ter Rabin’s death mean­ing “Good­bye, friend.” Now some­one coined a vari­a­tion in plu­ral that summed up the new sen­ti­ment: shalom haverim, “Good­bye, friends” — a ref­er­ence to the scores who had died in the Ha­mas at­tacks.

Peres’s lead by now had to dropped to just five points in opin­ion polls. To help him re­cover from the sui­cide at­tacks, Schoen pushed Peres to be­gin us­ing Ra bin’ s mur­der to his ad­van­tage, prompt­ing rau­cous de­bates among mem­bers of the cam­paign staff: how to in­voke the as­sas­si­na­tion with­out sound­ing ma­nip­u­la­tive. Yet Peres’s ri­valry with Rabin was be­gin­ning to sab­o­tage his race. In his de­ter­mi­na­tion to win the elec­tion on the mer­its of his achieve­ments, he and the strate­gists left Rabin out of the cam­paign much of the time. They also spurned Leah Rabin, the widow, who had of­fered to make ap­pear­ances na­tion­wide. “In ret­ro­spect, I feel I should have per­haps in­sisted, but I was so re­luc­tant to push my­self and so sure they were go­ing to suc­ceed any­way ,” she would write in her mem­oir.

The cam­paign also suf­fered from in­ter­nal strife. Peres sus­pected that For­eign Min­is­ter Ehud Barak would even­tu­ally chal­lenge him for lead­er­ship of the party. Barak, in turn, con­sid­ered Haim Ra­mon his ad­ver­sary in La­bor’s fu­ture suc­ces­sion bat­tle. As long as Peres held a sub­stan­tial lead over Ne­tanyahu, the ri­val­ries re­mained sub­merged. But his sud­den­de­cline inf used the cam­paign with an air of hos­til­ity and dys­func­tion.

Ne­tanyahu, by con­trast, man­aged to squelch Likud’s in­fight­ing and uti­lize ev­ery ad­van­tage he could pos­si­bly muster against Peres — start­ing with the sui­cide at­tacks. His Amer­i­can con­sul­tant, Finkel­stein, had a record of keep­ing his can­di­dates on mes­sage. With his Is­raeli client, the mes­sage sought to ex­ploit the in­creas­ing vul­ner­a­bil­ity Is­raelis were feel­ing. Ne­tanyahu, the ter­ror­ism ex­pert and former com­mando, would re­store Is­rael’s se­cu­rity, while Peres would di­vide Jerusalem for the sake of an im­pos­si­ble peace. Peres had balked at us­ing footage of Ne­tanyahu at rowdy right-wing protests and draw­ing a con­nec­tion to the Jewish ex­trem­ism be­hind Rabin’s as­sas­si­na­tion. Ne­tanyahu showed no such re­straint. His cam­paign made burned-out buses — the ones at­tacked by Ha­mas sui­cide bombers — the defin­ing im­age of the cam­paign. In a tele­vised de­bate later with Peres, Ne­tanyahu used the word “fear” more than a dozen times in less than 15 min­utes of air time. Af­ter it ended, the last shred of Peres’s lead had evap­o­rated. The two can­di­dates were neck and neck.

Clin­ton fol­lowed the trans­for­ma­tion in Is­rael with a sense of fore­bod­ing. In early March 1996, he or­ga­nized a “sum­mit of peace­mak­ers” that would fo­cus on ways to com­bat ter­ror­ism in Is­rael and the re­gion. In re­al­ity, it was an ef­fort by the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent to stem Peres’s po­lit­i­cal free fall. The event at Egypt’s re­sort town of Sharm el-Sheikh had all the trap­pings of the Oslo-era peace cer­e­monies, in­clud­ing lofty speeches and cam­era-friendly in­ter­ac­tions be­tween Arab and Is­raeli lead­ers. In his ad­dress, Peres framed the Ha­mas at­tacks as the last thrust of a wan­ing ni­hilism in the Mid­dle East. “The dark days are at an end. The shad­ows of its past are length­en­ing.”

But Is­raelis had grown tired of peace con­fer­ences. And it wasn’t at all clear whether the ex­trem­ists, Arabs or Is­raelis, were de­clin­ing or as­cend­ing. Two months later, Is­raeli vot­ers chose Net anyahuoverPe re stole ad the coun­try by the slimmest of mar­gins. The great­est op­por­tu­nity for peace had been squan­dered.

DU­SAN VRANIC/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Is­raeli po­lice­men look for a pos­si­ble stab­bing sus­pect in Jerusalem on Wed­nes­day.

Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ters Yitzhak Rabin, top, and Shi­mon Peres, bot­tom.

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