Five years after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down by an ultra-nationalist assassin, his chief legacy, the Oslo agreement with Palestinians, is in danger of collapsing.
And as a week of Israeli tributes to Mr. Rabin's memory began Saturday night with a rally in Tel Aviv that drew tens of thousands of people, both Israelis and Palestinians reflected on the course of his legacy. The week also coincides with a bid by President Clinton to end more than five weeks of Palestinian-Israeli violence and restart Middle East peace talks.
In the eyes of the Israeli right-wing and much of the public, the intifadah, or Palestinian uprising, has proven Rabin's approach of launching self-rule and then negotiating final arrangements with the Palestinians to be a dangerous mistake.
"The naive idea of bringing [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat from Tunis with his people, arming them, and thinking it would produce peace was absurd," says Naomi Blumenthal, a Likud party member of the Knesset.
Yesterday, two Palestinians were killed during clashes in the Gaza Strip, the first deaths in violence in two days. And over the weekend, a US-based medical rights group, Physicians for Human Rights, blamed the Israeli Army for using excessive force against Palestinian rioters, saying, they aimed "to injure and kill, not to avoid loss of life and injury." Israelis deny such allegations.
Meanwhile, analysts attribute much of damage to the Oslo accord to the fact that both sides consider themselves victims.
While the Palestinians have experienced the violence as an Israeli onslaught and have endured the brunt of the casualties, Israelis, too, feel victimized. And it is this sense of being attacked that right-wing hawks are trying to capitalize on.
Events such as last week's car bombing in Jerusalem that killed two civilians, and the daily shooting by Palestinian fighters into the Jewish settlement of Gilo on the edge of Jerusalem, are all being blamed on the Oslo agreement and alleged weakness by the government.
"Everything has to be halted and we need to reassess the situation," says Ms. Blumenthal. "We need to learn the lessons and to move away from the thinking of those who deluded themselves that they have a peace partner."
Advocates of the 1993 Oslo agreement to launch Palestinian self-rule concede that they are losing more and more ground as the the fighting continues.
"I would say that the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin is now at stake," says Labor Party Knesset member Yossi Katz. "We are at a crucial point, and time is against us. If in the next few weeks there is no Israeli-Palestinian agreement, the activities of the Palestinian extremists will become a daily event, and Israel will have no choice but to establish a unity government [with Likud]."
Likud leader Ariel Sharon is demanding that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak renounce limited concessions over Jerusalem and other issues offered to the Palestinians during the Camp David summit in July. The Palestinians, for their part, said Mr. Barak's proposals fell short of the independent state with Jerusalem as its capital to which they aspire. They have also taken sharp issue with continued expansion of Jewish settlements.
Despite Israeli recognition that Arafat has made an effort to rein in some of the violence during the past few days, Israeli analysts are not holding out much hope for the separate meetings after election day between President Clinton and Arafat and Barak.
"Barak has avoided a unity government to give Clinton a month of grace, since he has invested so much in the process," says Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Report magazine. "But he is quite skeptical. Once he goes to Washington and everything fails there, he will go back to the unity strategy and see out the rest of the intifadah, which he expects to last for months."
At the Tel Aviv rally, Minister of Regional Cooperation Shimon Peres gave an impassioned defense of the Oslo agreement. The former prime minister who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Arafat said the Oslo process had narrowed the differences with the Palestinians to a point where they could be bridged, enabling a peace treaty with Jordan and breakthroughs in relations with the Arab world.
Invoking Rabin's memory, Mr. Peres said: "My friend and partner Yitzhak, the missing captain: The sea has not abated, the journey is not finished, the waves are breaking and gales are tossing the deck. But we have not folded, nor will we fold, the sails."
Palestinian Authority Environment Minister Youssef Abu Safieh, meanwhile, said that had Rabin lived, "Israel's attacks against the Palestinians" would not have taken place.
"We remember Yitzhak Rabin's positions during the first intifadah when he spoke about breaking the bones of the Palestinians," Mr Safieh said. "But we saw that he changed and was committed to the peace process and to fulfilling what he signed. We don't think that Barak is serious about peace."
Katz recalled that Rabin had kept up the negotiations with Palestinians despite deadly bombings by Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement. "I am aware that more and more Israelis, even from the center, prefer to neglect the peace track," he said. "We may lose many supporters, but my view is that politicians must lead the public and not be led by it. Five years after the murder of Rabin, it is our duty to continue seeking all routes to peace."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society