Peace in the Middle East? Unthinkable! Was it just two decades ago, in 1994, that the prospect of peace seemed closer than ever after the Oslo Accords, and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sent letters to each other renouncing violence? Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat won the Nobel Peace Prize together for their goodwill efforts to negotiate the issues of the day, including the creation and authorization of the Palestinian National Authority to control sections of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Now, after 9/11, the Iraq and Afghan Wars, the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, and the trillions spent in those engagements, peace seems galaxies away. Was there a precipitating event that upturned the obvious progress men of good will were making?
In Amos Gitai’s Rabin, The Last Day, Gitai’s interview with Shimon Peres at the outset of the film provides the answer. Peres affirms that if Rabin had not been assassinated in 1995, peace in the Middle East most likely would have been realized.
Gitai then backtracks to the events surrounding Rabin’s assassination. He encapsulates the Prime Minister’s position and how it led to the polarization of Israel between those who supported and those who opposed the Oslo Accords. Political elements arose advocating bloody sedition against Rabin. The film also highlights the investigation into the operational failures that allowed the only assassination of a Prime Minister in the history of the country.
This is a vital and brilliant film which engages from start to finish as a political thriller, courtroom drama, criminal-mind exposé, and indictment against leaders whose failure of will fomented the murder of a Nobel Peace Prize winner and the death of the peace process.Among its universal themes are the power dynamics involved in assassinations. It reminds one of U.S. assassinations in the 19th and 20th centuries (Lincoln, Garfield, JFK, MLK, RFK), which changed the course of history. New leaders settling in after presidential assassinations enacted antithetical polices from those of the murdered president. Such was the case with Rabin.
Rabin, The Last Day is Gitai’s crystal-clear anatomy of the Rabin assassination divided into four main segments. These are a review of the night of the Rabin peace rally and assassination; an examination of the right-wing religious fanatic and assassin Yigal Amir; a look at Amir’s rabbis and the supporting West Bank settlers who secretly justified Rabin’s death; and the most directed segment, about the Shamgar Commission’s investigation of the security team’s operational failures. Like many such commissions which falter, the Shamgar Commission refused to hear testimony from witnesses that revealed the sociological, religious, and political influences that spawned the violence that effected Rabin’s murder.
Throughout the film is threaded an indictment of Israel’s failure of will to incriminate those who incited such sedition in the government and the populace. Gitai’s take is that though only one man was held accountable, many individuals and Israel itself have Rabin’s blood on their heads, hands, and hearts. This appears especially so since subsequent leaders have pursued actions that provoked further violence, and ultimately have avoided viable compromise during peace negotiations that have continually broken down.
Gitai shows that Rabin’s enemies were extreme right-wing religious conservatives inspired by Benjamin Netanyahu, his main political rival. Netanyahu whipped up animosities in the religious right with rhetoric that favored the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, no land give-away compromises with Palestinians, and no peace agreements with Palestinian “murderers” who killed Israelis. Peres recalls that such seditious elements threatened Rabin’s and his lives, and discusses Rabin’s great courage. Despite death threats because of his participation in the Oslo accords and his signing the peace treaty with Jordan in 1994, Rabin would not be bullied into stepping back from his efforts to negotiate peace.
Gitai organizes his film in a scattershot, non-linear fashion that keeps one off-keel, at attention, curious. He cuts rapidly from scene to scene. The effect is brilliant; slow and meaningful enlightenment happens organically. By editing scenes in apparently haphazard order, he brings together the four segments of the film to reveal how and why the assassination occurred.
Through archived news clips, actual film footage of the murder, news clips of Rabin’s rally for peace in Tel Aviv (at what is now called Rabin Square), anti-Rabin rallies held by Netanyahu, interviews of Rabin before the assassination, a recent interview of Peres, recreations of the assassination, the investigation, secret religious meetings, settlers building illegal homes, and the questioning of smug assassin Yigal Amir, we gradually string together the moving parts of the creature behind the assassination. The film shows with unvarnished truth that this creature willfully flouts international law (Article 46 of the Hague Convention and Article 49 paragraph 6 of the Fourth Geneva Convention) in allowing settlers to build on occupied lands, seizures that Rabin would have opposed if he were alive.
Gitai’s film is an unpleasant mosaic of Israel 1995, where those who desire peace and equanimity and those who desire an Israel without Palestinians vie against one another. This is particularly revelatory when we see the archived footage of the pro-peace rally in which hundreds of thousands gathered on the night of the assassination, carrying signs expressing solidarity with Rabin and chanting his name. We understand that the desire of many for a workable peace was mighty and the belief that Rabin was the one to bring it about was great. The hopefulness in this memorable and uplifting rally is shattered with Rabin’s assassination.
Then Gitai shifts and cuts from scene to scene in an extraordinary schematic to unfold the atmosphere within and without an Israel that countenances no peace, scenes of settlers who bring in prefabricated trailers and practice their marksmanship with rifles to protect their makeshift homes, cutting to scenes of Amir smiling in his jail cell, vindicated in his mind. There are scenes of government and police witnesses during the Shamgar Commission questioning, denying responsibility for the security chaos that allowed Amir access to Rabin. Gitai cuts these scenes with those of rabbis calling for vengeance against Rabin. There is an excellent scene of a psychiatrist who says Rabin is a schizophrenic who should be committed, and there are scenes of Amir’s interrogation in jail.
After setting the last pieces of this mosaic in place, Gitai stuns us with shocking archived footage of the anti-peace rallies in which a young Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with rabid ferocity while the camera pans to those chanting and holding signs. Some call for Rabin’s death. Others label Rabin a traitor and Nazi. Still other protesters burn him in effigy. It is then we remember Peres’s comments about Rabin’s courage. It is then we are reminded of the socio-political crisis and life and death struggle within Israel’s divided population.
With thematic brilliance, Gitai’s Rabin, The Final Day reveals assassination as a weapon of political expediency. Right-wing religious forces, unsure that elections would unseat Rabin, justify the murder using an obscure Talmudic law. Public excoriation and smear campaigns had proved fruitless. Worse, it was obvious Rabin’s global influence and international fan base and charisma would flourish and keep him in power as long as he lived. Death was a sure way to stop him from enacting his peace policies. And so it goes.
Gitai suggests that from the assassination on, Israel insured that bloodshed and violence would shadow its once hopeful dreams of maintaining a democracy that upheld everyone’s civil rights. Such dreams have been shattered by Rabin’s death and by post-Rabin leaders who have thwarted the peace process. Gitai’s stark film is a powerhouse of controversy. His courageous and painstaking research chronicling the issues behind Rabin’s assassination and Israel’s thwarted democracy is an epic must-see.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0393242099][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0520207661]