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RABIN ASSASSINATED // Can anyone seek peace after Rabin?

Yitzhak Rabin had one of those lives that you read about in adventure novels _ young pioneer in a new land, war hero, brilliant military strategist, army chief of staff, ambassador, defense minister, prime minister and finally winner of the Nobel Prize for daring to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

And like Egypt's Anwar Sadat, another Nobel Peace Prize winner before him, Rabin paid the ultimate price for his courage, for this life writ large _ assassination by an extremist within his own camp whose mind could not encompass the idea of making peace with a hated enemy.

Rabin's assassination, at the hands of a right-wing Israeli Saturday, may not put an end to the peace process with the Palestinians. But even under the best of circumstances, even if right-wing Israelis sign on in sympathy to a process they once despised, the loss of Rabin at this crucial juncture will make peace more difficult to achieve.

The reason goes back to a fundamental conviction in Israel: that peace can be made only from a position of strength. The way Israelis size up their situation, Israel is a nation of roughly 4-million Jews in a Middle East of more than 300-million Arabs, many of whom would like to see Israel eliminated and the Jews cast into the sea.

Under such circumstances and in such a perceptual framework, peace can be made only when Israel is strong enough to take on all comers at once and led by those who have demonstrated their courage and steadfastness in the most difficult of situations. Only such tough and single-minded people have led Israel from its inception in 1948 _ such as David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and yes, Yitzhak Rabin.

Only someone with the inner strength of a Golda Meir could have begun the tentative peace feelers with Israel's Arab enemies after the 1973 Middle East war in which her nation came perilously close to annihilation. Only someone with the unyielding and rock-solid fortitude of a Menachem Begin could have concluded peace with Egypt's Sadat in 1979.

And only someone who was a native-born Israeli, or Sabra, a soldier who fought in, led troops or oversaw the strategy of every war Israel ever fought, only someone with proven courage in war and in peace, could have led Israel to its historic decision to seek peace with Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, the once dreaded and hated PLO.

Rabin had help in this historic mission. His life-long political rival, Shimon Peres, was always there goading and enticing him toward the peace option for most of the past 25 years. Peres, in fact, is often credited with leading the way toward the handshake with Arafat and his PLO at a White House ceremony just over two years ago.

But as any Israeli can tell you, peace with the Palestinians _ even the partial and tentative agreements produced since 1993, would not have been possible without Rabin. Peres may have provided much of the intellectual content of the agreements, but Rabin was the tough soldier whom Israelis trusted.

Rabin was the man who made peace with Palestinians acceptable to Israelis of most political persuasions. Simply because he was for it, many Israelis _ both inside and outside his ruling Labor Party _ figured peace was worth the risk.

Rabin and only Rabin had the trust, the credibility to be that kind of factor in the peace process. Yasser Arafat, it seems, recognized this simple truth. When he expressed deep sorrow at the "terrible crime" of Rabin's assassination Saturday night, he truly seemed to mean it. Arafat, it seemed, realized he had lost a true comrade in the search for a peace that would spare both Israelis and Palestinians further bloodshed.

And no doubt Arafat also realized something else _ that his own search for peace was just as unpopular with many Palestinians as Rabin's was with right-wing Israelis. The PLO chief has survived uncounted attempts on his own life over the years, both from Israel and Palestinians within his own movement.

And the sight of Rabin falling in a hail of bullets cannot but give Arafat pause, cannot but make this newly married warrior and father wonder what the future holds for him.

But whatever he feels now, Arafat has little choice but to go ahead with his peace initiative. He has staked his personal and political future on it.

Israel, however, is not as certain in its path. Whether Shimon Peres as interim head of government can keep the peace process on track is open to question. His will is there, of course _ the peace process is as much his creation as it was Rabin's.

But Peres never enjoyed the trust Rabin did with the public even though he too served as prime minister and has been in public life all his adult years.

Even so, his immediate goal will be to keep the Labor Party in power until elections can be held sometime next year. By then, peace proponents hope, Peres or another Labor Party leader will have established enough trust with the Israeli public to hold off an electoral challenge from the right-of-center Likud Party led by the popular Benyamin Netanyahu, former ambassador to the United Nations.

Even with Rabin in command, Labor's hold on power has been fragile at best under the strain of the peace initiatives with the PLO. With Peres or someone else in charge, the Labor Party's chances seem slimmer still.

Already, some analysts are speculating that Rabin's assassination might bring on a sympathy movement in favor of his peace policies and the Labor Party. Hopefully, that will happen.

But Israeli politics are hard and brutal. Netanyahu and his Likud colleagues oppose the peace process from the depth of their being and getting back into power is a sure way to stop it.

They could not have wished what happened to Rabin on Saturday, but they cannot be expected to give up their own dreams because of it.

Yitzhak Rabin, like Anwar Sadat almost 20 years before him, finally realized that peace ultimately comes not from weapons or sheaves of paper signed and witnessed, but from the vision and foresight of enlightened minds.

Sadat was killed by his fellow Egyptians in 1981 and Rabin followed on Saturday. Both men paid the ultimate price and both will be remembered for their courage, their vision and foresight.

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