A FRIEND of mine likes to repeat an anecdote about the summer he worked in a bread factory. Working in the bread factory was one of the best jobs he ever had, he says: no worries, good pay, and, from time to time, a chance to reflect on human nature.
The highlight of the day in the bread factory, he says, was when the man in blue overalls appeared, unannounced, at the end of the assembly line. Suddenly, everyone would chant: ''Here comes the magic man, here comes the magic man.'' With that, the magic man would mount a platform over the assembly line, push a few buttons, and bingo - what was once one brand of bread, complete with blue labels and a smiling maiden, was suddenly another, with smiling children and an entirely different label.
''So now I always smile when I look at the bread shelf at the grocery store,'' my friend says, ''because I know that, with some exceptions, most of the bread is the same. It might be 'new and enriched,' or just 'enriched,' but it's the same bread. The only difference is that the magic man would push different buttons.''
The anecdote has a certain relevance to the life of Yitzhak Rabin, who has been portrayed over the past week as a man transformed. We marvel at the way he changed - from the leader of an underground movement to the head of an army, from ambassador to prime minister, from ''Mr. Security'' to the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. But in truth, Yitzhak Rabin never changed at all. He was - first, last, and always - an Israeli patriot. And therein lies the real tragedy of his death.
Rabin was the magic man. He grew up as a young Zionist and, after a flirtation with a life as a farmer, joined the Zionist Palmach, the Jewish underground army. Over the next 30 years, he fought, in succession, the British, Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, and Palestinians. In the end, he would have fought even those in Israel who, in his estimation, threatened the life of the nation. But he was always the same man: Israel and its well-being came first. Over the years, he proved to be its most ardent and successful defender.
I learned this firsthand just after the signing of the Oslo Accord, when I was given the task of writing a short address to be used to introduce Rabin to an audience of Arab journalists. I wrote that he had traveled the long road from confrontation to peace and that, while he had made his reputation as a warrior, he had changed.
He was visibly upset by the introduction and shifted uncomfortably in his chair. I interpreted his discomfort as a sign that he did not want his victories recounted to an audience who might have other views of the same conflicts.
After his speech and the press conference that followed, he set me straight. He did not shake his finger at me, but he might have: ''I have not changed at all,'' he said. ''I am the same man now as I ever was.'' And with that he walked away. It was only in studying that remark over the next few hours that I came to understand what he meant. Yitzhak Rabin's choice for peace was not an attempt to redress historical wrongs; defending Israel could never be wrong no matter what form it took.
I have never worked in a bread factory and so cannot support my beliefs about Rabin with such a colorful anecdote. But I have studied history. One of my favorite stories in US history is of Abraham Lincoln, wrestling with the question of emancipation. We now know that Lincoln thought of the Union first and slavery second: ''My paramount object in this struggle,'' Lincoln said of the Civil War, ''is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save the Union by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help save the Union.''
Yitzhak Rabin would have been comfortable with Lincoln's reasoning: If waging an unremitting war with the Palestinians would secure Israel's future, he would have done that. If he could have secured Israel's future by making peace with some of them, but not with others, he would have done that. If making peace with all of them would secure Israel's future, then he would do that.
A year before the signing of the Oslo Accord, I asked Rabin if he would ever negotiate with PLO leader Yasser Arafat. ''Never,'' he said. ''Never, never, never.'' Given this, I assumed that when he appeared on the White House lawn, to put his signature to a document recognizing Palestinian rights, that something profound must have happened to him. He must have changed. But he had not. Only the circumstances had changed; Rabin remained the same. Israel was Yitzhak Rabin's guiding principle. He would have done anything to defend Israel and to secure its future. He would even shake Mr. Arafat's hand.
Rabin was absolutely single-minded when it came to defending his nation. But his commitment to defending Israel does not detract from his special role as a peacemaker. He believed Zionism could only succeed if it was true to its fundamental moral principle - that the Jewish people would never oppress another. He said this again and again. For Rabin, Israel was not simply the Jewish state, the culmination of Zionism's dream, it was a Jewish home. He knew the difference.
I did not know Rabin well and only spoke with him on three occasions. I interviewed him, briefly, only once. But I know this: Rabin believed that Israel could play a special role in human history - that it could serve as an example to other nations. He believed that the Jewish people had a special mission. That they were truly the chosen people. Chosen to show the world that even a people with a history of 2,000 years of ceaseless war and persecution could make peace with their enemies. If the Israeli people could not, what chance would there be for the rest of the world?
Rabin's assassination doesn't make Israel more secure, but less. What a terrible irony it is that a man who fought in all of Israel's wars was gunned down by a man who fought in none; that a man who sacrificed his life to build a home for the Jewish people was murdered by a fanatic who wants a larger state; and that a man who believed Palestinians and Israelis ''are destined to live together in the same land'' was murdered by a Jew who cannot live with another Jew - let alone a Palestinian. Rabin's killer must have concluded that Rabin had changed, that he was no longer interested in defending Israel. He should have known better: Rabin lived and died as a warrior. He didn't change, he adopted new methods.
Rabin was murdered by a man who holds his hatred of others above his love of country. It is this denial of the future that makes the murder of Rabin such a terrible act. It is a crime against history. It is a crime against hope.