“Rabin, the Last Day”
Leading Up to Murder
The assassination of Itzhak Rabin ended efforts of peace in Israel. It also ended the whole left wing of the country. Amos Gitai’s film takes us through the prime minister’s last leading up to his murder. November 4, 1992 was a day that shook the world. On that day political murder hit the country that has contended that it is the only functioning democracy in the Middle East. Following an opening interview with then Defense Minister Shimon Perez, Gitai goes from showing us stock footage of the peace demonstration that was meant to shore up support for the unpopular Oslo peace accords to a moment of dramatic reconstruction as the shots are fired.
At first the result was panic as the body of Rabin was put into a car and set off for a hospital. Then the movie tones down to the investigational inquest exploring the failings of the police and secret service that led to the hit. This became the Shamgar Commission, led by President of the Supreme Court Meir Shamgar (Michael Warshaviak), who was assisted by Zvi Zamir (Yitzhak Hiskiya) and Ariel Rosen-Zvi (Pini Mittelman). We see interviews with the cameraman who shot the footage, with characters pacing back and forth from the foreground as they meditated deeply.
As the inquiry gets properly underway, a more clinical record of word is spoken, questions asked and the remit of the committee was restricted in order to forestall a broader political discussion. Integrated into the film are scenes involving those that Gitai obviously feels to have blood on their hands, the fanatical and religiously orthodox settlers, who cast an ancient curse on Rabin— “Din Rodef” (Law of the Pursuer) which is effectively a “Fatwah” and we see demonstrations which invoke such violent language that neighbors on sedition. There are moments of almost black humor, as when a psychologist gives a lecture to a right wing group about how she has diagnosed Rabin as schizophrenic. She says that Rabin lived in a world of his own imagination and we see that this description could also apply to the right-wing Jewish group to which she belongs. The murderer himself, Yigal Amir (Yogev Yefet) is interviewed by an elderly investigator who cannot hide his contempt. When Amir claims to have acted on behalf of many, his interviewer asks him if he asked other Jews if this was what they wanted. Now the film moves into an investigation on the risk to Israeli democracy posed by fanatical groups. The film, however, has a broader political context. The security measures are seen as having been appallingly lax when the prior death threats are considered as well as the atmosphere of hostility that existed at that time in Israel. There is also a suggestion of a conspiracy but the likelihood seems to be that there was an inexcusable level of complacency. What happened that day had the immediate effect of causing widespread grief and outrage. The square itself was renamed Rabin Square as were other streets and buildings. The religious community was also taken aback by the vehemence of condemnation that came their way and found some comfort in conspiracy theories that the whole thing was a set up to make them look bad. Some illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories were rolled back as we see both reenacted and through stock footage. However, as the film and time moves forward, Gitai clearly indicates that those responsible for violent rabble rousing of which Benjamin Netanyahu was chief among them were ultimately the victors. They grabbed Israel’s future and turned it in an increasingly belligerent direction.
Gitai’s film is powerful and uncompromising as it gives details about the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Rabin. Stylistically, the film is a hybrid: it starts off as a documentary, with an extensive interview with Shimon Peres, continues with archival footage from the day of the homicide and then develops into a gripping re-enactment of the investigations that followed Rabin’s death, sourced directly from the investigations’ original proceedings.
On a few occasions throughout the film, documentary and staged reconstruction are seamlessly blended, such as when the camera follows the dying Rabin inside his car and travels with him and his bodyguards to the hospital. It is a radical and purely cinematic act that enriches the film and allows the audience to be a witness to the unseen moments of Rabin’s tragedy.
The film’s main concern is the reconstruction of the event from a contemporary perspective and to raise questions regarding the responsibilities that led to the homicide. Amos Gitai knows perfectly well that raising questions does not necessarily mean that answers will follow – and in fact, most of the times they don’t. In Gitai’s reconstruction, Yitzhak Rabin is portrayed as a man of peace and whose death has led to an irreparable state of unrest seems to be the target of several political organizations and religious groups that protest against him, encircle him and finally overwhelm him and in doing so created the condition for his murder to happen.
The discontent against him derived mainly from his active role in defining and signing the Oslo Accords, which were received very harshly by the Israeli conservatives and also by Orthodox religious groups who thought that Rabin was acting against the rules of the Torah. A meeting of religious leaders is displayed in the film, where Rabin’s authority is overthrown and he is declared an unfaithful, untrustworthy personality.
