Fifteen Years Later: Rabin and the Bullet That Rode a Crest

One of Yitzhak Rabin's many famous military assignments took place in 1948, very shortly after the founding of the State of Israel. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion summoned the Israeli army to carry out a peculiar task: Rabin and his men were to fire on the Altalena, a ship carrying weapons bound for the Irgun, a paramilitary Israeli group and vestige of pre-state Israel. Prior to the confrontation, Menachem Begin, the leader of the Irgun and a future prime minister, had refused orders to turn the ship and its cargo over to Ben-Gurion and the Israeli government.

Despite the controversial nature of firing on a ship of his own countrymen, Ben-Gurion knew that his authority over the military affairs of his state had to be absolute. Rabin was dispatched to engage the ship as it resisted capture outside the Port of Tel Aviv. As instructed, the army downed the ship, killing a number of Israelis on board and wasting its cargo. The event, etched into Israeli history, became known as the Altalena Affair.

Today, on the fifteenth anniversary of Rabin's assassination, the Altalena Affair comes to mind again. For years, historians have pointed to the affair as the fulcrum moment in which Israel had to take command of its internal sovereignty. Accordingly, Israeli critics of the peace process have often said they have been waiting for the time when the Palestinians will have their own Altalena moment, one in which the forces bent on violently undermining a single Palestinian national aspiration are finally reigned in.

Fifteen years after Rabin, the Palestinian Authority, led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and President Mahmoud Abbas, has finally passed its Altalena moment. The West Bank, which for over four decades had been a volatile, fractured frontier, now has both the infrastructure and security forces in place for political viability. While there are still a number of problems there, economic growth has made the West Bank a place where the building of a Palestinian state has finally become more interesting than the destruction of an Israeli one.

As for the bullet that took Rabin's life, it rode the crest of a wave. Since his death, the forces of religious and political extremism in Israel have infiltrated the ranks of its government, its state policies, and its army. Today, it threatens a peace process that may be the last chance the region has at a two-state solution to the conflict. Today, Yigal Amir, the ultra-religious Jewish fanatic who murdered Rabin, sits in a jail cell smirking. Amir has been allowed to marry, have a son, and enter the tragic hagiography of killers and underminers of peace, a fraternity that has both Israeli and Arab members. Israel, a country without capital punishment, must honor Rabin by working with the Palestinians to finally put Amir's dreams to death.