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PERSPECTIVES ON THE RABIN ASSASSINATION : What's the Peace Process Without Mr. Security? : Forecast: Politically, the short-term prospects are good, even without the depth of trust Rabin brought to the table.

November 06, 1995|SHIBLEY TELHAMI | Shibley Telhami is Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, on leave from Cornell University, where he is director of the Near Eastern Studies Program.

If individual leaders are central in Middle East politics, they seemed less pivotal in Israel's parliamentary democracy, where individuals come and go but the system continues. Yet, the passing of Yitzhak Rabin may prove as momentous as the passing of Gamal Abdul Nasser, Egypt's giant leader, in 1970. Rabin the man was so central to the current peace process that his passing will no doubt prove sobering both to Israelis and to Arabs.

Consider that Rabin was leading a government with the narrowest of majorities, embarked on a peace process that divided the nation. Consider that his narrow majority, which enabled Rabin to gain Knesset approval for his bold moves, came only as a result of support from Israeli Arabs, for the government enjoyed only minority support among Israeli Jews. And consider that the government's next move in the peace process was to complete withdrawal from major West Bank cities that many Israeli Jews want to claim. Still, Rabin seemed able to create public support among an increasing number of Israelis in the past few weeks, culminating in a mass rally in Tel Aviv Saturday night, after which he was assassinated.

Rabin's secret was simple: He was Mr. Security. For years, he has courted the image of toughness on security issues, dating back to his days as the hero of the 1967 Six Day War, the man who led the Israeli army to occupy the very territories that he was now willing to trade for peace. Later, as defense minister, he did not hesitate to take tough measures against Palestinians during the intifada, ordering the army to "break bones." His awkward handshake with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in September, 1993, endeared him to Israelis even as Palestinians felt offended. The tough measures that he ordered, including the frequent closure of Palestinian territories in response to terrorist acts against Israelis, bolstered his image, even when they appeared to jeopardize the peace agreement with the Palestinians. But in the end, his public legitimacy enabled him to move the process forward, to overcome serious opposition, and to persuade even some Palestinians that his toughness was his asset.

Rabin was seen as pivotal for the prospects of the Labor Party in the next elections. For the first time, Israel will experiment with the direct election of the prime minister independently from the parliamentary elections, making individuals even more central in Israeli politics. Many observers had entertained the prospect of Rabin winning as prime minister even as his party loses.

Now, with Rabin's passing, Labor will need to field a strong candidate as well as sell its peace agenda to the electorate. It remains to be seen whether Acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres, the architect of the peace accords who is considered a visionary, can emerge from this crisis with a more effective image.

In the short term, it is likely that public reaction to the tragedy will bolster both Labor and the peace process. This could mean that the opposition Likud will be unlikely to challenge the legitimacy of Peres' government; they would not want to be seen to be rewarding the killer, and public rallying behind Labor would diminish Likud's chances in an early election. As a consequence, the peace process is likely to continue on track. But there will be a need to re-create the image of toughness that Rabin projected to balance Peres' idealism. Since Rabin served simultaneously as prime minister and defense minister, it would not be surprising for Peres to give the defense portfolio to Gen. Ehud Barak, a popular military figure who was a Rabin favorite and is often talked about as representing the next generation of Labor leadership. The fate of the peace process in the long term will rest on the extent to which Labor leadership exploits short-term public sympathy.

One possible scenario could seriously jeopardize the peace process: the emergence of a National Unity government, as President Ezer Weizman and others are now advocating. Given the radically different visions that Israel's two main parties have about the future of the West Bank, it is inconceivable that the Palestinian agreements could move forward as planned with a National Unity government.

Rabin's assassination will also have a profound impact on Israel's Arab partners and potential partners. Although Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was not a personal fan of Rabin's, he had come to recognize Rabin's value in being able to gain Israeli public support for the peace process. This recognition was made clear in Arafat's expressions of sorrow and concern after the assassination. His own future depends on the success of his agreement with Israel, and it is likely that the Palestinians will redouble their effort to move the process forward, to accelerate the timetable and to make the agreement irreversible. There is also likely to be an acceleration of normalization of relations between Israel and Jordan.

On the Syrian front, the prospect of an agreement with Israel before the 1996 Israeli elections always was small; it is even smaller now, since the Israeli public sees security as the main concern in the Golan Heights, and Rabin's legitimacy on this issue would have been essential to gain public support for Israel's withdrawal.

As for the United States, the assassination will surely drive home the fragility of the peace process and its vulnerability to arbitrary events. If Rabin's murder could be so consequential, consider what might occur if Arafat, Hussein, Assad or Mubarak pass from the scene. This sobering thought should propel accelerated efforts to ensure that peace will survive the next tragedy.

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