Policemen and security guards who were operating near the Square where Rabin was assassinated are interrogated and their actions undergo severe scrutiny, but no one seems to want to take responsibility in what happened and they end up blaming each other. Gitai is very subtle and cruelly ironic in making it look like it was everybody’s fault, which ultimately means that nobody will take the fall. The situation is so absurd, and so clearly unsolvable, that one of the judges in the Shamgar Commission ends up saying that he did not know whether tor cry.
Rabin’s assassin, Jew activist Yigal Amir (played by Yogev Yefet) is portrayed as a complex character, who acted of his own accord but also was the ideological pawn of a system that had been conspiring against Rabin for a very long time. The claustrophobic setting of the re-enactment of the investigation conveys the stifling sense of siege that Rabin must have felt during the days leading up to his murder, when many of the institutions and people around him were tightening the noose on him. Eric Gautier’s cinematography is filled with bleak colors that leave no room for hope or justice.
The film builds up to a moving archive interview with Rabin’s widow Leah, who expresses her profound sadness and we get the feeling that it is the same kind of sadness that Gitai still feels— the sadness of having lost someone who could have really made a difference in the Israeli politics and in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
We all are aware that Rabin was a significant figure in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a war hero who gave peace a chance, making inroads with the PLO and helping to bring the Palestinian National Authority into being. Along with Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres (his immediate successor), he won the Nobel Peace Prize after signing the Oslo Accords. However, his actions split Israeli society, with right wing political rivals Likud and religious hardliners seeing him as a traitor for giving away land they saw as belonging to Israel. Even though Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, a right-wing radical Jew, who thought that any giveaways to the Palestinians acted against the Torah, Gitai’s interpretation doesn’t circle around Amir or his extremist vision of Judaism, but the climate of extremism and Israeli exceptionalism that were the real murderer of the statesman.
Gitai asks questions that official studies have refused to explore. He frames the actions within the official Shamgar Commission into security and intelligence failing behind assassination. The commission was denied the chance to investigate the political and social climate around the actions, something Gitai tries to do something about.
This film is innovative in structure and convincing in its assessment of various Israeli governments’ dithering attitude to extremist Zionism that has led to Netanyahu’s Israel belligerent rhetoric today. The re-enactments and dramatized scenes, we see are verbatim says Gitai—they were taken word for word from written transcripts.
Much of the film takes place as testimony to the Shamgar report, including countless bureaucrats passing the buck on institutional failings. The only talking heads are a brief interview with Peres that opens the film and one with Rabin’s wife Leah. Gitai also re-enacts scenes from inside extremist religious sects where the assassin who is one of the few recurring characters sees theological leaders advocate Rabin’s death. In one scene, Gitai dramatizes the climate of paranoia with an extremist Zionist, who also claims to be a clinical psychologist, and bursts into tears because she can’t have a “schizoid” prime minister leading her country.
We see TV footage from grand Likud demonstrations, with placards portraying Rabin as an SS officer or behind crosshairs. Binyamin Netanyahu preaches at rallies where crowds shout “death to Rabin.” At one point, a commission lawyer says this “school of thought legitimized violence in the West Bank.” Part of what’s urgent about the film is in Gitai’s unapologetic pointing to Netanyahu as a source, rather a symptom of that extremist dictum that infiltrates conversations about the Arab-Israeli conflict even today.
The film runs almost two hours and it challenges us and makes us curious. We can all remember how we felt when Kennedy was shot down in this country and there are few things more shocking than the murder of a political leader because they are never just an individual. Willingly or not, they represent a vision for how the world should be, and a practical approach to achieving it. The bigger their impact, the more society changes, splitting people into opposing camps. The very fact that Yitzhak Rabin remains such a divisive figure nearly 20 years after his assassination gives some indication as to the passions he aroused at the time. Exploring down two avenues, Israeli director Amos Gitai’s docudrama examines in forensic detail the direct failings that led to Rabin’s death, and the wider climate that sparked it.
His decision to sign up to the Oslo Accords made him a figure of hate for many on the right, and an icon for those seeking peace. This is a slow film, that takes its time to draw out testimonies, and incorporates footage of Jewish settlements for minutes on end. Sometimes the thoroughness can be overwhelming, the level of detail from each figure comprehensive to the point of monotony. With a superb music score from Amit Poznansky, the film manages to ride over these moments, sustaining a sense of fear and uncertainty. There are answers here, but not to the big question. This is how and why Rabin died. As to an overarching solution for Israel, it looks like the wait has only just begun.