World Honors a Shepherd of Peace; Players Vow to Keep Rabin's Legacy

US sees peace process moving ahead, but frets over regional instability

DISMAYED by news of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, policymakers and diplomatic analysts in Washington have nevertheless found solace in three facts:

*The assassin was not an Arab. Had he been, the Middle East peace process for which Rabin was martyred on Saturday would have been thrown into disarray.

*The government of Israel has passed to a figure - acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres - who fully supports the peace process, well-known to US policymakers, and has a cordial working relationship with the Palestinian and other Arab leaders that will be needed to continue moving the peace process forward.

*The peace process has reached sufficient maturity that it is not likely to collapse in the absence of the man who was its chief architect.

"At the moment, the peace process is in an implementation mode and not a bargaining mode," says Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "There are no active negotiations that would require Rabin's personal stature to go to closure."

That said, news of the untimely murder of the man who changed the course of Israeli and modern Middle East history was greeted in Washington and around the world with sorrow and disbelief.

"The world has lost one of its greatest men," a visibly saddened President Clinton said Saturday. Secretary of State Warren Christopher described Rabin as a "towering man" who dedicated his life to the cause of peace.

Memorable meetings

Messrs. Christopher and Clinton last met with Rabin in Washington in late September, where they were joined by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for a White House ceremony to launch the second phase of a 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. After paying tribute to the slain Israeli leader Saturday, they boarded Air Force One to attend Rabin's funeral, which will be held today in Jerusalem.

Asked to size up the implications of Rabin's assassination, analysts agree that, in the short term at least, it may strengthen the movement toward peace. In the past two years this process has led Israel to a full peace with Jordan, a partially implemented peace with Palestinians, Israel's first serious peace discussions with Syria, and the opening of economic and political ties with other Arab states.

In Israel, Saturday's assassination has solidified public support for the Oslo agreement, under which Israel has granted limited autonomy to Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

It also will likely mute the strident criticism that has come from the opposition Likud Party leaders, analysts say. The right-wing Likud Party has harshly derided Rabin for jeopardizing Israel's security.

"For a while at least, Likud will have to be temperate in the way it opposes the government," says William Quandt, a former Carter administration official who played a leading role in the 1977 Camp David negotiations that led to peace between Israel and Egypt.

But over the longer term, Rabin's Labor Party - and the peace process it has spearheaded - could be hurt by Rabin's departure.

A lifelong soldier and war hero, Rabin was trusted by most Israelis to make peace with Israel's Arab neighbors. He offered the best chance for Labor to win reelection in next year's national elections.

His successor, the more liberal Mr. Peres, is regarded by many Israelis as a less reliable custodian of Israeli security and could fare worse in a campaign in which Likud is expected to exploit the concerns that have attended peacemaking.

Likewise, any of the younger generation of Labor leaders would bring less experience and visibility to a campaign for prime minister in the unlikely event that Peres decides to stand down.

Likud Party rule

Under the agreement initialed at the White House last month, Israel will continue withdrawing troops from major population centers in the West Bank, setting the stage for first-ever Palestinian elections to a governing council.

If a Likud government should be elected, it will almost certainly slow implementation of the agreement and impose far stricter limits on Palestinian self-rule. The Likud Party would be a much more reluctant participant in talks on the final status of the two territories that are scheduled to begin next May.

The effects of Rabin's death could be felt most in Israel's negotiations with Syria. At issue between the two countries is the strategic Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. No breakthrough was imminent with Syria.

But Rabin was preparing his countrymen for the day when Israel would give up the Golan in return for peace with the Jewish state's most intractable front-line enemy.

Analysts in Washington say that it is doubtful that any successor would have the authority - or in the case of the Likud Party, the inclination - to give up territory that many, perhaps most, Israelis value more than peace with Syria.

"No doubt it will be more difficult for another Labor Party leader to make the concessions on the Golan that Rabin himself was loathe to make, but was on the verge of making," says Mr. Satloff. "The Syria track was cool before. That track will be frigid now."

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