Twenty years ago, the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by a Jewish religious zealot. His premature death practically ended of of peace initiatives between Israel and the Arabs. An opportunity that may not return for a long time.
Rabin was not the only leader to be assassinated in the Middle East for pursuing a lasting peace between Israel and the Arabs. Two Arab leaders who tried to put an end to the violent conflict before him were also murdered.
This article is dedicated to these three brave leaders who sacrificed their lives in the pursuit of peace.
King of Jordan, Abdullah I bin al-Hussein, (February 1882 – 20 July 1951)
King Abdullah was considered a moderate by the West. It is possible that he might have been willing to sign a separate peace agreement with Israel, but for the Arab League’s militant opposition. Because of his dream for a Greater Syria comprising the borders of what was then Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the British Mandate for Palestine under a Hashemite dynasty with “a throne in Damascus,” many Arab countries distrusted Abdullah and saw him as both “a threat to the independence of their countries and they also suspected him of being in cahoots with the enemy” and in return, Abdullah distrusted the leaders of other Arab countries.
Abdullah supported the Peel Commission in 1937, which proposed that Palestine be split up into a small Jewish state (20 percent of the British Mandate for Palestine) and the remaining land be annexed into Transjordan. The Arabs within Palestine and the surrounding Arab countries objected to the Peel Commission while the Jews accepted it reluctantly. Ultimately, the Peel Commission was not adopted. In 1947, when the UN supported partition of Palestine into one Jewish and one Arab state, Abdullah was the only Arab leader supporting the decision.
In 1946–48, Abdullah actually supported partition in order that the Arab allocated areas of the British Mandate for Palestine could be annexed into Transjordan. Abdullah went so far as to have secret meetings with the Jewish Agency (future Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was among the delegates to these meetings) that came to a mutually agreed upon partition plan independently of the United Nations in November 1947. On 17 November 1947.
On 4 May 1948, King Abdullah, as a part of the effort to seize as much of Palestine as possible, sent in the Arab Legion to attack the Israeli settlements in the Etzion Bloc. Less than a week before the outbreak of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, Abdullah met with Meir for one last time on 11 May 1948. Abdullah told Meir, “Why are you in such a hurry to proclaim your state? Why don’t you wait a few years? I will take over the whole country and you will be represented in my parliament. I will treat you very well and there will be no war”. King Abdullah proposed to Meir the creation “of an autonomous Jewish canton within a Hashemite kingdom,” but “Meir countered back that in November, they had agreed on a partition with Jewish statehood.” Depressed by the unavoidable war that would come between Jordan and the Yishuv, one Jewish Agency representative wrote, “[Abdullah] will not remain faithful to the 29 November [UN Partition] borders, but [he] will not attempt to conquer all of our state [either].” Abdullah too found the coming war to be unfortunate, in part because he “preferred a Jewish state [as Transjordan’s neighbor] to a Palestinian Arab state run by the mufti.”
After conquering the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, at the end of the 1948 Israel’s Independence War, King Abdullah tried to suppress any trace of a Palestinian Arab national identity. Abdullah annexed the conquered Palestinian territory and granted the Palestinian Arab residents in Jordan Jordanian citizenship. In 1949, Abdullah entered secret peace talks with Israel, including at least five with Moshe Dayan, the Military Governor of West Jerusalem and other senior Israelis. News of the negotiations provoked a strong reaction from other Arab States and Abdullah agreed to discontinue the meetings in return for Arab acceptance of the West Bank’s annexation into Jordan.
On 20 July 1951, King Abdullah, while visiting Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, was shot dead by a Palestinian from the Husseini clan. The assassin passed through apparently heavy security. Abdullah was in Jerusalem to give a eulogy at the funeral and for a prearranged meeting with Reuven Shiloah and Moshe Sasson. Abdullah was shot while attending Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the company of his grandson, Prince Hussein. The Palestinian gunman fired three fatal bullets into the King’s head and chest. Abdullah’s grandson, Prince Hussein, was at his side and was hit too. A medal that had been pinned to Hussein’s chest at his grandfather’s insistence deflected the bullet and saved his life. Once Hussein became king, the assassination of Abdullah was said to have influenced Hussein not to enter peace talks with Israel in the aftermath of the Six-Day War in order to avoid a similar fate.
