Rabin's spirit is invoked as Clinton, Barak and Arafat gather in Oslo

THE PRINCIPAL players given the formidable task of untangling the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians gathered in Oslo yesterday and invoked the memory of Yitzhak Rabin, in the hope that it might revive the peace process.

One by one, they took to the podium at a memorial ceremony to Rabin and, like wayward priests, recommitted themselves to a negotiated solution, watched both by the world's television cameras and a giant, gently smiling portrait of the slain Israeli leader.

Among them was Ehud Barak, Israel's new Prime Minister and a protege and close friend of Rabin's, who made a promise to tread in his mentor's footsteps and "follow the journey you [Rabin] have led towards security and peace in the region".

Watched by President Bill Clinton and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Mr Barak spelt out what is, at the very least, his public posture: support for a deal that gives "security for Israel, while reflecting the needs and sensitivities of our neighbours".

The event itself, held two days before the fourth anniversary of Rabin's assassination at the hands of a Jewish fanatic, was as much about symbolism and sentiment as about the knotty questions of Middle East politics, Even so, it was important in defining the mood in which further progress can be made.

An audience in Oslo's ornate city hall - where Rabin received the Nobel Peace Prize five years ago - listened in silence to a poem about his assassination written by a 14-year-old Israeli girl, who later died in an Arab bombing.

There was a saccharine song to Rabin - "O Captain! my captain" based on the poem by Walt Whitman - and Leah Rabin described how her husband "fell on the altar of peace on the road to the promised land." But most of the speakers stuck to general expressions of good intent - including Vladimir Putin, the Russian Premier, who seemed unworried by the contradiction inherent in calling for peace in the Middle East while his own nation is busy bombing one of its Islamic neighbours. But one man got down to specifics.

When Mr Arafat took to the podium in his customary fatigues, he gave a brusque soldier's salute to Mr Rabin's portrait before paying tribute to him as a "great man", and to Mr Barak as "his new partner".

Looking frail beneath his large spectacles and black and white head dress, but sounding strong enough, the 70-year-old Palestinian leader then used the occasion to remind the world of some of his people's main grievances - the "destructive danger" of expanding Jewish settlements on occupied land and the status of the holy city of Jerusalem.

The settlement issue has become a particular source of Palestinian anger - a point reinforced by Mr Arafat on Monday when he handed Mr Clinton a map showing that Mr Barak's administration has issued more construction tenders on the West Bank than Benjamin Netanyahu's. Little wonder, then, that Mr Clinton chose his words carefully, although he paid a warm tribute to Rabin, who helped to start the peace process when he shook Mr Arafat's hand on the White House lawn in 1993.

"We can also hear his kind but stern voice telling us, `This is all very nice, but finish the job'," Mr Clinton said. "We now have a chance - but only a chance - to bring real and lasting peace."

From Oslo, the spotlight swings to the West Bank town of Ramallah, where Israeli and Palestinian chief negotiators will meet next week to work on the framework for a final deal. And then, early next year, the odds are it will switch again to the United States, where Mr Clinton can be expected to host a peace summit.