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Remembering the Rabin assassination with Bob Simon

A conversation with late 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon, who covered the killing of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 20 years ago

This week marks the 20th anniversary of an assassination that shocked the world. On November 4, 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was shot and killed.

Legendary CBS News correspondent Bob Simon, who died in February, was based in Israel and knew Rabin personally. Simon was traveling that day, he recalled in a 2013 interview. When he arrived at his hotel in Beirut, the receptionist told him he'd missed 20 calls.

"So, I called the Tel Aviv bureau, and bureau manager just said very staccato, 'Rabin's been shot,'" Simon told Overtime Editor Ann Silvio. "Frankly, I handed the phone over and said, 'I don't think I can deal with this.'"

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The coffin of Prime Minister Rabin in Jerusalem's Mount Herzl Cemetery on November 6, 1995
AP

Simon reported on Rabin's death from Beirut, where he drove through a militant Hezbollah stronghold and saw Palestinians celebrating the news. Yitzhak Rabin had fought in Israel's War of Independence in 1948 and commanded the Israeli army's victory in the 1967 Six-Day War.

His military service led him to politics. In 1993, during his second term as Prime Minister, Rabin agreed to a historic peace agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"We have come to try and put an end to the hostilities so that our children, our children's children, will no longer experience the painful cost of war, violence and peril," Rabin said in a speech on the White House lawn.

That agreement, and the decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 1994, sharply divided Israelis, with right-wing groups speaking out against Rabin. Ultimately, it was a Jewish extremist opposed to the peace process who killed him.

"If Rabin had been killed by a Palestinian, people would have said, you know, another act of war," Simon told Silvio. "But the fact that he was killed by a Jew -- it was unthinkable that this could ever happen."

CBS News won an Emmy for its coverage of Rabin's funeral, which Simon covered live. "The death of a leader is part of the life of a nation," Simon told viewers. "But what happened here, what happened yesterday, has changed the way these people see themselves in a way they've not yet begun to digest; a Jew killed the prime minister of Israel and said he was glad."

"It was a big story, but at the same time, I was devastated that a guy I knew so well and liked a lot was killed."

The killer was Yigal Amir, a young law student who was a member of a small right-wing group. Twelve days after the murder, Israeli police brought Amir to the scene of the crime to re-enact the murder, and CBS News was allowed to film. "It was chilling, seeing this guy without an ounce of remorse," Simon said.

For Simon, Rabin's assassination was a bad political omen, and also a personal blow. "I wouldn't say we were friends, but I did know him personally, and we spent a lot of time together," Simon said. "It was a big story, but at the same time, I was devastated that a guy I knew so well and liked a lot was killed."