The assassination that shattered Mideast peace dreams

Twenty years ago Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin addressed an evening rally in Tel Aviv in support of his peace accords with the Palestinians. Moments later he was fatally shot by a Jewish ultra-nationalist who opposed the peace initiative. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner looks back at events leading up to the assassination.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now: the elusive goal of peace in the Middle East.

    Two decades ago, there was a moment of hope.

    But, as chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports, the assassination that shattered that momentum still resonates today.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    One hundred thousand people swelled the crowd at a Tel Aviv peace rally 20 years ago tonight, as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin took the microphone to speak.

  • YITZHAK RABIN, Prime Minister, Israel (through interpreter):

    We know how to make peace, and not just sing about peace.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    But minutes later, he was fatally gunned down by a 27-year-old Jewish ultra-nationalist opposed to his peace efforts with the Palestinians.

    Rabin was nearing the end of a reelection campaign and pressing forward with peace initiatives on several fronts. He'd already signed the historic Oslo accords in Washington in 1993, famously shaking hands with Yasser Arafat, head the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO.

    For the first time, Israelis and Palestinians agreed to acknowledge each other's right to exist.

  • YITZHAK RABIN:

    We, who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today, in a loud and a clear voice, enough of blood and tears, enough.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    A year later, Rabin signed yet another historic agreement, this one with King Hussein of Jordan, to normalize relations between the two countries. His actions stirred a fierce backlash from right-wing Israelis and Jewish settlers, who saw them as steps toward forfeiting the occupied territories.

    The vilification of Rabin came despite his war hero background; 27 years a soldier, he began with an elite Jewish strike force in the 1940s. And after Israel's founding in 1948, he rose through the ranks to become the military's chief of staff.

    Rabin went on to oversee Israel's victory in the 1967 war, winning control of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. As defense minister in 1987, he put down the first Palestinian intifada, instructing his troops to use — quote — "force, power, and blows."

    He was elected prime minister twice, first in 1974 and then again in 1992, campaigning on the possibility of peace.

  • YITZHAK RABIN:

    I believe that within six to nine months, it will be possible to reach an agreement with the Palestinian delegation about establishment of autonomy.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    That vision was praised at his funeral attended by 80 heads of state, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, President Bill Clinton, and King Hussein of Jordan.

  • KING HUSSEIN BIN TALAL, Jordan:

    He had courage. He had vision, and he had a commitment to peace. And standing here, I commit before you, before my people in Jordan, before the world, myself to continue to do my utmost to ensure that we leave a similar legacy.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    But within six months, right-wing party leader Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister after campaigning on a promise not to hand back captured land to Arabs. He began a second stint as prime minister in 2009.

    All post-Rabin efforts to forge peace encouraged by the United States have foundered. Last weekend, Israelis marked the assassination anniversary with a memorial rally in what is now Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. Thousands attended, including former Israeli President Shimon Peres and former President Clinton.

  • PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON:

    The next step will be determined by whether you decide that Yitzhak Rabin was right, that you have to share the future with your neighbors, that you have to give their children a chance, too, that you have to stand for peace, that the risks for peace are not as severe as the risk of walking away from it.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    But with a new wave of Palestinian-Israeli violence under way, it's not clear that anyone will take that risk any time soon.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Margaret Warner.

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