ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Twenty years ago this week in Israel, an ultra-religious Jew killed the country's prime minister and left Israelis and people all over the world to wonder, what if - what if Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, general turned cautious peacemaker, had lived?
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
YITZHAK RABIN: We are not alone here on this soil, in this land. And so we are sharing this good earth today with the Palestinian people in order to choose life.
SIEGEL: That was Rabin at the White House in September 1995. He was signing an agreement part of the Oslo Accords with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The Oslo Accords were originally negotiated in Norway. They marked a breakthrough. Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization were talking to each other. The Accords were supposed to lead to peace and Palestinian self-rule.
There were detractors. The Islamist Palestinian movement Hamas sensed a sellout. They launched a campaign of shootings and kidnappings. The Israeli right protested against it. An accommodation with the Palestinians - a territorial compromise - was unacceptable. Rabin's advisers urged him to join demonstrators in favor of his policies.
And so on November 4, 1995, a reluctant Rabin, famously tough and taciturn, an unlikely peacenik, took part in a pro-peace rally in Tel Aviv.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
LINDA GRADSTEIN: Prime Minister Rabin was standing on stage and singing a song for peace with one of his Israel's most famous singers. As he walked to get into his car, a young 27-year-old law student named Yigal Amir ran right up to the prime minister and shot him three times at point-blank range.
SIEGEL: That was our reporter that night, Linda Gradstein. Dan Ephron was covering the Tel Aviv rally for Reuters.
DAN EPHRON: The rally had ended, so I was walking away. I was a few blocks away, and I got a message on my beeper saying shots fired near Rabin; go back.
SIEGEL: Ephron returns to the scene of that assassination with a new book called "Killing A King." Yitzhak Rabin, he says, was a pragmatist and very much a soldier.
EPHRON: Rabin was a military man for the first three decades of his life. And I think that shaped his character. He was gruff. He was not good at small talk. He wasn't very charismatic. One of his family members told me that Rabin every morning would sit on the corner of his bed and shine his own shoes.
SIEGEL: He was also about as secular an Israeli as one could be.
EPHRON: And that's significant in terms of what he set out to do. The idea of giving up parts of the West Bank and Gaza, to many religious Jews, is really anathema. It's really a betrayal of Judaism. Rabin, I think, felt none of that sentimental attachment to the territory. He was all about security. So he talked about parts of the West Bank that Israel would need to hold onto for the sake of Israel's security, but it was never about some religious attachment to the land.
SIEGEL: Dan Ephron recalls Israel of 1995 as deeply divided on that score. The shift from a national leadership of security minded pragmatists to one of ideologues and more religious Jews had been underway, he says, for two decades.
EPHRON: This was a moment, maybe the last moment, for the pragmatists in terms of their ability to garner a majority in Israel. And that moment ended with the assassination. The assassination triggers a chain of events that leads to this power shift. By about six months after the murder, a young politician on the right, Benjamin Netanyahu, becomes prime minister, and he really is the dominant political figure in Israel for much of the last 20 years.
SIEGEL: And Netanyahu has opposed territorial concessions. It's impossible to say what would have been had Rabin not been shot. The Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea says even if Rabin had lived, the challenge of achieving a stable peace with the Palestinians without policy literally under attack may have been just too great.
NAHUM BARNEA: Rabin could have lost the elections which took place in the few months after the assassination. And even if he wanted, I'm not sure Arafat and him could get to the point where the necessary concessions on both sides could be reached. The gap was deep, and the expectations of every party was so different.
SIEGEL: Rabin had fought in Israel's wars. He was chief of staff of the Israeli Armed Forces in the Six-Day War of 1967. He was a security minded leader of Israel's center-left Labor Party. He brought a stolid credibility to the process. But the questions that he and Arafat faced bitterly divided Israelis. Who should give up what? Where would the borders be?
BARNEA: All these questions are still there.
SIEGEL: You think the gap that separated Rabin and Arafat 20 years ago - it's still the same gap, is what you're saying.
BARNEA: I believe it is even wider and deeper because in addition to the gap, you have the feeling on both sides of the wall that the Oslo process didn't bring normalization. The Palestinians look at Oslo as a process which brought them violence and less freedom of movement. And Israelis feel that if the idea of Oslo was to bring us to a position where we are part of the Middle East acceptable by the Arab world, especially by the Palestinians - these things didn't happen. The whole reason became quite crazy, as we all know.
GHAITH AL-OMARI: What the assassination of Rabin, we lost a leader who had the qualities that would've made a peacemaker.
SIEGEL: Ghaith al-Omari was the Palestinian's legal advisor during talks with Israel a few years later. He says veteran Palestinian negotiators would yearn for the days of the straightforward Rabin.
AL-OMARI: He had a vision, something that was rare these days. Had a good read of his public, yet he was not a leader who followed but rather a leader who led. And he was a very trustworthy leader. He did not always tell you what you'd like to hear, but what he said, you could count on. And that's why you see him - he had developed such deep relations with people like President Clinton, like Hussein of Jordan because they knew they had someone there who they could trust and who was willing to do what it takes to actually lead his public towards his vision.
SIEGEL: Many Palestinians saw in Rabin not just the man who had recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization, but the chief of staff who had conquered the West Bank and Gaza, the man who, in response to the Palestinian uprising or intifada, had said, we'll break their bones - not a beloved figure among Palestinians.
AL-OMARI: Certainly not, but you cannot take this out of its historic context. There was a conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinians were killing Israelis. Israelis were killing Palestinians. There was a war. But I think one thing that we see, interestingly, within the Israeli system is usually, the former generals who have known the difficulty of both sending men to kill and to be killed, who understood the futility of it, are the one who are the most committed to finding a political end to this conflict.
SIEGEL: Could things have been all that different had Rabin lived? Well, Dan Ephron immersed himself in the politics of 1995 in writing his book "Killing A King."
EPHRON: The conclusion I came to was that that moment in 1995 was probably the most hopeful moment in terms of the possibility of coming to some agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, the most hopeful moment, in retrospect, in the past 20 years and maybe even going forward. And I think the main reason for that is because that peace process was still new. It had not been poisoned yet by the years of violence and settlement expansion. So it was a hopeful moment that I don't think the Israelis and Palestinians have achieved at any point since then.
SIEGEL: That's Dan Ephron. Tomorrow will mark 20 years to the day since Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin died by an assassin's bullet at a Tel Aviv rally for peace.