At the End, the Arch Rivals Were Friends

YITZHAK RABIN and Shimon Peres, life-long political rivals, parted company minutes before Rabin was assassinated with a rare and poignant public display of mutual affection and respect.

Both Rabin and Peres became Nobel Peace laureates for their efforts to promote a rapprochement between Arabs and Jews. Their careers have been so intertwined that their complementary roles form an integral part of Israeli history.

Rabin, the hawkish general and later bold peacemaker who served two terms as Israeli prime minister, twice narrowly defeated Mr Peres for the Labor Party leadership.

But since Rabin won the 1992 election, Peres had buried the hatchet that often led to acrimonious exchanges between the two.

He embraced Rabin in front of a jubilant crowd of more than 100,000 peace supporters about an hour before Rabin was gunned down by a Jewish assassin. It was a long and warm embrace as Peres patted Rabin several times on the back and both men smiled warmly. Israeli observers say it was the first time that the two rivals had ever embraced in public.

When an Israeli reporter asked Rabin whether it was the first time they had embraced, Rabin replied: "I don't remember, but it doesn't matter.... Things change, you see, even in our system. The whole peace process is amazing."

About an hour later the two men joined together in singing the best-known Israeli peace song. Later paying tribute to Rabin after the assassination, Peres said: "It was the first time in his life that he had agreed to sing [publicly]."

He also noted that he had never seen Rabin happier than he was at the massive peace rally where Rabin had urged Israelis to be prepared to take risks for peace.

The two men formed an inseparable team since the Israel-PLO peace talks began in earnest in 1993 with Peres leading the peace negotiations and Rabin giving him increasing support.

Rabin, the down-to-earth Israeli-born general had the confidence of Israelis because of his impressive track record as a general, later military chief-of-staff, and then defense minister.

Peres, the intellectual Polish immigrant who built Israel's arms and nuclear industries, complemented Rabin with a different set of skills as an accomplished diplomat, statesman, and negotiator. But the Labor Party always stopped short of putting their full trust in Peres. That irked him and led to public differences between the two.

In his autobiography, Rabin accused Peres of trying to undermine his first term as prime minister between 1974 and 1977.

Referring to their legendary rivalry in his autobiography, Peres writes that during the campaign for the Labor Party leadership before the 1992 election, "relations between Rabin and myself ... were strained." But Peres insists that after the election he "resolved to set aside personal regrets or resentment and to dedicate myself entirely to the cause of peace."

Their relationship began to flourish, but Peres kept open the option of standing against Rabin in next year's elections.

In paying tribute to Rabin following an emergency Cabinet session where Peres took charge, he said: "I asked myself: If this [assassination] happened to me, what would I want to happen later? ... I have one answer - continue on the path of peace."In the last three years ... he effected a revolution in the positive sense in the Middle East," Peres said.

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