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After Rabin, Arabs hold key to peace


THE "PEACE PROCESS," which for years saw no peace and no process, has now at last delivered some of both in the Middle East. It has done so in large measure because Yitzhak Rabin had the standing, as one of Israel's most celebrated military heroes, to reassure understandably nervous Israelis that he would do nothing to compromise their security. The new prime minister, Shimon Peres, has no military background, has never won a nationwide election for prime minister and is distrusted as a soft-headed dove.

If Rabin had died of a heart attack instead of at the hands of an Israeli assassin, the peace process he shepherded would be far more endangered than it is at this moment. The razor-thin majority the Labor Party had held in favor of agreements with the Palestine Liberation Organization would have been unlikely to survive without Rabin's reassuring presence.

A fanatic's work

But Yigal Amir, the fanatic who arrogated to himself the fate of a man and a nation, may have paradoxically accomplished just the opposite of what he intended. For in pumping those three dumdum bullets into Yitzhak Rabin's back, he instantly created a martyr to peace and gave the peace process far greater momentum than it has ever before enjoyed in Israel.

American reporting of the Rabin assassination has (characteristically) missed the complexity of Israel's dilemma. All foes of Rabin's peace efforts were lumped together with the zealots who spawned Yigal Amir and were depicted as enemies of peace. Commentators were quick to condemn the Israeli right for inflammatory rhetoric, said to create the climate for fanatics like Yigal Amir.

American press reports notwithstanding, Rabin did not shake Yasir Arafat's hand because all was forgiven or even because he believed that Mr. Arafat had fundamentally changed. What he did believe is that Israel had no good alternative.

As Rabin surveyed the landscape in 1991, he saw Israel's options narrowing. The cost, both psychic and material, of maintaining control of over 1.5 million hostile Palestinians was taking its toll on Israeli society. Always willing to do battle to save their nation, Israelis found it demoralizing when their enemies were children and teen-agers flinging stones. Though some on the right did intend to keep Judea and Samaria forever as part of Israel, most Israelis were more than willing to let the land go, if it could be done safely.

Price of peace

The price was dealing with Mr. Arafat, a man whose glorious career consisted of slaughtering Jewish schoolchildren and helpless civilians.

Mr. Arafat, whose influence among Palestinians was waning, seized the opportunity the Israelis offered, and thus the famed meeting on the White House lawn was made possible.

But Chairman Arafat's bonafides are by no means clear even now. He reassures his Arab audiences that the peace accords are a mere stepping stone to the ultimate goal: the destruction of Israel.

What most of the American commentary missed in the past week is this: The future of the peace process now depends not so much on what happens inside Israel but on the Arabs. Israelis will bend over backward to secure the legacy of their martyr -- but only with cooperation from their former enemies.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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