Rabin memorial rally held against setting of torn nation

JERUSALEM — Omer Granot, a 21-year-old Israeli officer, attended the rally during a week's leave from his army service in southern Lebanon.

"I came as a citizen and as an officer in the army," he said. "I think the Rabin assassination was the most horrific thing that could happen to a democracy. Even when people disagree, there has to be room for dialogue.

"We still haven't recovered from the assassination, and I don't know whether we ever will. I don't know where we're headed as a country, and it's frightening."

Granot was one of an estimated 200,000 people who attended a memorial rally Saturday night in Tel Aviv to mark the second anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Police estimated that the crowd, which spilled over into the side streets surrounding the square where Rabin was slain, represented one of the largest gatherings ever in Israeli history.

The rally was held against the backdrop of a deeply divided nation, whose political leaders have in recent days been exchanging barbs over the events surrounding the murder and its commemoration.

While rally organizers stressed that the demonstration was apolitical, the demonstration had a clear anti-government tone.

The only member of the government to address the crowd was Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky, who was heckled by some in the crowd when he took the podium.

Referring to the deep political divisions evident at the rally, Sharansky complained in his speech that "many would not feel welcome here."

Rabin's widow, Leah, who was the first speaker at the rally, rejected charges that the political left held the political right responsible for her husband's assassination.

"Stop saying we are blaming half the people. This is wrong. Whoever speaks of half the people is making a desperate effort to divide this nation. We are one people and we have only one country," she said.

Labor leader Ehud Barak described the turnout as a "stamp of honor" for the Israeli public.

He promised in his speech not to let the "flame of peace burn out," and swore "to you, Yitzhak, to lead the way until we bring peace. Until we return to be one people, brothers in destiny."

In the only direct attack on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the speeches, Meretz leader Yossi Sarid called on the prime minister to "go home."

"We've had enough of the lying, the charlatan behavior, the irresponsibility. I promise you, Yitzhak, we will not rest until he resigns," Sarid said.

Oren Yehi Shalom, a leader of Dor Shalom, a pro-peace movement created by Yuval Rabin after his father's assassination, said he regretted Sarid remarks.

"It is too bad they had to be stated in such a way," he said.

Participants at the demonstration said it was inevitable the gathering should take on a political dimension.

"It was a political murder, and the grief belongs to one side," one rally attendee told reporters.

Rabin's successor as prime minister, Shimon Peres, told the crowd: "Two years ago, while Yitzhak was still alive, you restored our faith that the people wanted peace. Tonight you are reopening the way to peace. A leader of Rabin's caliber can be murdered, but cannot be killed. No one can kill his memory, his song, his way," Peres said.

A day after the rally, Netanyahu offered a hand of reconciliation to the left wing.

Addressing the Likud Party convention Sunday night in Jerusalem, Netanyahu called for an end to the recriminations.

"It's time to stop flinging accusations and blame," he said. "It's true we have real differences over how to achieve our goals. But the purpose is the same: peace and security for our people.

"Especially in these days we must extend a hand, and someone must do it first. I am extending a hand for peace and reconciliation to all the people."