Did the assassin kill Israel's peace process?

The cost of Rabin's death is still being counted, says David Horovitz
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The Independent Online
Exactly six months ago, on the night of Saturday, 4 November, the lithe figure of Yigal Amir darted up behind Yitzhak Rabin and fired from point-blank range into the prime minister's back, wounding him fatally as he left a rally dedicated to rooting out violence from Israeli society.

If there was a crumb of comfort, it lay in the assumption that the peace process would not die with the prime minister, that his long-time rival-turned-partner, Shimon Peres, could step smoothly into the breach.

The safest way for Mr Peres to have ensured the continued backing of a majority of his countryfolk would have been to have called a general election immediately. Opinion polls showed 60 per cent of Israelis ready to put aside any reservations over the accords with the Palestinians and vote for him, if only, in many cases, to dissociate themselves from the right-wing vitriol that had led to the assassination.

But, anxious not to plunge a shaken Israel into the further instability of a bitter campaign, Mr Peres eschewed the easy option. Since then, that 60 percent support has dwindled - dipping lower each time Islamic extremists managed to smuggle a suicide bomber on to an Israeli bus - to the point where his lead over the only other prime ministerial candidate, the Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu, is now only about 5 per cent.

So while Mr Amir failed in his murderous bid to put an immediate halt to the peace process, he may yet turn out to have started a series of events that leads to the same conclusion. For, in removing Mr Rabin, the assassin deprived Israel of the leader best qualified to persuade the electorate of the viability of co-existence, a man whose peerless military record gave him unique credibility when advancing policies involving territorial compromise. Mr Peres badly lacks that credibility, lacks the centrist appeal that helped Mr Rabin to power in 1992, lacks his predecessor's unassailable self-confidence.

And if Mr Peres loses the election he has called for 29 May, and Mr Netanyahu takes over, there is every reason to believe that the peace process will come to a shuddering halt. For while Mr Netanyahu is a fickle politician, prepared to tailor his policies to fit the national mood, his cabinet would be filled with stubborn hardliners - men like Rafael Eitan, the former chief of staff who says no peace treaty with an Arab state is worth the paper it's printed on, Ariel Sharon, the former defence minister who masterminded Israel's misguided 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and possibly even Rehavam Ze'evi, another former ex-military man who advocates the "voluntary transfer" of Palestinians from the West Bank to an unspecified destination elsewhere in the Arab world.

Mr Peres has so far fought a lacklustre election campaign - apparently relying on President Clinton's fulsome endorsement to win over voters - and is still struggling to shed the reputation of a loser, having failed on four occasions in the Seventies and Eighties to win the prime ministership outright.

Worse still, Mr Peres's recent "Operation Grapes of Wrath" bombardment of Lebanon seems likely to cost him what would have been rock-solid support among Israel's 800,000-strong Arab community. And his determination to press ahead with the Israeli army's imminent withdrawal from Hebron will alienate potential voters from the Orthodox Jewish community for whom the West Bank city, as the burial place of the biblical patriarchs, has particular significance.

Another wave of suicide bombings, or the resumption of Hizbollah Katyusha rocket fire across the northern border, would probably deal a fatal blow to Mr Peres's re-election chances.

A few days after the assassination, Mr Peres pledged that he would win the 1996 elections "for your sake, Yitzhak". But when the polling stations close on 29 May, it may be Yigal Amir who feels the satisfaction of a mission accomplished.

The writer is the editor of the new biography, 'Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier of Peace,' written by the staff of the 'Jerusalem Report' news magazine, published in the UK by Peter Halban.