Wednesday, 15 November 2000

Israel mourns Leah Rabin

Widow of assassinated prime minister to be buried among nation's heroes

Wednesday, November 15, 2000

By Matthew Kalman

JERUSALEM - As Leah Rabin is laid to rest today beside her husband, assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, many could be forgiven for wondering whether the Oslo peace process that he led and she championed is being buried with her.

Mrs. Rabin held no official position, but her status was such that her funeral in Jerusalem will be conducted with the trappings of a national event. Her body will lie in state in the Tel Aviv square where her husband was shot by a religious Jewish extremist five years ago.

The burial will take place on Mount Herzl, where Israel's national heroes are laid to rest. U.S. President Bill Clinton was visibly moved when he attended Mr. Rabin's funeral there along with other world leaders such as the late King Hussein of Jordan.

Just steps away from the Rabins' gravesite lie the remains of Theodore Herzl, the assimilated Jewish journalist who founded the Zionist movement in 19th-century Europe. His dream of a Jewish return to Zion was fulfilled, but it also became the Palestinian nightmare of displacement and exile.

The Oslo process, which was to have finally settled the century-old conflict, should have concluded this year. But just as Mrs. Rabin was being diagnosed with the skin cancer that ultimately killed her (she died on Sunday), the peace process was losing pace. As Mrs. Rabin entered hospital a few weeks ago, unable to fight the disease, Israelis and Palestinians lurched from peace talks to deadly confrontation.

Mrs. Rabin was one of the few notable Israelis who bridged the gulf between Israelis and Palestinians, even describing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as "almost one of the family."

He returned the compliment when he paid an unprecedented condolence call to her Tel Aviv home in the days after her husband's murder, doffing his black-and-white keffiyeh and revealing for the first time in public his balding pate.

But Mr. Arafat is likely to be the most conspicuous absentee from today's funeral. Tentative suggestions that he might attend were originally welcomed by Israeli officials, but the mood soured after more violence erupted this week.

Yesterday should have been an auspicious day, when the Central Council of the Palestine Liberation Organization was to meet and declare an independent Palestinian state following the successful conclusion of peace negotiations.

Instead, four more Palestinians died in continuing clashes in the West Bank and Gaza. One of them was a middle-aged man who lost control of his car when it was stoned by Israelis, near the site of an ambush Monday by Palestinian gunmen north of Nablus, who shot dead a female teacher and two soldiers.

Israeli security forces have clamped a tight cordon around Palestinian towns and cities, allowing only food, medical and other essential deliveries.

"The closure is one way to prevent violence, because the alternative is to go after the terrorists and to enter cities, which is something we do not want to do," said Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. "We want to stop any kind of escalation."

Other Israeli voices called for more punitive action against Palestinian gunmen. "The best way to deal with this reality is to track down these attackers and strike at them, and so reduce to a minimum the possibility that such acts will occur again," said Israeli chief of staff Lieutenant-General Shaul Mofaz.

But Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak should stop using force against the Palestinians.

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said yesterday it would be "premature" to declare a Palestinian state.

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