Tracing Rabin's Great Change

THE last time I saw Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was at a breakfast on Sept. 29 after his third signing of a peace pact in the White House. He had talked to President Clinton about many things, about a presidential trip to Israel and about the chances of clemency for Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. But uppermost in his mind was the danger to the peace process from extremists, from what he called the ''crazies on both sides,'' the kind that would make suicide attacks on Israeli buses, the kind that would shoot up a mosque in Hebron.

Rabin said there was no real answer to the menace of those who would sacrifice their own lives in acts of terrorism. I doubt there entered his mind the possibility of his dying at the hands of a Jew, despite all the inflammatory propaganda against him. The idea of a Jew killing a Jew was until now inconceivable. Now Israel knows the kind of fear of regicide that isolates our White House behind concrete slabs and closed streets.

What made Rabin vulnerable was what made him great. In the pursuit of Palestinian peace he had stepped totally out of character. He was the one who had fought Israel's wars against the Arabs with gusto, and as defense minister had cracked down relentlessly on the intifadah with the famous slogan attributed to him, ''I will break their bones.'' Who could have foreseen that the scourge of the Arabs would become the peacemaker? And so, like Lincoln, he was hated by fanatics more because he was deemed a traitor to his own kind.

I had known Rabin since he came to Washington as ambassador in 1968. In 1972, he violated diplomatic protocol by endorsing President Nixon for reelection in an interview with Israeli radio. In the ensuing flap, he indicated no remorse. He wanted American Jewish voters to know that Nixon was considered a friend of Israel and George McGovern was not. McGovern was advocating pressure on Israel to talk peace to the unrecognized Palestinian Liberation Organization, and that, said Rabin, would never happen.

Some 20 years later, it happened. And Rabin did it. And Rabin paid for it with his life.

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