The assassin was a 21-year-old tailor’s apprentice, Mustafa Ashi, who according to Alec Kirkbride, the British Resident in Amman, was a “former terrorist”, Zakariyya Ukah a livestock dealer and butcher. Ten conspirators were accused of plotting the assassination and were brought to trial in Amman. The prosecution named Colonel Abdullah el-Tell, ex-Military Governor of Jerusalem, and Musa Abdullah Husseini as the chief plotters of “the most dastardly crime Jordan ever witnessed.” The Jordanian prosecutor asserted that Col. el-Tell, who had been living in Cairo since January 1950, had given instructions that the killer, made to act alone, be slain at once thereafter to shield the instigators of the crime. Jerusalem sources added that Col. el-Tell had been in close contact with the former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husayni, and his adherents in Arab Palestine. El-Tell and Husseini, and three co-conspirators from Jerusalem were sentenced to death. On 6 September 1951, Musa Ali Husseini, ‘Abid and Zakariyya Ukah, and Abd-el-Qadir Farhat were executed by hanging.
Abdullah was succeeded by his son Talal; however, since Talal was mentally ill, Talal’s son Prince Hussein became the effective ruler as King Hussein at the age of seventeen. In 1967, el-Tell received a full pardon from King Hussein.
On 26 October 1994, Jordan and Israel signed the peace treaty in a ceremony held in the Arava valley of Israel, north of Eilat and near the Jordanian border. Prime Minister Rabin and Prime Minister Abdelsalam al-Majali signed the treaty and the President of Israel Ezer Weizman shook hands with King Hussein. Clinton observed, accompanied by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Thousands of colorful balloons released into the sky ended the event.
Egypt welcomed the agreement while Syria ignored it. However, the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah resisted the treaty and 20 minutes prior to the ceremony launched mortar and rocket attacks against northern Galilee towns. Israeli residents, who were forced to evacuate the towns for the safety of shelters, took with them transistor radios and mobile TVs in order not to miss the historical moment of signing a second peace treaty with an Arab state.
A handshake between King Hussein I of Jordan and the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, accompanied by the American president Bill Clinton, during the Israel-Jordan peace negotiations, July 25th, 1994
President Anwar Sadat (25 December 1918 – 6 October 1981)
President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt died in September 1970 and was succeeded by Anwar Sadat. A peace initiative led by UN intermediary Gunnar Jarring failed to produce a lasting peace agreement as the Israelis repeatedly refused to make commitments to abandon territories prior to direct negotiations. In response to a letter sent by Jarring to governments of Israel and Egypt, Sadat wrote that Egypt would be “ready to enter into a peace agreement with Israel” if Israel committed itself to “withdrawal of its armed forces from Sinai and the Gaza Strip”, to “achievement of a just settlement for the refugee problem”, and to implementation of other provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 242. In addition, the Egyptian response included a statement that the lasting peace could not be achieved without “withdrawal of the Israeli armed forces from all the territories occupied since 5 June 1967,” whereas the UNSC resolution called for withdrawal from occupied territories, intentionally omitting “all”, and “the”; the Israeli response included that they were not willing to “withdraw to the pre-June 5, 1967 lines.”
Sadat hoped that by inflicting even a limited defeat on the Israelis, the status quo could be altered. Hafez al-Assad, the leader of Syria, had a different view. He had little interest in negotiation and felt the retaking of the Golan Heights would be a purely military option. After the Six-Day War, Assad had launched a massive military buildup and hoped to make Syria the dominant military power of the Arab states. With the aid of Egypt, Assad felt that his new army could win convincingly against Israel and thus secure Syria’s role in the region. Assad only saw negotiations beginning once the Golan Heights had been retaken by force, which would induce Israel to give up the West Bank and Gaza, and make other concessions.
