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LEADING ARTICLE:A funeral in Jerusalem

Yitzhak Rabin was not a religious nor a sentimental man. But it seemed that after 27 years of waging battle he had adopted the line in Isaiah which speaks of comforting the prophet's people and crying out to Jerusalem that "her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned". His death at the hands of a young Jewish fanatic is a terrible blow to Israel's democracy. But it cannot reverse the gains that Mr Rabin achieved for his people, nor will it extinguish the desire to achieve a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

Soldier, politician, tactical hawk and strategic dove, Mr Rabin epitomised many of the contradictions that have beset the state of Israel since its foundation. He fought its wars as chief of staff and, as minister of defence, he ordered its dehumanising repression of the Palestinians. Mr Rabin was shrewd enough to recognise the difference between a fight for national survival and an occupation that served only to corrode the values of the occupier. He made the choice for peace, not out of naivety or opportunism, but because he saw it as the best way to ensure the security of the Jewish people. The missiles fired from Iraq during the Gulf war of 1991 taught Israelis that protection could no longer be purchased with a few extra miles of territory. They could choose between a permanent state of war or a risky peace, trading occupied land for political recognition. Mr Rabin had the courage, unenthusiastically, to make that decision and he was rightly honoured for it with the Nobel Peace Prize.

Now he has joined the late Anwar Sadat in the upper ranks of those who have paid with their lives for veering away from the purist doctrines of religion and conflict so dominant in Middle Eastern politics. Yet his assassination was an act that simply carried into real life all the vituperative rhetoric heaped upon him ever since the Israeli right realised that its dreams of expansion lay in the dust.

From Binyamin Netanyahu of the Likud, and from its extreme fringes, there came ritual expressions of shock yesterday. They should have been expressions of shame. For too long the "respectable" Israeli right has pandered to its lunatic fringe, legitimising religious fanatics and zealots who spout racist filth about Arabs. These are paranoid minorities in Israeli society, ready even to cheapen the memory of the Holocaust by manipulating painful emotions for their own narrow ends. Theirs is a political culture of violence, hitherto exclusively directed at Palestinians. Now it has claimed an Israeli prime minister.

So let the period of mourning be a time for Mr Netanyahu, for the far right, for the Jewish settlers and their unthinking supporters abroad, to meditate on their future policies. The fact is Mr Rabin's achievement is irreversible without war. Israel will not go back into Gaza, nor retake the towns of the West Bank, nor consign the Palestinians once more to the limbo of a people without land or identity. With luck, firm nerves and concerted international support, Mr Rabin's successor should proceed to negotiate a withdrawal from the Golan Heights and from the martyred lands of south Lebanon. Peace treaties with Syria and Lebanon remain a worthy and attainable goal.

Yitzhak Rabin was denied the chance to see the fruits of his political courage but his funeral in Jerusalem today should not be seen as the end of his achievement. For it is he who has buried forever the possibility of an Israeli state maintained only by military might and sustained by a perversion of the Zionist ideal. Generations of the Jewish people still unborn, and even the descendants of his Palestinian foes, may yet render him their thanks.