TEL AVIV, Israel - Kathleen Kennedy Townsend ended a two-week trip to a tense and anxious Israel yesterday with a tribute to the slain Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, whom she likened to her assassinated father as a leader who inspired courage in his citizens.
Defying the U.S. State Department's travel warnings to the public, Maryland's lieutenant governor came here with her husband and three of her four daughters for a family vacation followed by a series of official meetings, where she was joined by a group of Baltimore and Washington-area Jewish leaders.
Her visit during a traumatic period of conflict recalled the late Robert F. Kennedy's arrival here in 1948, when the young Harvard graduate covered Israel's war against surrounding Arab states for the Boston Post.
Townsend's last stop was Rabin Square in downtown Tel Aviv, where she placed a wreath at the black rock memorial erected at the site of the prime minister's 1995 assassination by a Jewish extremist opposed to ceding land to the Palestinians.
Afterward, she gave the first Robert Kennedy Memorial Lecture at a research center set up in Rabin's name.
Joining her at the memorial and on stage was Rabin's daughter Dahlia, like Townsend a politician trying to carry on her father's legacy.
During three months of explosive Israeli-Palestinian violence that has killed more than 350 people, a number of American Jewish leaders have come here to show solidarity with Israelis, but Townsend's visit was one of very few by a U.S. public official.
Townsend said she was "proud to be here in person, with my husband, David, and our children, to stand with Israel during this critical and uncertain moment in its history."
Her visit coincided not only with continued bloodshed in the West Bank and Gaza but also with a final, increasingly hopeless push by President Clinton to forge a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians before he leaves office in less than two weeks.
In her speech, Townsend steered clear of the bitterly contentious issues in the negotiations, but warned that true peace wouldn't come easily.
"Peace is no Garden of Eden; no perfect space free of care and conflict. It will take constant vigilance and patience, and the work may never be finished," she said.
"Last week, I met a man at a kibbutz who told me that years ago, his young son asked him about his army service. He told his son, 'I'm in the military, but you won't have to be.' Well, this year, his son joined the Israeli Defense Forces."
She quoted the speech Rabin gave when he won the Nobel Peace Prize: "To preserve the sanctity of life, we must sometimes risk it."
Rabin and her father both understood that idealism on its own "is an empty promise," she said, and had to rest on "a foundation of stark honesty and hard work." While Rabin went from commanding an army to peacemaking, Robert Kennedy helped steer the United States through the Cuban missile crisis and later campaigned for the White House pledging to stop the Vietnam War.
"Each represented the essence of leadership: To lead a people through conflict in a moral way toward a moral end," she said. "Not be led by the masses, and not even merely to set a noble direction. What is required is to build coalitions, equip citizens for the journey, to teach and show what must be done, and give them the courage to try."
Robert Kennedy's 1948 visit "cemented his support for Israel," which continued through his presidential campaign when he backed the sale of 50 Phantom jets to the Jewish state.
Cause for killing
"Due to that stance, he lost his life," Townsend said. Kennedy's assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, a native Palestinian, later cited Kennedy's support for military aid to Israel as one of his reasons for targeting the senator.
Dahlia Rabin-Philosof, a member of parliament, said she was struck by their vastly different personal backgrounds when the two met for the first time Sunday night at the home of U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk.
But when Townsend spoke, Rabin-Philosof said, "It was as if you were expressing my exact thoughts and feelings."
"Indeed, there is a bond between us - born out of the trauma of losing a father at the hands of a political assassin."
At the dinner, Townsend jokingly remarked that if it weren't for Israel, she wouldn't have been born. Before her father's trip to Israel in 1948, he had a crush on a woman. While he was gone, that woman married someone else, and when he returned to the United States, Robert Kennedy began courting Townsend's mother, Ethel Skakel Kennedy.