The initial Egyptian and Syrian victories in the Yom Kippur War of October 1973 restored popular morale throughout Egypt and the Arab World and, for many years after, Sadat was known as the “Hero of the Crossing”. Efforts to make peace with Israel through diplomacy would soon gain popular support among Egyptians as well. Israel recognized Egypt as a formidable foe, and Egypt’s renewed political significance eventually led to regaining and reopening the Suez Canal through the peace process. His new peace policy led to the conclusion of two agreements on disengagement of forces with the Israeli government. The first of these agreements was signed on 18 January 1974, and the second on 4 September 1975.
In January 1977, a series of ‘Bread Riots’ protested Sadat’s economic liberalization and specifically a government decree lifting price controls on basic necessities like bread. The riots lasted for two days and included hundreds of thousands in Cairo. 120 buses and hundreds of buildings were destroyed in Cairo alone. The riots ended with the deployment of the army and the re-institution of the subsidies/price controls. During this time, Sadat was also taking a new approach towards improving relations with the West.
The United States and the Soviet Union agreed on 1 October 1977, on principles to govern a Geneva conference on the Middle East. Syria continued to resist such a conference. Not wanting either Syria or the Soviet Union to influence the peace process, Sadat decided to take more progressive stance towards building a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel.
Although Egypt had suffered military defeat, the initial Egyptian successes greatly enhanced Sadat’s prestige in the Middle East and gave him an opportunity to seek peace. In an interview with American journalist Walter Cronkite on November 14, 1977, Sadat made clearer than ever his willingness to visit Israel’s capital. “I’m just waiting for the proper invitation,” he told the world in the satellite interview. In a follow up interview with prime minister Menachem Begin later the same day. Walter Cronkite asked for his reaction to Sadat’s statements, Begin responded: “I can assure you, Mr. Cronkite, as we really want the visit of President Sadat, we really want to negotiate the peace, to establish permanent peace in the Middle East.” Six days later, Sadat arrived at Lod Airport, was received by Begin, and the two drove together to the Knesset.
Sadat became the first Arab leader to visit Israel officially when he met with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and spoke before the Knesset in Jerusalem about his views on how to achieve a comprehensive peace to the Arab–Israeli conflict, which included the full implementation of UN Resolutions 242 and 338. He said during his visit that he hopes “that we can keep the momentum in Geneva, and may God guide the steps of Premier Begin and Knesset, because there is a great need for hard and drastic decision”.
In 1979, the Arab League suspended Egypt in the wake of the Egyptian–Israel peace agreement, and the League moved its headquarters from Cairo to Tunis. Arab League member states believed in the elimination of the “Zionist Entity” and Israel at that time. It was not until 1989 that the League re-admitted Egypt as a member, and returned its headquarters to Cairo. As part of the peace deal, Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula in phases, completing its withdrawal from the entire territory except the town of Taba by 25 April 1982 (withdrawal from which did not occur until 1989). The improved relations Egypt gained with the West through the Camp David Accords soon gave the country resilient economic growth. By 1980, however, Egypt’s strained relations with the Arab World would result in a period of rapid inflation.
The last months of Sadat’s presidency were marked by internal uprising. Sadat dismissed allegations that the rioting was incited by domestic issues, believing that the Soviet Union was recruiting its regional allies in Libya and Syria to incite an uprising that would eventually force him out of power. Following a failed military coup in June 1981, Sadat ordered a major crackdown that resulted in the arrest of numerous opposition figures. Though Sadat still maintained high levels of popularity in Egypt.
In February 1981, Egyptian authorities were alerted to El-Jihad’s plan by the arrest of an operative carrying crucial information. In September, Sadat ordered a highly unpopular roundup of more than 1500 people, including many Jihad members, but also the Coptic Pope and other Coptic clergy, intellectuals and activists of all ideological stripes. All non-government press was banned as well. The round up missed a Jihad cell in the military led by Lieutenant Khalid Islambouli, who would succeed in assassinating Anwar Sadat that October.
