In 1993, as he signed the Oslo Accords granting limted self-rule to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared: "We are not alone here on this soil, in this land. And so, we are sharing this good earth today with the Palestinian people in order to choose life."
Two years later, Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish fundamentalist, Yigal Amir, in Israel. The murder effectively ended the peace process for at least a generation. It was "one of history’s most effective political murders," Dexter Filkins wrote in The New Yorker in 2015. Unlike other assassinations that actually enhanced a martyr's agenda, this one seemed to stop the peace process in its tracks. Filkins observed:
"Tolstoy posited that history is not made by individuals, that it is, rather, the continuously unfolding consequence of innumerable interconnected events. But, if the story of Yitzhak Rabin and Yigal Amir has anything to teach, it’s that individuals matter. Rabin was the right man at the right time, and so, in his perverse way, was Yigal Amir. The opportunity that Rabin was trying to seize—however small—was there for a moment, and it may never come again."
In The Daily Beast, Christopher Dickey recalled the atmosphere in Israel in 1995:
"Investments were pouring into Israel, its long isolation seemingly a thing of the past, its stock market soaring. Money was even flooding into the Palestinian territories, where the dream of shaking off Israeli occupation looked like a plausible, even imminent reality. Jordan signed a solid peace treaty with Israel. Syria looked like even it might do the same."
In the book Killing A King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel, Dan Ephron examines whether things would be different if Rabin had lived. He believes Rabin had made a strategic decision to give up most of the occupied territories, which would have inevitably led to the creation of a Palestinian state, and at the same time transformed Israel.
Could he have uprooted at least some of the 140,000 settlers on the West Bank and survived politically, and physically? He most certainly would have faced resistance and passionate protests.
"Once the slope of history changes because of a certain event, it's hard to go back and try to figure out how things would have unspooled if it had not changed," Ephron says.
"The conclusion I came to was that that moment in 1995 was probably the most hopeful moment in terms of the possibility of coming to some agreement between Israelis and Palestinians," he adds. "The most hopeful moment in retrospect, in past 20 years, and maybe even going forward. And I think the main reason for that is because that peace process was still new, it had not been poisoned yet by the years of violence and settlement expansion. So, it was a hopeful moment that I don't think the Israelis and Palestinians have achieved at any point since then."
“In killing the Israeli leader,” Ephron concluded, “Amir had done better than the assassins of Lincoln, Kennedy, and King, whose policies had gained momentum as a result of their murders. During the years of his imprisonment, he had the satisfaction of watching Rabin’s legacy steadily evaporate.”
Bill Clinton, both in a 2013 interview aired by Israel’s Channel 2, and in his address to the Saturday night rally marking the 20th anniversary of the assassination, expressed certainty that Rabin would have concluded a permanent accord with the Palestinians. Shimon Peres, Rabin’s perennial rival-partner, was similarly adamant in an interview: “I am sure that if he were alive he would have made peace with the Palestinians…”
Denis Ross, American negotiator and author of Doomed to Succeed, a detailed account of U.S.-Israeli relations since 1948, observed that "after the assassination, four Hamas bombs in 1996 helped defeat Shimon Peres, who otherwise would likely have won a mandate to fulfill the Rabin mission.
The other question I'm often asked is what Rabin would do today, with a wave of terror stabbings, complete stalemate with Palestinians, a delegitimization movement against Israel and the Arab state system itself under threat in the Middle East?
He would launch an initiative to blunt the delegitimization movement by showing that Israel was not responsible for the absence of peace. He would make sure not to build in what would be the Palestinian state and would freeze all settlement activity outside the blocs or to the east of the security barrier. And, if the Palestinians were still too dysfunctional to make peace, he would find a way to separate from them.
Andy Walton of Christian Today speculates that Rabin likely would have blocked the increase in illegal settlement building and other hardline measures by the Israeli government. The deadly Second Intifada, launched by Palestinians after Rabin's death, might not have happened.
Historians and journalists love to imagine that Rabin would have beaten Netanyahu at the polls and gone on to sign peace agreements with Arafat and Assad. But peace was fragile, Israel and Palestinian cultures were deeply conflicted, and a facile answer to the "what if" is not fully possible.