What lies ahead for Israel? Peres vs. Netanyahu: Issues bitterly debated before the Rabin assassination remain.


AS ISRAEL EMERGES from a week of mourning the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, its political climate remains charged with the bitter intra-Jewish recriminations that formed the background to the assassination. The prime minister's widow, Leah Rabin, has accused Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud opposition, of having incited violence -- a charge he has repudiated as a form of guilt by association and "McCarthyism." The vision of a nation united in sorrow is fading dramatically.

The political calendar is force-feeding a style of heated debate that Israelis once assumed could be tolerated as a part of their cultural traditions. It will not be easily abandoned even if rhetoric is muted for a decent interval. Too much is at stake. Too much is in the offing.

In January, Yasser Arafat will seek legitimization as leader of the Palestinian people in a first-ever election. In May, negotiations begin on the final status of the Palestinian political entity forming on the West Bank and in Gaza. By late October, Israelis will go to the polls to directly elect a prime minister for the first time.

If it becomes a contest between Mr. Netanyahu and the Labor Party prime minister, Shimon Peres, the issues for which Mr. Rabin gave his life will be at the top of the national agenda:

Should Israel give up land for peace? Does security lie in accommodation with the Palestinians or in continued confrontation? Are the nation's borders a matter of political determination or the will of God?

That the nation's police authorities have been quick to label Mr. Rabin's assassination the product of a "conspiracy" rather the crime of a lone killer on the extreme right is a telling sign of future tension. Americans will remember that the lone-killer syndrome, though later contested, was a calming influence in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. Israel seems destined not to have a similar respite. More arrests may be coming as a full-scale investigation takes form. To the extent the government can link Likud to zealots among Israeli settlers on the West Bank, the political implications will be immense.

Mr. Netanyahu is consequently on the defensive, not least because the in-gathering of world leaders for Mr. Rabin's funeral was a sign of how much the international community supports a peace process the Likud Party opposes.

No Israeli government can afford isolation. Likud will have a tougher task than before to make a persuasive case for its policies. Mr. Peres' mission to foster conciliation with the Arab world has become marginally easier.

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