How Israel squandered its best hope for peace

Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat receiving the Nobel Peace Prize
Yitzhak Rabin (R) , Shimon Peres (C) and Yasser Arafat receiving the Nobel Peace Prize following the Oslo Accords.
Yitzhak Rabin (R) , Shimon Peres (C) and Yasser Arafat receiving the Nobel Peace Prize following the Oslo Accords.
Yitzhak Rabin (R) , Shimon Peres (C) and Yasser Arafat receiving the Nobel Peace Prize following the Oslo Accords.

By: Dan Ephron

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 were the worst of Peres’s 63-year career. 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 Peres 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 Israelis. 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 Shabak was 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 identified Ayyash’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 cede 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 40-day mourning period for Ayyash came to an end. Shabak had assumed that if Hamas 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, Gillon retired from Shabak and 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 dropped to just five points in opinion polls. To help him recover from the suicide attacks, Schoen pushed Peres to begin using Rabin’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 sudden decline infused 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 Netanyahu over Peres to lead the country by the slimmest of margins. The greatest opportunity for peace had been squandered.

Dan Ephron, a former Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, is author of “Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel.”