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Conversation with…Dan Ephron

Author of Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel to speak in Worcester

By Stacey Dresner

WORCESTER – Dan Ephron was a young reporter covering Israel for Reuters when on the evening of Nov. 4, 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, an Orthodox Jew, law student and extremist who opposed Rabin’s peace plan with Yassir Arafat and the PLO.

Ephron covered the peace rally that evening and the murder trial that followed. He went on to cover Israel for two decades, serving as the Jerusalem Bureau Chief for Newsweek and The Daily Beast.

In 2012, nearly 20 years after the assassination, Ephron was inspired to write about the events that led up to Rabin’s murder and its aftermath in 2015’s Killing a King:The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel.

Ephron will speak about his book at the Worcester Jewish Community Center, on May 10 at 7 p.m.

Ephron recently spoke to the Jewish Ledger about his book and the effect that Rabin’s assassination still has on Israel today.

Q: Nearly 20 years after the assassination of Rabin, what made you decide to write about this topic again?

A: I think the more the possibility of peace between Israel and the Palestinians fades from view, the more significance the assassination takes on as a historical event. I had lived in Israel during the Oslo period and then returned to the country years later to be the Newsweek bureau chief. Much time had lapsed and yet you could still see ripples of the assassination in Israel’s political and cultural life. I felt that revisiting the event would have more than just historical relevance, that it would shed light on contemporary Israel.

Q: You were a young journalist covering the peace rally the night of Rabin’s assassination. What are your strongest memories of that night?

A: I remember standing outside the hospital along with many hundreds of people and hearing Rabin’s aide announce that the prime minister had died on the operating table. People cried around me, including some very seasoned Israeli journalists.

Q: There are so many interesting details in your book, personal details about both Rabin and his murderer, Yigal Amir, their day-to-day lives and the people they dealt with. How were you able to gather all of this information?

A: I had access to documents related to the case, including court records, interrogations logs, letters Yigal and Hagai Amir had written from prison and parts of a prison diary Hagai kept. It took me more than a year to sift through these thousands of pages of material. Sometimes you have to read a ton of material to find one useful bit of narrative or one little detail that says something real about a character. When you get to it, it’s incredibly satisfying. I also had the cooperation of the Amir and Rabin families, which meant many hours of interviews with both sides.

Q: What new information did you find out about Yigal Amir that readers might not have known?

A: I was surprised to learn that he’s an intelligent guy, not just a loudmouth extremist, that he’d studied at one of the best Orthodox schools in Israel where chief rabbis send their children and that his IQ was high.

Q: Despite talking openly about plans to murder Rabin to friends, fellow students, and even a government informant, why was Yigal Amir not thought to be a danger? Did he seem like an unlikely threat and why?

A: The fact that no prime minister had ever been assassinated played a big role here. The idea that a Jew would kill the leader of Israel simply did not compute — neither for Amir’s friends nor for the intelligence agencies. That was true even when information flowed to the agencies about settlers plotting violence against the state. Most people dismissed Amir as a blowhard.

Q: It seems that the security agency Shabak really screwed up by not following several clues that would have led them to Yigal Amir before the assassination. Due to that, has that agency changed since the tragedy?

A: The way Shabak protects political leaders changed dramatically. As prime minister, Rabin attended parties at the homes of friends, [and] he played tennis in a public court every week. He was protected by a handful of guards at any one time but they allowed him to engage with the public and maintain something akin to a normal life. That informality ended with the assassination. Today, you can see in press photos that Netanyahu is surrounded by 20 or more bodyguards everywhere he goes. A thick layer of security separates him and the public.

Q: After Rabin’s death, Netanyahu beat Peres in the elections, the peace process failed, the settlements grew. So how would you appraise the assassination in terms of its effect on Israel in the years after?

A: The Amir brothers certainly believe the assassination was a lasting success. Frankly, it’s hard to argue with them.

Q: At the end of the book, you talk about Rabin’s daughter Dalia giving you the clothes that Rabin wore when he was killed to take to Arizona for forensic testing. Did she really think there might be more to his assassination? Were there other conspiracy theories?

A: There are conspiracy theories that link Shabak to the assassination or point to the foreign minister at the time, Shimon Peres, as the plotter. There’s even a version that puts Rabin himself at the center of the conspiracy. I don’t think Dalia put much stock in any of these but she did have questions about the night of the murder that had never been resolved. Some of the questions revolved around the shirt Rabin wore that night, which is why she was ready to let me get the clothes tested.

Q: What do you think Israel would be like today if Rabin had lived?

A: I think the honest answer is that it’s impossible to know. History is composed of specific events that beget other specific events. One thing is clear in retrospect: Rabin stood a better chance of coming to terms with the Palestinians than any of his successors.That we don’t know whether he would have succeeded is one of the agonizing upshots of the assassination.

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