Rabin killing forces crisis of conscience

Israel stares into its divided soul after assassination but government pledges that the Middle East peace process will continue
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The Independent Online


Israel buries Yitzhak Rabin today, briefly united by the stunning blow of his assassination but horrified by the deep internal divisions his violent death at the hands of a fellow Israeli have exposed.

With the future direction of Israel and the prospects for a lasting Middle East settlement thrown into confusion, there was speculation last night that the Labour government might call an early general election to seek a new mandate for peace. But commentators warned that, with emotions running so high, such a course of action could prove very risky.

As the Prime Minister's coffin lay outside the parliament building yesterday, 100,000 Israelis filed past to pay their last respects in the first few hours. Utterly unrepentant, Yigal Amir, the 27-year-old assassin, said he had also intended to kill Shimon Peres, the Foreign Minister, who is now the acting Prime Minister. He said he had "received instructions from God to kill Prime Minister Rabin".

After sneaking back-stage, posing as a chauffeur, at the end of the peace rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, he fired three shots from a 9mm Beretta pistol from close range, hitting Rabin in the back and stomach. The Prime Minister died an hour later on a hospital operating table.

Police believe the assassination was probably the work of Amir acting alone, but are unravelling his contacts among the extreme groups of the Israeli religious right. Moshe Shahal, the Police Minister, said the assassin made two previous attempts to get close enough to Rabin to kill him.

Quite apart from political shock-waves from Rabin's death, Israelis must now stare into a psychological and spiritual abyss which they had long preferred to ignore. Rabin's death was the first ever murder of an Israeli leader by an Israeli. Whether or not Amir acted alone, Israel can no longer disregard the fact that it has implacable, fundamentalist and anti-democratic forces in its midst, which are not foreign, but home-grown.

President Bill Clinton and John Major will join many other leaders at the state funeral today, including President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, making his first visit to Israel, King Hussein of Jordan, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany. Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, has decided not to attend on the grounds that his presence might be considered provocative.

Israelis are astonished that the assassin was able to get so close to Rabin, despite the presence of 700 security men. The police say that Rabin refused to wear a bullet-proof vest, which might have saved him.

Security men were trained to expect and prevent attacks by Palestinians. Despite repeated threats against Rabin and his ministers, they did not expect him to die at the hand of a Jew.

Mr Peres and his ministers were quick to assert that the death of Rabin will make no difference to Israeli withdrawal from the towns of the West Bank and the next stage of Palestinian self-rule. Mr Peres could capitalise on the shock of Rabin's death by holding a snap election to take advantage of the confusion in Likud, the main right-wing party, which is trying desperately to distance itself from its former friends on the religious and nationalist right. A quick election might, however, prove to be a dangerous tactic if the backlash against the right does not last. As a life-long hardliner, Rabin had the credentials to push the peace process, which Mr Peres, long regarded as a moderate, arguably does not.

The 73-year-old Rabin spent 27 years in the Israeli army and was chief of staff during Israel's biggest military victory in the Six Day war in 1967. His political career, which led to him becoming prime minister twice, was rooted in his status as Israel's leading military hero.

Many of those waiting to file past his coffin yesterday were religious Jews wearing skullcaps wanting to demonstrate their disapproval of the killing. "My reaction was total embarrassment because I am a religious Jew and I wear a kippa [skullcap] and now I know when I walk down the street people are going to look at me like I am a murderer," said Alon Cohen, originally from the US.

Amir, the assassin, was a law student at Bar-Ilan, a religious university outside Tel Aviv. The son of immigrants from Yemen, he had been brought up attending religious schools and had been involved in agitation in favour of the West Bank settlers. He has made no attempt to deny the charge and signed a five-page confession. When told Rabin had died, he said he was "satisfied".

The assassination has often been predicted without anybody believing that it could really happen. Settlers near Hebron and other centres of extremism had branded Rabin a traitor and a Nazi. Amir told police he believed that it was permissible "to kill anybody who was giving up the land of Israel''.