Bloodstained lyrics of Rabin’s “Song of Peace” from the rally

On 4 November 1995, at a rally in Tel Aviv in support of the peace process, Yitzchak Rabin was shot dead by a Jewish religious fanatic, Yigal Amir. Among those attending the funeral were King Hussein and President Mubarak who delivered eulogies, as well as representatives from Qatar and Oman and the Prime Minister of Morocco. Arafat did not attend, but delivered personal condolences. Shimon Peres assumed the office of Prime Minister on a caretaker basis until elections could be held.

1995-6 Caretaker Government of Shimon Peres – Incursion into Lebanon

On 11 April, under the caretaker administration of Shimon Peres following Rabin’s, Israeli forces entered south Lebanon, in a campaign entitled “Operation Grapes of Wrath”. The incursion was in response to an outbreak of “Katyusha” rocket attacks launched from south Lebanon against northern Israel towns and settlements. The attacks against Israel were made by the Hezbollah (“party of God”), a radical Shi’ite Muslim group, largely financed and armed by Iran, and with the active support of Syria.

The civilian population of South Lebanon were warned to evacuate the area. However a tragedy occurred on 18 April at the village of Kafr Kanna. Israeli artillery, responding to a Hezbollah mortar bombardment, fired from a position next to a United Nations encampment, struck the UN building in which civilians were sheltering, and 105 people were killed.

Hostilities ceased when the “Grapes of Wrath Understandings” were reached. The Hezbollah agreed not to continue mortar attacks across the Israeli border, and not to launch any attacks from populated areas, and Israel agreed not to attack populated areas. The understandings were to be policed by an international committee, which would receive complaints.

Israeli troops remained in a “Security Zone” about 15 kilometres into Lebanese territory, and Hezbollah attacks on the Israeli forces in Lebanon continued, with a steady drain of military casualties, and there was rising disquiet in Israel about the advisability of maintaining the Security Zone. (Israel withdrew unilaterally in 2000 under the Barak government.)

Meanwhile Lebanese workers continued to cross the border daily for employment in Israel.

1996 Continuing terror attacks

In January 1996 Yahiya Ayash, a supplier of the explosives used by the terrorist bombers (known as “the engineer”), was killed by a remote-controlled explosion in his mobile phone. Arafat addressed a mass meeting condemning Israel for the killing, and visited the family to extend condolences.

In February a suicide bomber killed 25 people on a bus in Jerusalem. In March, 13 more Israelis were killed.

May 1996 Netanyahu elected

Under the new election law, operating for the first time in 1996, the Prime Minister and the Knesset (parliament) were elected in separate votes. The parties were, and are, still elected to the Knesset by a proportional voting system, similar to the Australian system for Senate elections, and in Israel this results in a large number of political parties, each with a different ideological, religious and/or ethnic base. In the 1996 election Binyamin Netanyahu defeated Shimon Peres by 50.4% to 49.5%, although Labour obtained more seats than Likud in the Knesset. Netanyahu then had to arrange a majority parliamentary coalition.

1996-7 The Netanyahu Policies

Netanyahu announced his continuing support for the peace process, but on the basis of “reciprocity”, by which he meant that there would be no forward movement without evidence of co-operation by the Palestinian Authority in eliminating “incitement” against Israel and in dismantling the terrorist organisations. This was the opposite of the Rabin doctrine – that the peace process should not be frustrated by the enemies of peace.

The opening of an exit to enable a tunnel next to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to be accessed by tourists led to an outbreak of violence throughout the territories. Accusations that the tunnel would undermine the El Aqsa mosque led to riots throughout the Territories, including one episode in which Palestinian police opened fire on Israeli soldiers. Fifty-six Palestinians and fifteen Israeli soldiers were killed.

At first Netanyahu refused to negotiate personally with Arafat. That policy could not be sustained under international pressure and a continuing crisis in Hebron. On 17 January 1997, the Hebron agreement was concluded, and 80% of the city came under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.

October 1998 The Wye Memorandum

A summit meeting between Yasser Arafat, Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Bill Clinton took place at the Wye Plantation near Washington, and the “Wye Memorandum” was signed on this 23 October 1998. It encapsulated the principle of “reciprocity”, providing for a step-by-step withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank, in parallel with steps for security co-operation by the PA, to be verified by CIA representatives.