Israel battles grief, hate Thousands see Rabin lie in state; leaders gather for funeral; 'A unity of mourning'; Likud leader pledges not to oppose Peres' interim government


JERUSALEM -- A simple pine coffin in the back of an army truck brought Yitzhak Rabin back to Jerusalem yesterday, as Israel tried desperately to overcome the hatreds that led to his assassination.

As thousands of Israelis filed solemnly past Mr. Rabin's casket, brought from Tel Aviv to the steps of the national parliament, his chief political opponent pledged support for a new government led by acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

"In a democracy, governments are changed by elections, not murder," said Benjamin Netanyahu, whose strong right-wing bloc, the Likud party, could have seriously threatened the Labor Party government. "Therefore Likud will not oppose the government as it is composed now."

World leaders began heading toward Jerusalem for today's funeral of the 73-year-old Israeli leader. It will be a huge state affair. President Clinton, many members of Congress, Prince Charles of Britain and at least two Arab leaders, along with dozens of other world figures, will attend as Mr. Rabin is laid in a military grave here in the city of his birth.

Most come expressing hope that the peace process nourished by Mr. Rabin between Arabs and Israelis will continue.

"There is nothing else that we can do but continue a great road paved by a great leader," said Mr. Peres.

The man charged with shooting Mr. Rabin will be brought before a court this morning. Yigal Amir, 25, a third-year law student at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, will be charged with murder.

Police Commissioner Moshe Shahal said Mr. Amir told them he wanted to shoot both Mr. Rabin and Mr. Peres, but the two men separated as they left the peace rally Saturday night in Tel Aviv.

Israel police declined to comment on a report by Army Radio that Mr. Amir's brother, Hagai, was being interrogated as to possible involvement in planning the assassination.

Yigal Amir said he had tried to kill Mr. Rabin before, according to police. Israel Television showed film footage from July 31 showing Mr. Amir fighting with police as they evicted him from a makeshift settlement.

He told police that God had told him to shoot the prime minister, officials said.

Mr. Rabin's security forces will face troubling questions about how they allowed the assassin to come so close to Mr. Rabin, and why the prime minister left a crowded public event accompanied by only two bodyguards.

A route lined with symbols

Mr. Rabin lived in Tel Aviv, and the slow procession that brought his body to Jerusalem yesterday traveled a route heavy with symbolism. During Israel's War of Independence in 1948, he was a young commander who fought to keep the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway open. Relics of the tanks and trucks destroyed by Arab forces in that battle remain along the road to this day, painted periodically and often decorated with wreaths.

The slain prime minister's coffin passed those hulking monuments yesterday. Thousands of motorists pulled off the road or gathered on highway overpasses to watch the procession. Mr. Rabin, a former general, was carried in the simplicity of a military truck, his coffin riding in the back with six generals.

The wooden box was draped with an Israeli flag and laid on the steps of the Knesset while Mr. Rabin's wife, Leah, greeted her husband's old friends and former adversaries.

When the Knesset plaza was opened to the public yesterday afternoon, the mourners mirrored Israel: young and old, religious and secular, immigrants and visitors, and native-born Israelis. Some came out of curiosity, some came to weep. By mid-evening, officials said 250,000 people had filed past the coffin of the first Israeli leader to be assassinated.

Yitzi Greenberg, 21, stood red-eyed outside the Knesset steps. The young art student wore a single silver earring and anguish on his face.

"I'm seriously afraid. I didn't always support Rabin, but he pursued peace," said Mr. Greenberg. "Something was shattered yesterday. It was that togetherness feeling that we really had, that Israelis do things for other Israelis, that we were all a part of one nation.

"There are so many sad ironies here," he said. "You had a soldier shot in the back. You had him killed by someone studying the law.

"Now, Peres is going to have to walk around with a bulletproof vest. It's the worst thing that can happen. It has turned us into a nation just like any other nation in the world, where the leaders will be separate from the people," he said.

Amnon Yonah, 73, stood beside Mr. Rabin's coffin, part of an honor guard that included old colleagues in the Palmach, part of the Jewish forces that fought for independence.

"We have lost a great one," sighed Mr. Yonah after his ceremonial watch ended. "I respected and admired him very much. It is terrible."

At the foot of the coffin mourners piled wreaths. Looking down the long, thick line of people waiting to pay their last respects, dozens more wreaths were being held high to keep them from being crushed.

"Yesterday, all my friends cried," said Ingbal Jaron, 19, who is training to be an officer in the Israeli army that grew out of the Palmach. "You don't know what to expect. You are afraid of the unknown, and you don't know what will happen to Israel."

Political leaders yesterday sought to assuage those anxieties by renouncing the acrimony that has characterized public debate over Mr. Rabin's peace plans.

Mr. Netanyahu's announcement that he would support a government formed by Mr. Peres was followed by similar pledges from other opposition leaders.

"You can't take this murder and use it in order to overthrow the government," said one Knesset member, Hanan Porat, of the National Religious Party.

Those pledges mean Mr. Peres will likely be able to form a new government with the same coalition members as Mr. Rabin. It may give him the opportunity to add to the razor-thin majority now held by the Labor-led coalition.

It is uncertain whether Mr. Peres will want to serve out the one year remaining on Mr. Rabin's term, or call elections earlier to try to convert the national trauma over the assassination into electoral support for Labor, and for the peace process.

Elections could not be held before April or May, and "that's a long way off in this part of the world. In Israel, even a day is long in politics," said Peter Medding, a professor of political science at Hebrew University.

Moshe Arens, a defense minister under the Likud government replaced by Mr. Rabin in 1992, predicted as he gazed at the prime minister's coffin that the unity now being pledged by politicians would be fleeting.

"There's a great unity at the moment, but it's not going to hold," said Mr. Arens. "It's a unity of mourning, and the issues remain."

The issues that won't vanish

The chief issue is Israel's return to Arab control of lands it seized in the 1967 Six-Day War. Mr. Rabin negotiated a peace agreement with Jordan and with the Palestinians, and had hoped to conclude an agreement with Syria.

The Jordanian pact is unlikely to be jeopardized by his death. King Hussein of Jordan is expected to attend the funeral today, the first time he has been in Jerusalem since 1967. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also will come, the first time he has been in Israel, even though the two countries have been at peace since 1979.

But the tortuous peace arrangements with the Palestinians are vulnerable to disruption. Israeli forces are engaged in a delicate "redeployment" from six West Bank cities, which is to be followed by the first-ever elections among Palestinians early next year.

It is the flash point of the West Bank withdrawal that has created so much animosity, so much friction in Israeli society, often erupting in protests outside the prime minister's home.

TV coverage

Network coverage plans for the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin, which begins at 7 a.m. EST today in Jerusalem:

ABC: Live coverage begins at 6:30 a.m. EST with Peter Jennings and Charlie Gibson in Jerusalem, continuing as warranted.

CBS: Live coverage begins at 7 a.m. EST with a special edition of "CBS This Morning," with Dan Rather in Jerusalem, continuing at least through any remarks made by President Clinton.

NBC: No details immediately available.

CNN: Live coverage beginning at 5 a.m. EST; no further details immediately available.

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