Israel Tries to Walk Rabin's Peace Path

Peres's political choices in days ahead could keep continuity

THE assassination of Yitzhak Rabin has tipped Israeli public opinion further toward Middle East peace but has also created new uncertainties, fears, and potential pitfalls, say political analysts and diplomats.

The toughest and most immediate decisions for acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres are whether to call an early election, how to deal with right-wing resistance to the peace process, and who should have key Cabinet slots.

''He will have to be careful not to let his inclinations show,'' says Israeli historian Benny Morris, noting that Mr. Peres was a convert to seeking peace with Palestinians long before Rabin.

''Mr. Peres might have difficulty following his inclinations because his public image is more rubbery than that of Mr. Rabin [a military hero] and he is perceived as being soft on the Arabs,'' he adds. ''The government will be tilted leftward with the succession of Shimon Peres as prime minister.''

Analysts say that in trying to compensate for his softer image, Peres was likely to retain the circle of military advisers that influenced Rabin.

''One lesson Peres has learned from Rabin is the importance of keeping the upper echelons of the military involved in the political decisionmaking process,'' says Gershon Baskin, Israeli co-director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information.

According to Western diplomats, Peres told visiting American congressmen Nov. 6 that he had decided against calling an early election and would stick to the scheduled date of November next year.

''If an election was to be held tomorrow, the [right-wing] Likud opposition would be lucky to win 10 percent of the vote,'' Mr. Morris says, noting that election preparations in Israel take at least three months.

''The memory of Mr. Rabin's assassination will be more of a blur a year from now but I think, on balance, the assassination will still work to the advantage of the left,'' he says.

The arguments in favor of an early election are to capitalize on the massive shift of public opinion toward honoring Rabin's legacy by speeding up the peace process.

An early election would also secure the Peres administration another five years in office to see through the Israel-PLO peace accord and clinch a peace deal with Syria over the Golan Heights.

The arguments against an early election are that it could be disruptive coming so soon after Rabin's assassination and would not give Peres time to consolidate his leadership of the Labor Party.

Defense post will be key

According to analysts, Peres has not yet decided whether to retain the key defense portfolio held by Rabin or hand it to Interior Minister Ehud Barak, the former military chief of staff.

In the center-right politically, Mr. Barak could toughen Peres's image, reassure the generals, and open opportunities for the new prime minister to make other appointments from his own camp.

The most likely contender for the interior ministry is left-of-center Haim Ramon, the Labor Party heavyweight who currently heads the Histadrut labor federation.

Peres could hand the foreign ministry to Yossi Beilin, a key figure in the peace talks who now heads the economics ministry but rose to prominence under Peres in the foreign ministry.

Sticking with the timetable

The most immediate impact of Rabin's sudden death was the outpouring of sympathy and goodwill from Arab leaders like Jordan's King Hussein and Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak who visited Jerusalem for the first time.

The presence of the foreign ministers of Gulf states like Oman and Qatar also indicate that sympathetic Arab countries, which have not yet established diplomatic relations with Israel, could now move to fully normalize relations with the Jewish state.

Peres is likely to concentrate on implementing peace agreements that have already been signed rather than initiating any new concessions, analysts say.

Peres told world leaders who held talks with him after the Rabin funeral that he was committed to continue implementing the peace.

But Economics Minister Beilin, a close Peres ally, was more outspoken. ''Why should we advance the elections after what happened?'' he asked. ''Why should we give a prize to the assassins?''

Mr. Beilin said that for the Labor Party government, winning peace was more important than winning elections.

Peres is likely to stick to the timetable approved by Rabin for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank and the extension of Palestinian autonomy ahead of Palestinian elections scheduled for Jan. 20 next year.

''But there could be a renewed effort to move forward on a peace accord with Syria,'' Mr. Baskin says.

One area where Peres could move further than Rabin is on the issue of Jewish settlers on the West Bank. ''Rabin refused to do anything to change the status of the settlers because he saw their presence as a bargaining chip and did not believe he had a mandate from the public to d

o anything,'' Baskin says.

''Peres could decide to create mechanisms which would make it possible for the settlers to move and be consolidated - for instance by offering compensation to those who want to leave,'' he adds.

Under the Israel-PLO peace accord the status of some 130,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank is to be decided only when final status negotiations begin next May.

But the settlers, and the plethora of extreme right-wing organizations in their midst, have emerged as the backbone of the resistance to implementing the peace accord. Peres already has indicated that his government will not tolerate the kind of violations of the law and public incitement that many Israelis say led to Rabin's assassination.

Interior Minister Barak has already signalled a crackdown on extreme right-wing elements.

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