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Profiles : Israel's Dueling Duo Prepare to Put Their Truce to Test : Rabin and Peres are vying for the Nobel Peace Prize and squabbling over who gets credit for peace talks.


JERUSALEM — For years, almost 50, they had fought, usually without mercy and often with soul-destroying bitterness.

Their peacemaking had been a pragmatic truce, a decision to halt a blood feud that neither could win, a decision to cooperate for shared goals.

This was not the life-or-death struggle between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, but rather that between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, his foreign minister and longtime rival.

Their reconciliation after decades of knife-in-the-back politics astounded Israelis--and made possible Israel's success in negotiations with the Palestinians, with Jordan and, as seems likely, soon with Syria and Lebanon.

"It's a miracle that this combination exists," commented Matti Golan, an Israeli journalist who chronicled the Rabin-Peres conflict through the 1970s and 1980s, during the latest flare-up between the two. "But there is no doubt that without Rabin (the peace initiatives) couldn't be, and there is no doubt that without Peres it would be impossible too.

"Peres does the visionary work, and the dirty work, and Rabin gives the political backing and takes the hard decisions."

Yet the Rabin-Peres partnership remains fragile and tenuous, threatened by the egos of two men who want not only to bring peace to Israel and ensure its security but who want the credit for doing so.

"Somehow, they came to realize that they cannot make it separately, and each of them hates that he cannot do it separately, that he needs the other," said Nahum Barnea, the respected political commentator of Yediot Aharanot, Israel's biggest newspaper.

"In the past, they behaved as if they could tolerate each other, but no one believed it. Now, they hate each other quite openly, but insist that it doesn't interfere with what they have to do--and mostly they are right."

During the secret negotiations with the PLO in Oslo last year, Peres would come to Rabin in his Jerusalem office, and the two men would sit together--Rabin with a whiskey and soda, Peres with a cup of tea or a glass of Cognac--and weigh their options.

"That Peres carried out those negotiations alone is complete nonsense," said a senior government official, who observed those late-night meetings. "Every move was plotted with Rabin's participation, and every clause in that agreement was negotiated, down to the punctuation, with his initials on the faxes back and forth. . . .

"In all the peace initiatives so far, Peres has used his skills to open doors, but Rabin has had to decide whether to walk through--or not."

A pro-Rabin minister recounts how Rabin and Peres usually meet privately before the regular Sunday Cabinet session, and that even then the full meeting is often largely a dialogue between Rabin and Peres.

"The rest of us feel like children at the dinner table--allowed to venture an opinion every so often but expected to listen respectfully while our elders discuss things," the minister said. "And they speak in a language--mutual experiences, a depth of understanding, a personal involvement in half a century of history--that the rest of us don't have."

There are renewed fears, however, that this 2-year-old partnership could break down in the midst of crucial negotiations with the Palestinians or Syria, leading to their collapse, or that Rabin and Peres, one or the other hoping to outmaneuver his old rival, might revert to cutthroat politics.

After a return last summer to open conflict, political analyst Zeev Chafets warned: "From now on, their positions on sensitive issues--Palestinian autonomy, concessions to Syria and especially the future of Jerusalem--will be influenced, perhaps decisively, by two raw, decades-old questions: How does this help me? And how does it hurt him?"


Chafets, writing in the magazine Jerusalem Report, declared what many in the ruling Labor Party will say off the record and over lunch but dare not repeat publicly: "The two men are openly enemies again, old antagonists gearing up for one last bloody battle."

Substantial differences between Rabin and Peres, matters of principle rather than personality, do exist on how quickly to broaden Palestinian self-government. Peres wants to press ahead, hard and fast, holding elections and turning over administration of the West Bank to the PLO as soon as possible. Rabin, worried about the safety of Jewish settlers in the region, wants to defer elections until security measures are agreed upon and implemented.

"Negotiations are difficult because Rabin assumes control but, when things get stuck, asks Peres to solve it," a Palestinian minister said. "Then we deal with Peres, only to have Rabin and his generals raise objections. . . .

"They complain about our muddled decision-making with some justice, but we see a similar problem on their side. They don't want to be caught up in our politics, but we don't want to be caught up in theirs as things get ugly."

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