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We talked of peace, I stood at his grave: Yitzhak Rabin’s indelible mark on me

In our long-ago interview, Rabin foreshadowed his own tragic fate when he told me Israel would be taking a lot of risks for peace
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Washington, DC, on November 16, 1993. (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi)
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Washington, DC, on November 16, 1993. (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi)

It was a cold November day when I walked out of my fifth-grade classroom and a hall monitor exclaimed, “Did you hear? Kennedy was shot.” Every American of a certain age remembers precisely where he or she was when the stunning news broke. The images of the assassination, like Jacqueline Kennedy in her black veil walking behind her husband’s coffin and standing at his grave, are indelibly imprinted on our minds.

And it was a cold November Saturday 32 years later when a colleague at CNBC called me at home and breathlessly yelled, “Turn on the TV! NBC News is about to announce that Yitzhak Rabin has been shot and killed.”

The shock I felt that day, Nov. 4, 1995, was quite different, and not just because I was a middle-aged adult this time. My mind was jolted back to the day in 1978 when I did a lengthy, one-on-one interview with Rabin in Jerusalem. Of the thousands of interviews I’ve conducted over the last 50 years, this was one of the most valuable and unforgettable.

The night of Rabin’s murder, I was scheduled to attend a fairly mandatory work-related party – and coincidentally, was supposed to pick up my Israeli colleague Shivi and her husband Dror, who were living in the US for a few years.

“I remember exactly where I was standing in the bedroom when you called,” she wrote a quarter century later, “and you actually told me to sit down, as you had terrible news. I sat on the edge of the bed. I remember the shock and confusion and feeling so excruciatingly far from home, and so detached. And then I realized we had to decide what to do about the party.”

The three of us had a lengthy discussion that night, concluding it would be best for us to be together. I needed to be with Israelis who understood, and they were happy to be with an American Jew who had spent much time in Israel since 1970, and who’d actually met Rabin.

A hero of mine

And so we began the hour-long drive to the gathering, during which I reminisced about my interview with Rabin in December 1978. At the time, I was news director of a radio station in Rockland County, just north of New York City, and was doing freelance reporting for the Associated Press and United Press International. My sister was living in Jerusalem for a year, and I decided to visit her and rack up as many interviews as possible during my vacation there.

Armed with an all-access media pass from then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s office, I arrived at the Knesset and was pleasantly surprised to learn the card allowed me to roam the Parliament building and request an interview with anyone I happened to bump into. I made my way to the dining room, having no clue who I might see or recognize – and there was Yitzhak Rabin, sitting alone, finishing his lunch.

A decade earlier, he was a hero of mine as the architect of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War. I was thrilled when he became prime minister in 1974, deeply impressed when he ordered the 1976 raid on Entebbe to rescue hijacked airline passengers, and dismayed when he resigned the office in 1977 (due to a financial impropriety – an illegal US bank account – that these days seems rather quaint).

Now there he was, sipping a cup of coffee and reading a newspaper. I walked over to the table and introduced myself, hoping against hope he might agree to an interview with a young, unknown reporter. To my amazement, he immediately said yes. “Go over to the security people, and they’ll give you a pass for the interview rooms in the basement,” he instructed me. “I’ll meet you there in 10 minutes.”

A long and painful process

Three months earlier, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat had signed the Camp David accords, which directly led to the Egypt-Israel peace agreement in March 1979. We were smack in the middle of those two momentous events, and it seemed to me that Rabin, now simply a member of the Knesset, was wistful and disappointed at being so far removed from the limelight, especially as he had laid the groundwork for it all with 1975’s Sinai Interim Agreement between the two countries.

The Knesset security guards explained that journalists who did interviews in the secluded basement cubicles could only bring with them the essential tools of their trade – in my case, a tape recorder and microphone. They confiscated my camera, pens, pads and whatever else I had with me. I think back now at the irony of their efforts to protect Rabin by removing writing implements.

We sat down and spoke of peace. “Let’s start by saying that first, I don’t accept the concept of the current American administration, that peace has to be overall and comprehensive. Peacemaking, in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, ”Rabin said presciently, “will be a long and painful process.”

“The signing of a peace treaty with Egypt will be a significant event,” he continued, “but there will be a lot of difficulties, ups and downs, tensions, and we’ll have to remove many obstacles on the long road until peace will be established in a more durable way.”

As I listened to Rabin’s wise words, I simultaneously was enjoying this transcendent moment in my career. I was 25 years old, and he was the first head of state – or former head of state – I’d ever interviewed. It was intimidating to be sitting alone with a man of his stature, but he was gracious and quickly put me at ease.

I don’t recall laughing about anything with Rabin, as I did an hour later when I interviewed Yigal Allon, another Israeli military and political legend who had a much warmer personality. But Rabin was never condescending with me, answering my questions as seriously as if he were on “Meet The Press.”

Foreshadowing his own tragic fate, Rabin concluded that Israel would “no doubt be taking a lot of risks for the purpose of the achievement of peace.”

At the end of our conversation, I mentioned that I’ve been collecting autographs since I was a child, but my pen and pad were at the security desk. The once-and-future prime minister said, “Ain baya” (no problem), ripped a blank page out of a briefing booklet he was carrying, and gave me his signature. Forty-two years later, it still hangs on my wall.

(Steve North)

At the foot of the grave

Two weeks after Rabin’s assassination, I arrived in Israel for a long-planned trip. My cousin Doron immediately drove me to the spot where the murder occurred, now deluged with thousands of melted memorial candles and anguished, grief-stricken messages.

(Steve North)

At the end of the 30-day mourning period, the “shloshim,” I was invited to cover a closed ceremony at Rabin’s gravesite. Hundreds of men and women who’d been under Rabin’s military command gathered at Mount Herzl cemetery, and we journalists were told to stand at the head of the grave, looking directly at the family, the Cabinet, the country’s top military officials and the somber crowd behind them.

(Steve North)

Rabin’s widow Leah walked up to the foot of the grave, her face etched in pain. It was, for me, akin to reliving the Jackie Kennedy moment of my childhood – but this time, I was overwhelmed by the fact that I was standing 10 feet away. I almost felt as if I were intruding on this deeply personal, intimate scene.

(Steve North)

After speeches by the new Prime Minister Shimon Peres and others, the family left and the invited “civilians” swarmed around the burial spot, many of them sobbing. As I joined them in the tradition of placing a small stone on the grave, my heart ached. Twenty-five years later, it still does.

About the Author
Steve North is a longtime broadcast and print journalist, and a former interviewer for Steven Spielberg's USC Shoah Foundation.
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