A chance to finish Rabin's work


LONDON -- It's hard to estimate the chances for the Arab- Israeli peace process in the wake of Yitzhak Rabin's murder. But then, it was getting hard to calculate the prospects even with Prime Minister Rabin in charge.

The Israeli leader's reputation as a brave gambler for peace has never been higher in the world, but at home the Labor Party was close to losing parliamentary control.

Since September, Labor has lost two seats in the Knesset, leaving it a one-vote majority. Even that razor-thin margin was at risk, as two Labor members face possible corruption charges.

Last month the autonomy deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization squeaked through the Knesset by just one vote.

Another bill, sponsored by the right-wing Likud opposition, that would have banned peace talks with Syria, was defeated by only one vote. And many doubted that the governing coalition's majority would survive the divisive debate on the 1996 budget in December.

Early election

So Israel was unlikely to avoid an early election; the next scheduled national election is due a year from now.

Yasser Arafat is scheduled for his election in March, and if a majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip backed the peace process, that would have boosted Mr. Rabin's re-election prospects.

Those were yesterday's calculations. How have they been changed by the tragedy in Tel Aviv?

It helps considerably that Mr. Rabin's assassin was an ultra-right-wing Jew, as guilt by association will deter the mainstream right (whose language about Mr. Rabin has often verged on incitement to violence) from taking instant advantage of the Labor government's disarray. But the moratorium will last only a few months, so Labor cannot waste time.

A new leader

The highest priorities will be to choose a new leader and to hold the Palestinian election as soon as possible, in order to clear the way for early Israeli elections.

The obvious candidate for Labor's new leader and Israel's new prime is Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who has already taken over as prime minister for the moment. But Mr. Peres is not the best man to sell the deal with the Palestinians to the Israeli public, as he is seen by many as too dovish.

Peres' paradox

The choice therefore may fall on Interior Minister Ehud Barak, a former general and chief of staff, who is 20 years younger and has the considerable advantage, in terms of public opinion, of being a newcomer to politics.

Mr. Peres badly wants the prime ministership, but if he wants to go down in history as the man who brought peace to the Middle East he may have to forgo it.

The next job is to speed up the promised elections for the Palestinian Authority, probably to the beginning of January.

An opinion poll last month gave the peace process 72 percent support among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, so Mr. Arafat can probably win the elections handily.

Even the largest Islamic opposition group, Hamas (which got only 17 percent support), is now on the verge of agreeing to take part in the elections.

Building on success

Early Palestinian elections are vital because as soon as they have demonstrated the success of Mr. Rabin's peace strategy, Labor will call Israel to the polls, perhaps as early as February. In those circumstances, with Mr. Rabin's tragic death still weighing heavily on Israelis' consciences, Labor could well come back with a four-year mandate to finish making the peace.

But the next few months will be critical, and the government will have to move fast.

Gwynne Dyer syndicates a column on foreign affairs.

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