A force for peace
THE death of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin must not be in vain. Having paid with his life for the peace process he helped instigate, his countrymen and the whole of the Middle East can best honour Mr Rabin's memory by accelerating the search for a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the short term that process may be set back, as the assassin, Yigal Amir, no doubt intended. The deep sense of shock which Israelis now feel, despite being inured by almost 50 years of war and terrorism, will almost certainly paralyse the decision-making process for the time being.
Mr Rabin's murder also leaves a huge void which cannot easily be filled. As the commander-in-chief who led Israeli armed forces to victory in the 1967 war and the defence minister who vowed to 'break the bones' of Palestinian protesters during the intifada uprising, he was in a unique position to reassure a nervous public that peace would never be allowed to jeopardise the security of the Jewish state.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, installed now as acting Prime Minister and virtually certain to replace Mr Rabin, does not enjoy the same stature. This is ironic, since he more than anyone else has been the chief Israeli architect of the peace process. But Mr Peres still lacks the full confidence of the Israeli public, who have rejected him in general elections four times. The Labour Party was only able to regain power after it replaced him with Mr Rabin as leader in 1992.
New consensus Amid the shock, the hope must be that the long-term effect of the assassination will be to forge a new national consensus behind the peace process as Mr Rabin's enduring legacy to his country. That would make progress on the peace front something which no Israeli politician of any rational persuasion could easily oppose.
Had it been a Palestinian who fired the fatal bullets, there would have been no chance of such progress. But, tragically, the fact that the assassin was a Jewish extremist may ultimately prove a spur to the process for which Mr Rabin died.
By his act, Amir has finally put those of his ilk 'beyond the pale', as opposition Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday. That comment was significant, for Likud regularly attacked Mr Rabin's negotiation of peace agreements and flirted with extremist opponents not dissimilar to Amir. Yet Mr Netanyahu has never unequivocally called for the scrapping of the peace process, and may now find it politically impossible to do so during next year's election campaign.
Nor should Mr Peres' lack of charisma necessarily bar him from leading Israel further down the path to peace, if a sufficiently strong spirit of national unity is forged by this tragedy. When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, also by opponents of Middle East peace, the general belief was that his low-profile successor, Hosni Mubarak, would be lucky to survive in office more than a few months. But Mr Mubarak is still President, showing how peace agreements can often prove stronger than those who seek to defeat them with violence.
No delay The main lesson to be learned from this tragedy is the need to move decisively against the small band of right-wing extremists who constitute one of the main obstacles to peace. Had this been done earlier, Mr Rabin might still be alive. Now the myth that Jew will not kill Jew has been so cruelly shattered, there can be no further delay.
Just as a settler's massacre of 29 Arabs in a Hebron mosque last year led to the banning of two of the most extreme groups, this assassination should prompt a broader effort to eradicate the more fanatical elements in Israeli society. The gun-toting West Bank settlers, whose cause Amir so strongly supported, must be disarmed. The small number, whose insistence on remaining in the heart of Hebron almost stalled the peace process, should be evicted, by force if necessary.
Foreign governments must also help by offering their strong support for the continuation of the peace process. The Clinton administration has a vital role to play, as one of the few outside parties to enjoy some trust from both Israelis and Arabs. No one should be distracted by the few militant Palestinians who have tried to create trouble by welcoming the assassination. Those who count among Israel's enemies, such as Syria, have so far remained pointedly silent.
The deeply emotional tones in which the rest of the world has offered its condolences already guarantees Mr Rabin a place in the history books. In death, as in life, he can act as a force for peace.