Leah Rabin says Nightline show worsened tensions

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JERUSALEM — The widow of slain Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin said she regretted participating in a special edition of the ABC-TV news program "Nightline" in Jerusalem this week because she said it escalated tensions in Israel.

Leah Rabin, who participated in the broadcast live from the Jerusalem Theater early Wednesday morning via a linkup from her Tel Aviv home, later told Israel Radio the program only served to heighten tensions that have surfaced in Israel in the wake of her husband's Nov. 4 assassination.

The show "exists precisely to fan the flames," she said. "This is not the time yet for such debates and definitely not on our TV screens."

The show, which was simulcast on Israel Television as it was beamed to American audiences late Tuesday night, was moderated by journalist Ted Koppel.

Koppel interviewed panel members from both sides of the political spectrum and sought comments from audience members in the theater in a "Town Meeting," similar to a "Nightline" format he once moderated on the peace process.

Focusing on Israel's political and social climate in the aftermath of the assassination, the program drew millions of viewers, according to the show's producers.

During the show, Rabin explained why she shook hands with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat when he came on a condolence call to her Ramat Aviv home last week, but has expressed reservations about shaking hands with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

"The handshake [of Yitzhak Rabin] two years ago with Yasser Arafat symbolized hope, and the beginning of a new road" toward peace, she said. "The handshake with Mr. Netanyahu did not."

In recent interviews, Rabin has been sharply critical of Netanyahu and other right-wing leaders for permitting hot political rhetoric to escalate against her husband in the weeks prior to the assassination.

Like Rabin, Netanyahu and Acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres took part in the show via linkups from other locations in the country.

Peres, looking drawn and tired, repeated the call for reconciliation.

"We have to stop by all means the acts of violence, the support for terror, whether verbal or physical, and go on," he said.

He also defended his government's right to proceed with a recently signed agreement with the Palestinians, despite the razor-thin approval the pact recently received in the Knesset.

Netanyahu lashed out against the recent government crackdown on extreme right-wing groups, calling it a "sheer witchhunt" that smacked of "McCarthyism at its purest."

He also said Israel's left wing was guilty of name-calling and of blaming the right wing for physical violence, when it had its own history of acerbic verbal attacks against the right.

The studio panel included Likud Knesset member Eliahu Ben-Elissar, former Knesset member Elyakim Ha'etzni, who resides in Kiryat Arba near Hebron, and Efrat leader Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, all of whom represent various shades of right-wing opinion.

Ben-Elissar questioned whether it was proper for the government to make "revolutionary decisions" regarding trading land for peace with the Palestinians when the recent agreement was approved in the Knesset by only one vote.

Representing the left on the panel were Health Minister Ephraim Sneh, Histadrut Secretary-General Haim Ramon and Peace Now activist Janet Aviad.

The panelists were often critical of one another, reflecting the deep divisions among Israelis, despite repeated calls for a period of reconciliation in the wake of the assassination.

Among the audience members participating in the discussion was Esther Waxman, whose son Nachshon Waxman was killed in October 1994 when Israeli commandos attempted to rescue him from three Hamas abductors.

Waxman called on the government to attempt to heal the divisions among Israelis before continuing with the peace process with the Palestinians.

"Peace with our enemies is a mockery when there is no peace with our brothers," she said.