'With Leah Rabin, a symbol of peace has died'

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The Independent Online

For three hours yesterday, Israelis filed past the coffin of Leah Rabin as it lay in state in Tel Aviv only a couple of yards from the spot where her husband, Yitzhak, was assassinated by a fellow countryman who simply could not accept the idea of giving anything back to the Palestinians.

For three hours yesterday, Israelis filed past the coffin of Leah Rabin as it lay in state in Tel Aviv only a couple of yards from the spot where her husband, Yitzhak, was assassinated by a fellow countryman who simply could not accept the idea of giving anything back to the Palestinians.

They queued quietly, heads bowed, some clutching single red roses, others holding candles, waiting to pay a final, personal tribute to the grand dame of the Israeli political élite before she was borne up the hill for burial in Jerusalem.

It was not a huge crowd and nor would you expect one for an outspoken woman who died at 72, a smoker smitten by lung cancer, with as many critics as admirers. But it was a crowd that understood that somehow her death was an historical milestone, the signing-off of a shrewd, tough political generation, which, for a short time, brought Israel real hope of lasting peace.

Perhaps this was always unrealistic, given the failings in the Oslo peace accord that have now surfaced, producing daily fighting in the occupied territories - and which yesterday claimed nine more lives. But this crowd had once believed in it. So they came to mourn the loss of Mrs Rabin, the standard bearer, and - for at least some - their own loss of faith.

"This is a sad day, because today a symbol of peace has died," said Sigalit Adam, who was among many women who had come to walk past the coffin, draped by an Israeli flag and ringed by a four-man honour guard. "It is never going to be the same," said Nir Dil, a 22-year-old hotel worker. "The Rabins knew what to do. The Arabs don't trust Barak, and Israelis don't trust Barak in the way they trusted Rabin. I don't think anyone will be able to do what they did."

Mrs Rabin was buried in the afternoon, her plain coffin lowered into a grave next to her husband's in a pine grove inMount Herzl cemetery. It is Jerusalem's highest point, the place where Israel buries its first families: presidents, prime ministers and parliamentary speakers and their spouses.

Hillary Clinton told an audience of 1,500 mourners: "No assassin's bullet could take away her uncommon courage." Many of the mourner had gathered at the same place five years ago, shocked and sickened, to see Mr Rabin laid in the ground, a prime minister slain by an ultra-nationalist assassin, Yigal Amir, who to this day insists that he has no regrets.

Yasser Arafat was never expected to attend but - to the surprise of Israelis - he delivered a short, televised eulogy on Israeli and Palestinian television in which he reiterated his commitment to the peace process that he had made with Yitzhak Rabin. Israel TV reported that he had submitted a request to Mr Barak's office for permission to visit the Rabin family during their seven-day period of mourning.

Among the Israeli guests were several who were not always welcome at Mrs Rabin's dinner table: the former president Ezer Weizman, who was deputy commander of the Israeli armed forces in 1967 and revealed in his memoirs that Mr Rabin, the chief of staff, suffered a nervous collapse on the eve of the Six-Day War; Shimon Peres, whom Mr Rabin accused of conspiring against him during his first premiership in the mid-Seventies; and Benjamin Netanyahu, whose hand Mrs Rabin steadfastly refused to shake, accusing the Likud leader with inciting those who branded Mr Rabin a traitor.

After the Oslo accords in 1993, she made it up with Mr Peres, who delivered a moving eulogy at her graveside. In her last weeks, she was not sure about another of yesterday's speakers, Ehud Barak. She thought the current Prime Minister had strayed from the Oslo path by going for an end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before the foundations were ready.

She was, at least, correct that something had gone badly wrong. That much was overwhelmingly evident yesterday. Fifteen minutes before her coffin was laid in the ground, an Israeli rocket was arcing across the skies at a half-built apartment block used by Palestinian gunmen, only a few miles away in Ramallah.

In the occupied territories, a ceremony of an altogether different kind was under way - the anniversary of Mr Arafat's symbolic declaration of independence in Tunis in 1988. By nightfall, Israeli troops had shot dead eight Palestinians.

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