It was the most politically effective assassination in modern history. On November 4, 1995, a young man named Yigal Amir, steeped in the messianic zeal of Israel’s religious right and the settler movement, killed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, punctuating with three gunshots the aftermath of a mass rally in Tel Aviv. The central square had overflowed that evening with joyous supporters of Rabin’s policy of exchanging occupied territories for peace with the Palestinians—a policy that was literally anathema to Amir and others in his camp. In the weeks before the attack, they had chanted furiously in the streets for the death of the “traitor” prime minister, parading with a coffin bearing an effigy of Rabin dressed as a Nazi. You might have imagined, in the days after the murder, that a large portion of the Israeli public would recoil from this virulent rejectionism, which Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party had not merely countenanced but helped to incite. Israel’s internal violence had been exposed; the peace movement that Rabin had animated, and for which he was now a martyr, would surely gain strength. Yet the rejectionists were not rejected.
The very next year, Netanyahu was elected prime minister. The Israeli left slowly withered, and so did the negotiations with the Palestinians, which after 2001 came to receive only lip service and then (in Netanyahu’s 2015 campaign) not even that. By the 20th anniversary of Rabin’s murder, members of the religious right were in powerful cabinet positions, illegal settlements were burgeoning, and the prime minister had publicly sworn that the Palestinians would remain stateless so long as he was in office. Yigal Amir had gotten everything he’d wanted, short of the Messiah.
To understand how the assassin was handed this success, you cannot limit yourself to compiling a disheartening list of events. You also have to get under the skin of people’s attitudes and beliefs and comprehend why the Israelis responded to the unfolding events as they did. It’s more than you can expect to learn from any one film, however thoughtful and complex. But maybe you can get somewhere by watching two new films: Amos Gitai’s Rabin, the Last Day, and Joseph Dorman and Oren Rudavsky’s Colliding Dreams.
The first, in characteristic Gitai fashion, is a politically outspoken but formally disjunctive work that doesn’t pretend to be a documentary, despite being based on piles of official documents. It’s more like a kaleidoscopic essay that juxtaposes “actualities footage,” sober re-enactments, and moments of outright playacting, often blurring the lines among them. The second film is a much more straightforward project, which blends wide-ranging interviews, archival images, and voice-over narration into a smooth historical account. Gitai plunges you intensely into one brief period, from the weeks of agitation leading up to the assassination through the end of the ensuing investigation. Dorman and Rudavsky take a panoramic view of Zionism as a whole, sweeping from the Pale of Settlement in the 1880s to today’s Israeli settlements in 135 minutes. Neither film explicitly asks why the peace movement collapsed after Rabin’s assassination; but taken together, the two might advance you toward an answer.
Rabin, the Last Day opens with a prologue that serves as both advertisement and warning for the experience to follow. An interview that Gitai recently conducted with former Israeli president Shimon Peres gives way to news footage of the November 4 rally and then to a re-creation of the video that captured the assassination, the latter images jumping without transition into a dramatization of the action inside Rabin’s car, with a bodyguard frantically compressing the prime minister’s chest and blood spurting everywhere. You see very quickly the different materials Gitai will use; you prepare to be wrenched from a helicopter shot to a claustrophobic close-up, from measured conversation to frenzied shouting, from fact to not-quite-fiction. As if this weren’t enough to pull you in, and at the same time knock you back on your heels, Gitai follows this opening sequence with a second prologue, acted out on a gloomy set of uncertain, dreamlike dimensions. Three elder statesmen pore over documents, the actual video of the assassination plays repeatedly on a screen, and two lawyers for the commission of inquiry take testimony from the man who recorded the images. The camera travels slowly across this imagined scene and then glides back again, covering a lot of ground but, like the inquiry itself, getting nowhere.