TOP Arab and international leaders will arrive here today to pay tribute to Israel's slain warrior-turned-peacemaker and console a stunned nation by endorsing Yitzhak Rabin's legacy of peace.
Israeli and world reaction to his assassination at a Tel Aviv peace rally Saturday night indicates that the Israeli prime minister will be honored by an unprecedented display of national unity and a renewed determination to pursue Middle East peace.
But the shattered nation has been deeply affected by Rabin's assassination by a fellow Jew. The killing followed months of protest and civil disobedience by Israeli right-wing groups in which Rabin was repeatedly vilified as a "traitor" and "murderer" and posters portraying him as Hitler were frequently displayed by right-wing protesters.
In the wake of the assassination, public sentiment has already swung dramatically against the right wing, which is likely to tone down its rhetoric and actions in coming months.
Western diplomats say that the threat of right-wing violence has increased since the right wing's campaign against the extension of Palestinian authority over the past few months has run out of steam and levels of frustration and anger have increased.
Until now, supporters of the Middle East peace process had sought to outmaneuver the right wing rather than crack down on it.
But acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres's transition government has already begun to take security precautions to contain what is likely to be a period of internal turmoil.
Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat said he would not attend the funeral for fear of complicating what already promises to be a security nightmare.
His aides indicated that fear for Mr. Arafat's security had also played a role in the decision.
The funeral at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl Cemetery today will be attended by President Clinton and two Arab leaders who have thus far avoided visiting the contested Israeli capital - Jordan's King Hussein and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Shocked Israelis paid their last respects to Rabin at the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, yesterday.
President Ezer Weizman is expected to wait until after the funeral today before holding negotiations on setting up a new government and naming a new defense minister, the key portfolio which Rabin had held since his election for his second term as prime minister in 1992.
The most likely candidate is Interior Minister and former Israeli Defense Force chief of staff Ehud Barak.
Analysts say that the impact of the assassination on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, delicately poised for the extension of Palestinian autonomy to the West Bank, will largely depend on whether Peres decides to call an early election ahead of the scheduled date in November next year.
"If there are early elections it might conceivable cause a freeze in the process," says Israeli political scientist Joseph Alpher.
"On the the other hand, it [Rabin's assassination] might cause a wave of support for the peace process," he added.
Rabin is the first Israeli leader to be assassinated since the state of Israel was founded in 1948 and is believed to be the first Israeli official ever killed by a fellow Israeli in an act of political violence.
The suspected assassin, who was arrested by a huge contingent of police at the Tel Aviv peace rally, is Yigal Amir, a fourth-year law student at Bar-Ilan University, a mainstream institution whose students are made up mainly of religious Jews.
He appears to have been a loner who was not acting on behalf of any known right-wing organization but his deed is widely seen as an act inspired by the collective hysteria directed at Rabin by right wing groups.
Mr. Peres, who had been keeping open his option of standing against Rabin in next year's national elections, could be hard-pressed to assert his leadership and preserve a government which holds a one-vote majority in the Knesset.
But his task will be eased by the gesture of Nintamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud opposition party, who said yesterday that the Likud would not seek to prevent Peres from forming a new government.
"In a democracy a government is changed by elections and not by murder," said Mr Netanyahu, who had earlier described the Rabin assassination as "one of the worst tragedies in the history of the state."
Capturing the spirit of mourning world leaders, South African President Nelson Mandela, who was due to visit Israel and the Palestinian autonomy for the first time next year. He called on Israelis and Palestinians to honor the memory of Rabin by pursuing their peace process with renewed vigor.
"We lower our flags in tribute to Prime Minister Rabin, a true peacemaker who has fallen at the hands of forces of blind bigotry," Mr. Mandela said.
Two of the most moving tributes to Rabin came from the two leaders who shared with him the 1994 Nobel Peace prize for their joint efforts in promoting peace between Arab and Jew - acting Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Peres and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.
A visibly pale and shocked Mr. Arafat expressed the hope that Israelis and Palestinians together would be able to overcome "this tragedy against the peace process."
"I am very sad and very shocked by this terrible crime against a great Israeli leader and an architect of peace," Arafat said.
"There is nothing else we can do as comrades, as friends, but to continue a great road paved by a great leader," Peres told reporters after an emergency session of the Israeli Cabinet early Sunday, at which Peres declared a transition government in line with the Israeli Constitution.
A 'rare leader'
"He was a rare leader in Jewish history," said Peres of his life-long colleague and political rival.
Rabin was gunned down with three bullets fired at point-blank range as he got into his official automobile. He had just made his most impassioned plea ever to a gathering of thousands of Israelis, urging them to take risks for peace.
About 90 minutes before he was assassinated he told the jubilant crowd of peace supporters: "I was a military man for 27 years. I waged war as long as there was no chance for peace."
"I believe there is now a chance for peace, a great chance, and we must take advantage of it for those standing here and for those who are not here - and they are many," Rabin added.
"I have always believed that the majority of people want peace and are ready to take a chance for peace."
"Violence erodes the basis of Israeli democracy," Rabin said.
"It is not the way of the State of Israel. It should be condemned and wisely expunged and isolated."
Idea of peace remains
The normally serious Rabin was in unusually high spirits and smiled frequently during the rally. After Peres had spoken, the two political rivals engaged in a rare public embrace, patting each other on the back and smiling broadly.
"You can kill a man, you can kill the words of a song but you cannot kill the great and noble idea of peace," Peres said later Saturday night in a tribute to Rabin.
Israeli police said the assassin had expressed no remorse for his deed during interrogation which he said he had "planned for some time."
Amir told police he had "received instructions from God."
Police sources said he had contemplated shooting Rabin on two previous occasions but decided against it.
Rabin, who served two terms as Israel's Prime Minister from 1974 to 1977 and 1992 to 1995, was the country's only Israeli-born prime minister.
His career was marked by several seminal events: the victorious campaign he laid as military chief of staff against the combined Arab army in the 1967 Six-Day War, and the signing of the Israel-PLO peace accord in Washington in October 1993 and the second phase last month with his arch-enemy, Arafat.
The only voices to welcome Rabin's assassination were militant Islamic groups such as the Islamic Jihad, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), the Iranian-backed insurgency in Lebanon (the Hizbollah) and the Iranian government.
Rabin's death came 10 days after the Damascus-based Islamic Jihad leader Fathi Shikaki was assassinated by the Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service, in Malta on his way to urge Libyan President Moammar Khaddafi to stop expelling Palestinians from Libya.
The German weekly news magazine, Der Spiegel, reported today that Rabin personally gave the orders for Shikaki's elimination after the Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing near Tel Aviv that claimed the lives of 21 Israeli soldiers in January this year.
"I do not regret the death of the foremost head of terrorism in the world," said Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, Shikaki's successor as head of the Islamic Jihad.