A startling reversal in wake of Rabin death Unprecedented signs of tolerance, desire for peace in Israel


JERUSALEM -- For the moment, at least, the shock of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination has produced signs of a kinder, gentler place.

Yasser Arafat slipped into Tel Aviv Thursday night on a condolence call to the slain prime minister's widow, and there was no uproar about the Palestinian leader's first visit to Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli opposition leader who regularly branded Mr. Arafat a "terrorist," obligingly said that the Palestinian's visit was "understandable."

Twenty-five Jewish settlers from the most right-wing settlements staged a sit-in yesterday joining Palestinians protesting land confiscations by the Israelis.

David Ramati, a Kiryat Arba settler who runs a firing range for his neighbors who regularly threaten to kill Arabs, joined the demonstration and declared -- incredibly -- that "we have a rabbinical opinion that prohibits Jews from taking the lands of non-Jews."

And the perpetual even split in Israeli public opinion over the peace process evaporated, as an opinion poll showed 74 percent of Israelis want the government to forge ahead with the peace plans with Palestinians.

Such unexpected scenes of unity are a sign of the depth of soul-searching going on among Israelis after the first assassination of a prime minister in their history.

It suggests that the blame for Mr. Rabin's assassination is being accepted and shared, to a certain degree, by the wider society, and not simply dismissed as the gunman's lone irrational act.

Indeed, continuing revelations here cast that blame in an ever-larger circle.

Police yesterday brought to court a sixth man arrested in connection with Mr. Rabin's assassination last Saturday.

The arrest bolstered claims by authorities that a significant circle of Israelis knew about the planned murder and may have helped hatch the plot.

"The intent to attack Rabin wasn't short-lived. It prevailed over a prolonged time, and several times" assassinations were attempted, Police Minister Moshe Shahal said yesterday.

"Maybe more times than the three reported so far. The intent [was accompanied] by an infrastructure of several people who were involved in one way or another."

Yigal Amir, who has admitted shooting Mr. Rabin, told police he had stalked the prime minister on several previous occasions with intentions of shooting him, but did not find the right opportunity.

Arrested yesterday was Michael Epstein, 23, a resident of the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan and a friend of Mr. Amir.

A Tel Aviv court ruled that police may keep him another five days without formal charges.

Prosecutor Nissim Daudi said in court that Mr. Amir and Mr. Epstein "were friends who met a lot, talked a lot."

He said Mr. Epstein is suspected of "organizing to attack Arabs, and failure to prevent a crime, in that he knew of the intent to kill the prime minister."

Mr. Amir and four other men already are in custody, though authorities have yet to bring formal charges against any of them.

As the seven-day mourning period for Mr. Rabin ends tomorrow, Israelis still are discussing whether they were negligent in not putting a stop to the calls for "Death to Rabin" that were common among the government's opponents.

The Hebrew daily Yediot Ahronot disclosed that a committee of scholarly rabbis in the West Bank had contemplated issuing a ruling five months ago that would have encouraged the murder of Mr. Rabin.

The rabbis discussed whether the prime minister should be declared a "rodef" or "pursuer" -- in effect, someone attacking Jews.

Such people are considered exceptions in Judaism to the commandment that "thou shalt not kill."

Of 30 rabbis consulted, almost half agreed to the designation, but in the end the matter was dropped, according to the newspaper.

Israeli authorities plan to stage another rally tomorrow night at the plaza in Tel Aviv where Mr. Rabin was gunned down. Leah Rabin, his widow, is supposed to speak to the crowd.

Mr. Arafat's first known visit to Israel came late Thursday night in a secret trip from Gaza to Tel Aviv, where he offered condolences to Mrs. Rabin. He returned to Gaza 90 minutes later.

Mr. Arafat had been pointedly uninvited to the funeral Monday, attended by about 50 other dignitaries.

Government spokesman Uri Dromi, who had said the chairman was not welcome at the funeral, yesterday praised the Palestinian leader's visit as an example of "what Yitzhak Rabin lived and died for -- to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians."

"I think a bereavement meeting is understandable," Mr. Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud bloc, added later.

"I don't think it should be addressed politically."

Mr. Netanyahu was singled out by Mrs. Rabin for his vehement and sharp-tongued criticisms of her husband and the peace policies.

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