Panelists: Assassination aftershocks still shake Israel

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Yitzhak Rabin's assassin was young and religious. He was intelligent and promising. He was one of Israel's very own.

As Israel considers how it could have spawned Yigal Amir, the 25-year-old law student who confessed to killing Rabin, the assassination has coalesced support for the peace process, shaped Israel's current election campaign, and signaled Israel's growing "loss of innocence," said Hebrew University political science Professor Galia Golan.

That was the message from several experts at a panel discussion at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco late last month. Moderated by Sherith Israel's Rabbi Martin Weiner, the panelists — speaking before the terrorist attacks of the past two weeks — said the upcoming Israeli elections hold special significance for the state's future.

"This is the critical, critical time in Israel's history," said panelist Ahavia Scheindlin, director of development and planning at Americans for Peace Now, which helped sponsor the panel.

Israeli Consul General Nimrod Barkan, the third panelist, qualified Scheindlin's assessment, saying he doubted the election would issue a mandate for or against the peace process.

"It will not be a massive decision one way or the other. It will be a decision that will probably enable us to pursue the peace process, but cautiously."

But it was Golan, the headline speaker, who outlined just how Rabin's assassination has solidified the Israeli public's resolve for the peace process.

A consultant of Mideast foreign policy at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Golan said the assassination has intensified discussion over the conflicts between religious law and state law, since Amir said he committed his crime according to religious edicts.

The murder has also engendered greater support for democracy than before, while raising questions about security.

All this contributes to a disillusionment Israelis have increasingly been feeling about themselves over several years of conflicts with the Palestinians, Golan said.

Most of all, however, the assassination has solidified support for peace among those formerly undecided about it, she pointed out.

Before November, about a third of all Israelis had felt uncertain about negotiations with the Palestinians. But Rabin's assassination was so clearly associated with the peace process, Golan said, "this middle third began to think, `Where do I stand?' And the answer was: `Clearly I stand for peace. Clearly what [Rabin] was trying to do was the right thing.'"

Polls from as recently as January (before the latest terror attacks) show that a strong majority of Israelis favor the peace process, she said.

Rabin's assassination has also led the public to examine the rhetoric and the intentions among Israel's political right wing, Golan said.

"Without admitting it," she said, the right wing "had to at least themselves understand that they had contributed to the atmosphere that lead to the assassination."

A few rabbis from the West Bank have indeed come forward and said they let political and religious discourse deteriorate to a point at which they challenged democracy and legitimacy of government, Golan added.

Scheindlin agreed. In fact, "The right wing in Israel has been seriously destabilized in the wake of the Rabin assassination," he said.

According to Scheindlin, the right wing's stature is so seriously diminished in Israel that groups are working their agenda more through American supporters than Israeli backers.

Turning to the peace process, Golan emphasized that support for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations was growing long before the assassination. Citing a gradual dovish trend among Israelis, she said, "What we have here is the solidification of the process that has been taking place for some time."

Even the Likud itself, Israel's main right-wing opposition party, now has to pay lip service to the peace process, although polices under a Likud majority could belie peaceful intentions, Golan said.