December 10, 2018

Rabin’s death still haunts Israeli society

Amos Gitaï is one of Israel’s best-known filmmakers, and his latest project explores one of his country’s most tragic moments: the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. 

This past November marked 20 years since a radical, right-wing Orthodox Jew, Yigal Amir, murdered Rabin after a peace rally in Tel Aviv. In the political thriller “Rabin, the Last Day,” Gitaï blends archival footage with dramatic storytelling to explore the moments leading up to the shooting and the government’s subsequent investigation into the security lapses that allowed it to happen. The film opens March 11 in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Royal in West L.A. and Town Center 5 in Encino. 

The 153-minute film begins with an interview with Shimon Peres, who had served as Rabin’s foreign minister and became interim prime minister after Rabin’s death. Peres was a longtime political rival of Rabin, but became his partner in the Oslo Accords peace process and shared the Nobel Peace Prize with him in 1994. 

He recounts in the film how opponents of the peace process shouted and spat at Rabin in public, dressing his effigy as a Gestapo officer and setting it on fire, and marching with a casket marked with Rabin’s name on it. The atmosphere was charged and there was “an air of sedition” in Israeli society, Peres recalled, but Rabin refused to back down. If anything, he said, the threats made him more determined.

“I think they are trying very hard to erase his memory. And this is a good reason to make a movie — to keep his memory alive,” Gitaï said in a phone interview from Paris. 

The filmmaker weaves amateur films of the peace rally — and of the shooting itself, taken by a young man watching from a nearby rooftop — with dramatized re-enactments of Rabin’s bodyguard and chauffeur frantically driving to the hospital and of doctors attempting to save him. Television clips show news anchors sharing optimistic updates of Rabin’s condition, followed by shocked announcements of his death.

The film includes footage of far-right protest rallies in which attendees chanted death threats to Rabin and burned photos of him. Likud chairman and Knesset member Benjamin Netanyahu, who would go on to win the 1996 election for prime minister (and who is the country’s current prime minister), is seen at the rallies condemning Rabin’s leadership and the Oslo peace process, which he argued gave too many concessions to the Palestinians and demanded too little in return. Many conservative pundits at the time agreed that Rabin’s government was conceding more than the Israeli public was willing to give up. In a scene near the end, Rabin is even shouted down by fellow Knesset members who refuse to allow him to speak.

“I think the only thing [where Rabin] went too far is not having more tight security to protect him. That’s all,” Gitaï said. “I think he did the right thing. He was an honest guy, not one of these guys now who look at the opinion polls in the morning to decide what they will say in the afternoon. He was one of these simple, straightforward Israelis that I like, and also an Israeli patriot. He wanted Israel to be accepted by the region, and I’m convinced that if he was around, we would maybe not be in complete peace but closer to it.”

The Shamgar Commission was formed to investigate the security preparations at the rally and the lack of foresight that permitted Amir to wait in the parking lot adjacent to the square where Rabin’s limousine was waiting. Much of the film consists of lengthy interrogations of police officers, Rabin’s drivers and security guards, as well as peace activists who admitted that things seemed strange to them. These scenes are drawn from transcripts of the commission meetings. One bystander expressed surprise at how easy it was for him to move freely around what should have been a highly secured area, suggesting that perhaps the police’s lack of security was intentional.

“I didn’t see any proof of a conspiracy,” Gitaï said. “And actually, the people who want to circulate the idea of a conspiracy are mainly the extreme right wing. They want to show that they did nothing wrong and that everything wrong comes from the lack of security. Obviously, I don’t have any way to judge it.”

But as the commissioners express frustration at the narrow scope of their investigation (the lack of security at the rally), Gitaï seems eager to fill in the blanks. Dramatized scenes of Amir listening as rabbis advocate for Rabin’s assassination suggest that while Amir may have been the gunman, there were others who spurred him to act. What emerges is a condemnation not just of Amir but also of the rabbis and politicians on the far right who fomented the sharp anger that lead to Rabin’s killing. 

“I think, by and large, it addresses Israeli society, who allowed this to happen. There were major manifestations against Rabin. … Not everybody wanted to kill him, of course, but they wanted to destabilize his government,” Gitaï said.

The film goes beyond Rabin’s assassination to examine an issue that continues to divide Israeli society: the West Bank settlements. In one harrowing scene, Israeli soldiers in olive-green uniforms shove and tackle young men attempting to stop the evacuation and bulldozing of a settlement. The dramatic scene jump cuts to actual news footage of soldiers carrying away protesters as they disassemble a settlement.

A Shamgar Commission lawyer argues in a hearing that most of the settlements were initiated, built and funded by the Israeli government, which also established a system of benefits and incentives to spur people to move to the settlements. The far-right Orthodox Jews calling for Rabin’s death were closely aligned with the settler movement, the lawyer argues, but the commissioners pushed back, arguing that it’s not relevant to the details of the assassination.

The peace process slowed and then fizzled out after Rabin’s death. Gitaï sees parallels between the heated political language of 1995 and the present day, when Palestinians’ recent attacks on Israelis dominate the headlines, along with reports of Israeli troops demolishing dozens of Palestinian structures in the West Bank. That’s why, he said, he made this film. 

“We are in a bad situation right now. We have a government that’s very right wing, using racist overtones, having laws which limit freedom of speech and the liberty of filmmakers and theater makers, an education minister who bans books, so we are definitely not [at] a good point,” Gitaï said. “But we have to keep the hope. Hopefully it will be different.” 

“Rabin, The Last Day” opens in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd. in Los Angeles, and Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd. in Encino on March 11.