Assassination aftermath: Only uncertainties remain

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JERUSALEM — As Israelis ponder life without their slain leader, they are forced to confront uncertainties about Labor Party leadership, tactics of the opposition, and their country's political future.

Another uncertainty is the future of the peace process itself. Likud, the main opposition party, has stated it is not bound by the agreements made by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's government.

Within hours of one of the grimmest moments in the country's history, Israel underwent a smooth transition of leadership.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was named acting prime minister at an emergency Cabinet session shortly after Rabin was killed Saturday night.

The Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, announced that it would not contest the creation of a new Peres-led government.

"In Israel," Netanyahu declared Sunday, "governments change by election, not by murder."

Under current Israeli law, a government is deemed to have resigned with the death of the prime minister, and the president must then consult with the political parties in the Knesset about forming a new government.

Netanyahu said the Likud would recommend that President Ezer Weizman select Peres to form a new government.

Among the other opposition parties in the Knesset, the National Religious Party quickly announced it would follow suit.

Only the ultra-hardline Moledet Party, led by Rehavam Ze'evi, said it would oppose another Labor-led government at this time. But that statement lacked political significance given Likud's gesture.

Netanyahu's action seemed to be sincere. Prior to Monday's funeral, while Rabin's body lay in state outside the Knesset, the nation was apparently in too deep a state of mourning for political gamesmanship.

Yet despite the Likud Party's presumed sincerity, Israeli political commentators could not help but point out the deft, indeed near-brilliant tactical advantage in the Likud's move.

By facilitating the swift creation of a new government, Israel's main opposition party is substantially reducing the prospect of early elections before the regularly scheduled voting in November 1996.

Most pundits agree that Peres' best chance of winning his party's support for prime minister — and of beating Netanyahu at the ballot box — lies in an early election. That way the traumatic memory of the Rabin assassination will still be fresh in the minds of the Israeli public.

Indeed, several leading Labor figures — including Knesset member Hagai Merom, along with party secretary Nissim Zvili — said this week that the party should bring about elections as soon as possible.

If the elections were held soon, the reasoning goes, Peres could run as the champion of peace who is advancing not only his own bold vision but also the political legacy of the martyred Rabin.

Because of his dogged pursuit of the peace process and his close cooperation with Rabin, Peres is believed to have risen in popularity, both within the Labor Party and among the Israeli public at large.

In his meetings with President Clinton, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other world leaders attending Rabin's funeral, Peres reiterated his resolve to press ahead with the peace process despite Rabin's death.

"I see our Arab neighbors, and I want to tell them peace is attainable, both here and with you," Peres said at the funeral Monday. "We are not allowed to postpone or hesitate in reference to peace."

True, Peres ordered a temporary closure of the West Bank for security reasons, and suspended the Israel Defense Force's ongoing redeployment there pending a post-assassination, Cabinet-level reassessment of the situation on the ground.

But he has made it clear that those measures do not signal a slowing of the timetable for extending Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank.

Peres reportedly told French President Jacques Chirac after Monday's funeral that Palestinian elections would take place as scheduled in January.

If early Israeli elections are not held, then Peres will confront dangers on several fronts during the coming year:

*Within the Labor Party, there will likely be increasing momentum to remove the aging Peres in favor of a younger man. Among those who see themselves as suitable candidates for the premiership is Police Minister Moshe Shahal. A stronger candidate could be the leader of the Histadrut labor federation, Haim Ramon, a popular former minister under Rabin who broke away from Labor in 1993 over health reform but is now close to rejoining the party.

*President Weizman has grown increasingly critical of the government's peace policy in recent months. Although his outspoken reservations barely put a dent in his warm relations with the late Rabin, they have created a strain in ties with Peres. Some pundits feel that Weizman may be angling for the prime ministership himself.

*Leah Rabin was deeply affected by the long period of animosity between Rabin and Peres, despite their recent period of working together for peace. The question is whether she would articulate her views and whether they would influence the Labor Party or public opinion.

*The Israeli right wing will presumably recover from the massive blow it has sustained with the murder of Rabin by a religious extremist.

Labor and its allies are pointing to recent, harsh public assaults from the right — including demonstrations against Rabin in which he was branded a traitor and murderer — as inciting the killing or at least fostering the climate for an assassination.

Netanyahu's quick decision to accept the formation of a new Labor-led government was believed to be an attempt to deflect that potentially devastating attack on the entire right.

He and advisers will need to come up with additional actions in the weeks ahead to strengthen their image.

That will become increasingly important as the election campaign heats up. Netanyahu has made it clear he does not feel bound by the recent agreements reached between Israel and the Palestinians.

If Likud and the other parliamentary parties need to bolster their public personas, that is all the more true with the Yesha Council, the main extraparliamentary organization articulating pro-settler activities and opinions.

Council leaders took to the airwaves within minutes of the assassination, claiming that the confessed killer was not part of their movement. More importantly, they maintained he could not have drawn his inspiration from their movement's ideology.

In a somber irony of fate, those who declared for three years that the Rabin government and its policies had delegitimized them now find themselves facing a massive wave of delegitimization, led by the left-wing parties and the media, that could debilitate their political effectiveness and indeed threaten their very existence.

Some settlement figures suggested Sunday that the assassination would ultimately lead to the removal of Jewish settlements in the West Bank because of that inevitable sapping of the settlers' strength.