THE likely impact of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's death on the Middle East peace process will be to slow it down over the long run. In order to comprehend why this is probable, several points need to be better understood.
First, recent polls in Israel show that support for the peace process has increased nearly 20 percentage points. That is expected. Respect for Rabin alone could cause such a reaction.
Under certain conditions, however, Shimon Peres, Israel's interim prime minister, may have difficulty beating Binyamin Netanyahu, the young, hard-line chairman of the opposition Likud Party, in Israel's 1996 elections. Because of recent legal changes, Israelis will for the first time vote directly for prime minister. This means that Mr. Peres, who is now trying to amend or postpone this law, cannot become prime minister just because his party does well at the polls. This puts greater emphasis on Peres the man.
Peres, with whom my father served in Israeli politics in the 1960s, is a good man. Contrary to some reports, he also has military credentials, which he needs to play up now if he is to have a fair chance. He was Defense Ministry director-general, deputy defense minister, and defense minister, and he helped build Israel's conventional and nuclear programs, primarily through procurement of military materials. But he is not a war hero and is not widely trusted in Israel. Thus he will have a harder time selling peace to Israelis prior to the 1996 elections, and also may suffer at the polls.
Second, the Labor Party lacks ready leaders who can fill Rabin's shoes or beat Mr. Netanyahu, unless Netanyahu, who now faces his own death threats, is tainted for failing to condemn more strongly the verbal attacks on Rabin. At a minimum, this means Labor must cultivate young leaders in order to compete politically.
Ehud Barak, former Israeli chief of staff, is a rising star and a military hero. Peres would do well to elevate him to defense minister, a job previously held by Rabin. This would help Peres woo Israeli fence-sitters who view him as too liberal. It may also strengthen Mr. Barak within Labor, making Peres and younger Labor leaders uncomfortable.
Down the road, Barak himself may win elections. However, like Colin Powell, he needs to demonstrate political savvy with the Israeli public and within his own party, where he lacks seniority.
Third, the peace process is unlikely to be reversed and may even accelerate in the short term. The Oslo I and II accords are history; Israeli tradition is to honor such agreements. The Rabin legacy and international pressure will militate against reversing the process. So will the fact that the Middle East has become much more interdependent since the Gulf war.
To be sure, there is a powerful fringe group of Jewish fundamentalists who share some views with Likud. Yet despite the false impression created by the Rabin murder, Israelis have increasingly supported the peace process. In 1988, a random sampling of 1,200 Israelis showed that, by a margin of 64 percent to 32 percent, they would not negotiate with the PLO, even if it renounced terrorism and recognized Israel's right to exist. In a September 1995 poll, Israelis supported the Interim Agreement (Oslo II) by 51 percent to 47 percent. Moreover, in March 1995, 63.6 percent of Israelis did not believe the PLO was carrying out the Oslo agreement - by July that was down to 45.3 percent.
What do these points suggest? It appears Peres's success will depend on at least four issues:
*First, to what extent can he, or a younger Labor leader, be elevated in the collective Israeli mind? Such action will require substantial political spin, cooperation within the divisive Labor Party, and a tougher approach to the peace process by Peres. Israelis will vote on gut issues like security - Peres must gain their trust, despite his dovish reputation and his proclivity to move quickly on the peace process.
*Second, can Netanyahu, who as head of the Likud Party has been accused of contributing to the tense atmosphere preceding Rabin's assassination, emerge relatively untainted from the assassination? Probably, but he may be weakened enough to make a coalition government possible, particularly if Peres cannot elevate himself among Israeli voters.
*Third, how significant will be future terrorist attacks against Israelis? The greater the level of terrorism, the weaker Peres becomes, especially if Rabin's memory slowly fades.
*Fourth, can Peres get peace concessions from Arab leaders, so as to ease Israeli fears? This may be difficult if they doubt that he can deliver and are therefore wary of taking political risks.
The good news is that a bedrock of support for the peace process has been building in Israel for some time. Under the right conditions, it can be tapped. But whether these conditions develop in the telling months ahead remains to be seen.