On 6 October 1981, Sadat was assassinated during the annual victory parade held in Cairo to celebrate Egypt’s crossing of the Suez Canal. Islambouli emptied his assault rifle into Sadat’s body while in the front of the grandstand, instantly killing the President. In addition to Sadat, eleven others were killed, including the Cuban ambassador, an Omani general, a Coptic Orthodox bishop and Samir Helmy, the head of Egypt’s Central Auditing Agency (CAA). Twenty-eight were wounded, including Vice President Hosni Mubarak, Irish Defence Minister James Tully, and four US military liaison officers. The assassination squad was led by Lieutenant Khalid Islambouli after a fatwā approving the assassination had been obtained from Omar Abdel-Rahman. Islambouli was tried, found guilty, sentenced to death, and executed by firing squad in April 1982.
Sadat was succeeded by his vice president Hosni Mubarak, who honored the peace agreement with Israel.
President Sadat, President Carter, and Prime Minister Begin at the signing of the peace treaty on the White House lawn
Yitzhak Rabin ( March 1, 1922 – November 4, 1995)
After years of violent fighting at the borders, the Palestinians did not deter and Rabin began to realize the issues could only be solved across the negotiating table. Yitzhak Rabin was elected by the Labor party to serve his second term as Prime Minister in 1992. Rabin understood the need to change Israel’s priorities. He believed that focusing on internal challenges was as crucial for the future of the State of Israel as was advancing the peace process. He initiated major infrastructure projects during his administration including investments in education, roads, railways, and the international airport, all of which greatly improved mobility for the flow of capital and labor. Victory of the United States-led coalition over Iraq in the Gulf War and the fall of the Soviet bloc, and the continuing loss of lives of both Israel and the Palestinians in the Intifada, created a window of opportunity for progress in the Middle East peace process.
The Madrid conference was the first phase, culminating in the Oslo Accord signed with the PLO paving the way to signing of a peace treaty with Jordan. Rabin played a leading role in the signing of the Oslo Accords, which created the Palestinian National Authority and granted it partial control over parts of the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Prior to the signing of the accords, Rabin received a letter from PLO chairman Yasser Arafat renouncing violence and officially recognising Israel, and on the same day, 9 September 1993, Rabin sent Arafat a letter officially recognising the PLO.
After the announcement of the Oslo Accords there were many protest demonstrations in Israel objecting to the Accords. As these protests dragged on, Rabin insisted that as long as he had a majority in the Knesset he would ignore the protests and the protesters. In this context he said, “they (the protesters) can spin around and around like propellers” but he would continue on the path of the Oslo Accords. Rabin’s parliamentary majority rested on non-coalition member Arab support. Rabin also denied the right of American Jews to object to his plan for peace, calling any dissent “chutzpah”.
After the historical handshake with Yasser Arafat, Rabin said, on behalf of the Israeli people: “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!” During this term of office, Rabin also oversaw the signing of the Israel–Jordan peace treaty in 1994.
For his role in the creation of the Oslo Accords, Rabin was awarded the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres. The Accords greatly divided Israeli society, with some seeing Rabin as a hero for advancing the cause of peace and some seeing him as a traitor for giving away land they viewed as rightfully belonging to Israel. Many Israelis on the right wing often blame him for Jewish deaths in terror attacks, attributing them to the Oslo agreements.
Palestinian terror attacks during this period continued augmenting the already existing right-wing Israeli opposition to the peace process. The demonstrations grew more violent, and came to include personal incitement against Rabin.
On the evening of 4 November 1995, Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, a radical right-wing Orthodox Jew who opposed the signing of the Oslo Accords. Rabin had been attending a mass rally at the Kings of Israel Square (now Rabin Square) in Tel Aviv, held in support of the Oslo Accords. When the rally ended, Rabin walked down the city hall steps towards the open door of his car, at which point Amir fired three shots at Rabin with a semi-automatic pistol. Two shots hit Rabin, and the third lightly injured Yoram Rubin, one of Rabin’s bodyguards. Rabin was rushed to nearby Ichilov Hospital, where he died on the operating table less than 40 minutes later due to blood loss and a punctured lung. Amir was immediately seized by Rabin’s bodyguards. He was later tried, found guilty, and sentenced to life imprisonment. After an emergency cabinet meeting, Israel’s foreign minister, Shimon Peres, was appointed as acting Israeli prime minister.
Yitzhak Rabin with US President Bill Clinton and Yassir Arafat in 1993