WASHINGTON -- A visibly shaken President Clinton, leading the nation in mourning Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, last night committed the United States to preventing a violent
reversal of the Middle East peace process.
"Peace must be and peace will be Prime Minister Rabin's lasting legacy," Mr. Clinton said in a brief statement from the White House Rose Garden. Minutes later, aides announced that the president would leave Washington today to attend Mr. Rabin's funeral tomorrow in Jerusalem.
Of the fallen Israeli leader, Mr. Clinton said, "The world has lost one of its greatest men -- a warrior for his nation's freedom, and now a martyr for his nation's peace."
In a more personal tribute, the president -- his voice choked with emotion -- said, "Yitzhak Rabin was my partner and my friend. I admired him, and I loved him very much. Because words cannot express my true feelings, let me just say, shalom, haver -- goodbye, friend."
Mr. Clinton spoke not far from where he had stood with Mr. Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in September 1993, when the former enemies signed a historic peace agreement and sealed it with a handshake.
Echoing Mr. Clinton's tribute, former President George Bush declared: "He was a true peacemaker whose efforts and sacrifice will be remembered through the ages." Former President Jimmy Carter, who brokered the first Arab-Israeli peace in 1978, called Mr. Rabin "a great hero in peace."
In an extraordinary salute by key Arab leaders to Mr. Rabin's legacy of forging peace with Israel's former enemies, Mr. Clinton's statement was followed minutes later by a CNN television interview with Jordan's King Hussein, who nearly matched the U.S. president in his warm words of praise and friendship for the slain prime minister.
"This was a man who was a soldier of peace and a martyr for the cause of peace in the region," said the king, who vowed that "without a doubt" he would attend Mr. Rabin's funeral.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whose predecessor, Anwar el Sadat, was the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel and who also was assassinated, issued a statement praising Mr. Rabin and saying: "Peace is a mission that only brave men can take upon themselves. Many principled men have fallen along the path toward achieving it, sacrificing their lives for the sake of their people."
But in areas of the Arab and Muslim worlds still opposed to a Jewish nation in the Middle East, Mr. Rabin's assassination was greeted with rejoicing.
The new leader of the anti-Israeli organization Islamic Jihad, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, said in Damascus, Syria: "I do not regret the death of the foremost head of terrorism in the world." A television station run by Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia, broadcast chants of victory.
Updates on condition
At the White House yesterday afternoon, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake informed Mr. Clinton of the attempt on Mr. Rabin's life and of his subsequent death.
While the prime minister was still receiving medical treatment, the president issued a brief statement calling him a "great leader for peace and a good friend" and saying he joined Americans in praying for a recovery.
Shortly after dark, his voice almost breaking, Mr. Clinton appeared on the floodlighted porch outside the Oval Office and recalled the words that Mr. Rabin delivered in Washington on Sept. 28, when he signed an accord expanding Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank:
"We should not let a land flowing with milk and honey become a land flowing with blood and tears," Mr. Rabin had said.
"Now it falls to us, all those in Israel, throughout the Middle East and around the world who yearn for and love peace to make sure it doesn't happen," Mr. Clinton said.
Before walking to the Rose Garden, Mr. Clinton had called Mr. Rabin's widow, Leah, and the interim Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
In addition to losing a friend, the president lost a partner in one of his top foreign policy priorities -- securing a comprehensive Middle East peace before his term ends in 1996.
While Mr. Rabin had secured peace with Jordan and presided over a large measure of self-rule for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, his and Mr. Clinton's hope for a breakthrough with Israel's most formidable foe -- Syria -- remained stalled.
U.S. officials viewed Mr. Rabin, with his strong military background and reputation for toughness on security questions, essential to making Israeli withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights -- a seemingly firm Syrian condition for peace -- politically acceptable to the Israeli people.
Rarely have two governments worked as closely and as well together as the Rabin and Clinton administrations. The relationship between the two men was in sharp contrast to the testy strains between their predecessors, Mr. Bush and Yitzhak Shamir.
Confident that Mr. Rabin would pursue peace with Arabs as rapidly as he considered politically feasible, Mr. Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher generally left strategic decisions on timing up to Mr. Rabin. The United States assumed the role of mediator, rather than architect, of the peace process.
Alert to the president's political needs, Mr. Rabin appeared in the East Room of the White House in September to allow Mr. Clinton to share in the limelight of an agreement expanding Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza.
At that ceremony, Mr. Rabin's raspy eloquence stood out amid the paeans to peace as he said, "We are sharing this good earth today with the Palestinian people -- in order to choose life."
Two years earlier, Mr. Rabin had grudgingly acceded to White House wishes and publicly shake the hand of Mr. Arafat, a man he could not yet forgive for spilling Israeli blood.
Mr. Christopher, who spent many hours with Mr. Rabin sorting through the nuts and bolts of Palestinian self-rule and frustrating negotiations with Syria, issued last night his own statement about the prime minister's death.
"We will rededicate ourselves to the very causes that inspired this great leader: The security of Israel, the unshakable bonds of friendship between the United States and Israel, and the promotion of Middle East peace," he said.
The order in which Mr. Christopher listed these priorities was in itself a sensitive gesture to Israel, signaling anew that whatever happens to the peace process, Israel's security will remain a vital U.S. interest.
As a result of his meeting early last week with Syrian President Hafez el Assad, Mr. Christopher planned to send the top U.S. Mideast negotiator back to the region for a new round of shuttle diplomacy. But officials still were not hopeful about an early breakthrough.