Bang-Bang, You’re Rightwing! The Role of Assassination in Israeli History

Earlier this summer, I read Bill Clinton’s startling insight on the assasination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 2005, passed along by the great columnist MJ Rosenberg:

In 1997, President Bill Clinton told me that he believed that Yigal Amir was that rare assassin whose act of murder succeeded in achieving its goals. He said that neither Lincoln’s nor Kennedy’s murderers achieved the reversal of their respective policies. According to Clinton, the murder of Rabin and the ascension of Binyamin Netanyahu dealt a terrible blow to the chances of achieving peace. He saw Rabin as the indispensable man, a thesis that was proven right when in 2000 Yasir Arafat walked away from a deal he might have found a way to accept if his “partner” still lived.

Clinton’s insight is fascinating but limited: He’s leaving out two other assassinations.

If you read Israeli history—as I am beginning to do—you will find that on two earlier occasions, great men who were offering powerful ideas of sharing the land with the Arabs were also assassinated, in 1948 and 1933.

Assassination #2:

In 1948 Count Folke Bernadotte, a Swede who had helped Jews escape the Holocaust, came to Israel as the UN Mediator on Palestine. Bernadotte was the unanimous choice of the international community to negotiate between Israel and its Arab neighbors. He came up with a partition plan that included making Jerusalem an international city.

On September 17, 1948, Bruce Stedman, an American working for the U.N., was in the front Jeep of a three-Jeep UN caravan, with Bernadotte in the middle Jeep, when they pulled up to a roadblock in the no-man’s land in Jerusalem between Jordan and Israel. Says Stedman: “Two or three guys came out of the bush with tommy guns and went right to the middle Jeep and shot through the dust curtains, killing Bernadotte and a French general.”

The guilty parties were never apprehended, though according to Avi Shlaim’s great book, The Iron Wall, the assassins were known to be members of the Stern Gang and the assassination was approved by Yitzhak Shamir, a future Prime Minister of Israel.

Assassination #1:

On a night in June 1933, two men went up to a couple on the beach in Tel Aviv and after shining a flashlight in the man’s face, shot him. The wife called for help. A few hours later leading Zionist intellectual Chaim Arlosoroff died, at 34, in a Tel Aviv hospital.

No one has ever been found guilty of Arlosoroff’s murder, which has reverberated in Israeli mythology for decades because Arlosoroff was a moderate, and a worldly European. He opposed the hardliners’ nationalist dreams, thought they were making an “idol” of the Western Wall, and believed the Zionist state would have to share the land somehow with the Arabs.

He even understood that a Arab nation was coming into existence in the 1930s in Palestine, under the administration of the British. Arlosoroff wrote:

An Arab movement does exist. It would be pernicious for us to belittle it, or to rely on bayonets, be they Jewish or English, to suppress it. You can rely on bayonets only for a limited period of time, but not for decades.

He wrote that in the 1920s! What would he have said about the great Lebanon invasion of 2006? As Arlosoroff’s biographer, Shlomo Avineri, wrote (and I have taken much of my info from his book, Arlosoroff), movingly, “To an Israel that would still like to be an Athens, and not a Sparta, Arlosoroff—though assassinated&#151is still alive.”

Israel is Sparta. I know; I went there this summer. I was as appalled by the culture of extremism as Bruce Stedman was, 60 years ago, especially after his boss’s murderers ascended to high office.

Add up Assassinations 1, 2, and 3, and what do you get? Well, you get a polity that has established a clear line in the sand about moderation. When powerful moderates arise, ka-boom. Everyone talks about extremist violence in the Arab world, and with good reason. Lately, Syria has become a pariah state in part because of its alleged role in the Hariri assassination in Beirut in 2005. But what about the 1,2,3 Israeli assassinations? Yitzhak Shamir becomes Prime Minister of Israel a few decades after he orders a political murder of a key moderate and the U.S. doesn’t say a word. Arlosoroff is forever mourned by doves (and Menachem Begin tries and fails to put the matter to rest in the 80s), without anyone in the U.S. ever hearing about the dude. And today many in Israel believe that Rabin’s assassin did a good thing, and should be released from prison!

One more point. The effectiveness of the Israel lobby is that it has essentially limited American communication to whoever is in power in Sparta, oops, Israel. Meaning the nationalists, who have gained power in ways that we wouldn’t approve of here, and for whom violence has always been an essential tool. So the left in Israel is politically marooned in its own country. As are progressives here. What is changing today—I’m a cockeyed optimist—is that bridges are being built between American moderates and Israeli progressives. We have a lot to talk about.

But watch your back!