ISRAELI Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin has become the nemesis of Palestinians for his tough tactics to put down the nearly two-year-old uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Yet now, ironically, it is Mr. Rabin who could open the door for Palestinians to gain at the bargaining table at least some of what they have yet to win with the intifadah.
Without a breakthrough soon, current diplomatic efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will fail. All eyes are on the 67-year-old former prime minister, who holds in his hands the fate of these efforts, and of Israel's year-old coalition government as well.
Regarded by many as the de facto leader of Israel's Labor Party, Rabin convinced Labor to form a second ``national unity government'' with the Likud Party of Premier Yitzhak Shamir.
But an Egyptian plan for Israeli-Palestinian talks in Cairo has strained the coalition to the breaking point.
Mr. Shamir, who this week rejected Egypt's plan, said it would eventually force Israel to deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which demands establishment of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories.
Rabin says the Cairo talks offer the only chance to salvage Israel's own peace initiative, which calls for the election of Palestinians to negotiate the future status of the territories with Israel.
All of Israel, it seems, now waits as Rabin decides whether to force a showdown that could open the way to the first direct negotiations ever between Israelis and Palestinians.
Rabin has managed to reclaim center stage in Israel despite several missteps, including a minor scandal that forced him to resign as prime minister in 1977.
Since then, the former army chief of staff and ambassador to Washington has continually vied for party leadership with Shimon Peres, now Israel's vice premier.
The key to Rabin's current popularity is the essential pragmatism he brings to the highly polarized politics of Israel. He occupies the ideal middle ground, one political analyst says, between the dovish ``Peres, who wants to talk to [PLO chairman Yasser] Arafat and Ariel Sharon who wants to kill him.'' Mr. Sharon is the hawkish trade minister.
Asked about Rabin's political outlook, Knesset colleagues describe a visceral Zionist who, nevertheless, believes that Israel can neither retain its democracy nor humanistic values while ruling indefinitely over the territories.
Although opposed to concessions under pressure, Rabin has consistently advocated relinquishing control over areas of the West Bank and Gaza densely populated by Arabs while retaining points of strategic importance to Israel, including Jerusalem.
Moreover, in a break with Shamir, Rabin has welcomed Egypt's plan for Israeli-Palestinian talks as a logical first step toward the West Bank and Gaza elections called for in Israel's own peace initiative.
Rabin believes that Israel will never have peace unless it talks to Palestinians, and that it will never be able to talk to Palestinians unless the PLO is allowed an indirect role.
Accordingly, he has agreed to indirect PLO representation in a Palestinian delegation, by including non-residents of the occupied territories. His assumption is that once the peace process actually begins, Palestinians from the territories will start to take over the PLO's leadership role.
Ten talking points proposed by Egypt to serve as the basis for negotiations require Israel to accept neither a direct PLO role, the principle of a Palestinian state, nor an all-parties Mideast peace conference. Rabin believes Israel has everything to gain and nothing to lose by seizing the opening Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has provided.
Rabin's flexibility has has reportedly angered Shamir. But it has also given the defense minister the broad appeal on which he will now seek to trade as he contemplates his next political moves.
``Rabin is seen as a hawk on security issues and as a dove on political issues,'' notes Israeli journalist Shlomo Nakdimon. ``The hawk appeals to parts of the Likud while the dove in him appeals to Labor. He's managed to create a middle of the road for himself.''
``He looks like a credible person,'' adds one political analyst who describes why Rabin, while short on personal charisma, remains attractive to Israeli voters. ``When Shamir and Peres talk, you think they're hiding something. Rabin is a person who looks in your eyes and tells you what's in his heart. He's not a great speaker but he's not cheating. There are no tricks with Rabin.''
But if Rabin is positioned for political gains, he also faces major political risks. According to analysts, whether he now decides to force a showdown over the Mubarak proposals will depend on three considerations.
One is whether pulling out of the government appears likely to result in a smooth change of leadership, without a public fight with Mr. Peres that would destroy Labor's chances in new elections.
Despite the anger of many party liberals over Rabin's brutal tactics to quell the uprising, the party is clearly hungry for a substitute for Peres, who has presided over a decade of electoral defeats.
The second is whether Rabin concludes that Labor has a chance of winning new elections. Rabin loyalists were buoyed by the results of a Likud poll, leaked to the Israeli press last month, showing that in the hypothetical case of direct elections for prime minister, Rabin would be the only opponent capable of posing a serious challenge to Shamir.
But party leaders also understand that in the event of new elections, Labor would be subject to damaging if partly misleading charges by Likud that Labor was the party willing to talk to the PLO and give up Israeli territory.
In the last analysis, Rabin's decision will come down to whether he is convinced that, as the clear obstacle to peace, Likud, not Labor, would bear the onus for the dismantling of the coalition, political analysts say.
``Rabin will decide to break up the government only when he's more than 100 percent sure there's no way Likud will respond to any suggestion to begin association with Palestinians,'' says Knesset member Haim Ramon. ``If Likud is against any dialogue with Palestinians under the auspices of Mubarak, that will bring him very close to such a point.''
Even as Rabin weighs these options, efforts are underway to fashion a compromise before Israel's inner cabinet meets next week to discuss the Mubarak plan.
One proposal is to convene Israeli and Egyptian teams to iron out differences in the Mubarak plan as a prelude to direct Israeli-Palestinian talks.
Another is to insist that Palestinian negotiators renounce terrorism and the PLO charter, which indirectly calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. A less likely alternative is holding a popular referendum on whether to enter talks with Palestinians on the basis of Mubarak's proposals.
But in an address Wednesday, Shamir all but closed the door to compromise, saying the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue called for by Mubarak would constitute ``talks of capitulation.''