Frontline’s “Netanyahu at War,” which had its premier showing on PBS Tuesday night, depicts the Israeli politician as a feisty character who does not shy away from confrontation, and, in fact, relishes it. In that context, his battle with President Obama over the Iran nuclear deal is seen as just one in a long series of fights Netanyahu has been engaged in since the beginning of his political career. He may not be your favorite political figure, the film argues, but you must admire him for his oodles of testosterone, if for nothing else. And like the Israeli leader or not, it’s impossible not to admire his tenacity.
In that context, the film stops short of actually blaming the Rabin assassination on the atmosphere that Netanyahu generated during the election campaign. For one thing, it relies heavily on left-wing speakers for the narrative, so that, for instance, Rabin’s callused alienation of the right does not exist in the film, nor is his expressed view that he was only the prime minister of most of the people.
“Night after night, the crowds massed across the street from Prime Minister Rabin’s apartment in Tel Aviv,” says the film narrator, and Dennis Ross, Middle East envoy, 1993-2001, relates: “I’m there one Shabbat evening. We’re talking. And it’s just the two of us. And there’s a demonstration outside. And I said to [Netanyahu] at the time, I said, ‘Don’t you worry about some of this?’ And he goes, ‘No.’ I mean, he was— it’s not that he was— you know, it’s not that he was completely dismissive of it, but he took it as kind of a given. He knew, in a sense, what was coming and simply accepted it.”
“Rabin responded with his own rally, more than 100,000 supporters singing of peace,” goes the narration. “Then as Rabin was leaving— that’s him coming down the ramp— the man in the blue T-shirt approached— three shots from behind.” The Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, the architect of the Middle East peace process, has been assassinated.”
Yes, if you are a student of history you know Rabin was not the architect, he was, possibly, the contractor. But historic accuracy is not what this PBS film is about.
“The assassin was a right-wing Israeli Jew, Yigal Amir,” goes the narration. “An evening spent dreaming of peace turned into a national nightmare. Outside the hospital, the crowd began to chant ‘Bibi is a murderer.’ The sign says, ‘Bibi, Rabin’s blood is on your hands.’ Rabin’s widow blamed Netanyahu for contributing to her husband’s death—and said so on worldwide television.
The film cuts to an interviewer asking Leah Rabin, “Your husband pointed the finger at Mr. Netanyahu and said, ‘You must stop this incitement.’ To what extent do you blame Mr. Netanyahu and the Likud for what has happened?'” To which Mrs. Rabin responds: “I do blame them. The rally in Jerusalem that showed him in the uniform of a Nazi— so Mr. Bibi Netanyahu, now we can say from here to eternity that you didn’t support it and didn’t agree with it, but he was there and he didn’t stop it.”
Never mind that it has been proven by an investigating committee that those posters of Rabin the SS Man were the product of a Shabak agent named Avishai Raviv. It doesn’t matter, apparently. In the PBS version, just like in Leah Rabin’s, it’s Netanyahu’s fault.
Netanyahu’s close adviser Eyal Arad disagrees with Mrs. Rabin’s version, obviously, saying, “The attempt to pin on him the murder of the prime minister is a cheap political propaganda trick that was taken by his political opponents, mostly from the left, in order to delegitimatize Netanyahu as the political public and to delegitimatize the positions of Likud in the Israeli open political debate.”
But then, just when you’ve started to believe the murder really was Bibi’s fault, meant to usher him into the PM’s seat, the PM is vindicated from a truly unexpected direction: Martin Indyk, US Ambassador to Israel from 1995 to ’97, who is not a big fan of Netanyahu, which is why his story is credible:
“Netanyahu sat next to me. And I remember Netanyahu saying to me, ‘Look,’ you know, ‘Look at this. He’s a hero now. But if he had not been assassinated, I would have beaten him in the elections, and then he would have gone into history as a failed politician.'”
That moment, when Netanyahu assesses his late opponent dispassionately, strictly in terms of cost and effect, is pure Bibi. And not only does it absolve him of even a hint of blame for the murder, it shows that the side that benefited from the murder was and continues to be Israel’s left. Without Yigal Amir, Rabin, who entered the Oslo deal not as a peacenik, which he never was, but as a security expert, would have killed the deal and dismantled the PA. It isn’t certain that Netanyahu could have beaten him, Rabin was a very popular and trusted figure, but the elements of the left which now dominate the Labor party would have been relegated to the dark regions where the Meretz folks roam.