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"A martyr for peace' // For benefit of all, Arafat stayed home

Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, wasn't at Yitzhak Rabin's funeral on Monday and it's probably a good thing.

Jordan's King Hussein was there. So was President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, the other neighboring Arab country with which Israel has negotiated peace and established full diplomatic relations.

Both Arab leaders delivered proper, and especially in Hussein's case, heartfelt eulogies to the slain Israeli prime minister they had come to know and respect through the years of tough negotiations over the terms of peace.

But Arafat's presence at the funeral, even though he too had come to know and apparently respect Rabin, would have been troublesome and ill-advised for several reasons. Whether on his initiative or that of the Israelis _ it isn't really important which _ Arafat watched the funeral on television from his office in the Gaza Strip.

The most obvious reason Arafat stayed away from the funeral in Jerusalem concerns security. With delegations from more than 40 nations or organizations in town, and especially with people like Hussein, Mubarak, President Clinton and Britain's Prince Charles attending, providing security in an already tense place like Jerusalem was a nightmare.

Add Arafat to that situation and safeguarding the visitors would have been nearly impossible.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out why. Rabin was gunned down by a right-wing extremist who considers Israel's ongoing peace talks with Arafat's PLO an act of national treachery. For this gunman and thousands of others in Israel with similar views, Arafat is still the embodiment of evil, a veritable Satan in their midst.

And Arafat is only slightly less despised by extremists in his own Palestinian community. Gunmen from the radical Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements would as likely have taken a shot at the PLO leader as any extremist right-wing Israeli settler.

So you can see why security experts on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides might have advised Arafat to stay away. His presence among the other dignitaries in Jerusalem would have been unreasonably dangerous.

But there's another more far-reaching reason Arafat wasn't there: It would have been bad _ and possibly disastrous _ for Acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres or any other Israeli politician trying to keep the peace process alive.

Imagine, for example, a photograph of Peres and Arafat standing together _ if only briefly _ at Rabin's funeral. What would Israel's political opposition, the Likud Party, have done with that?

Would the picture resurface in the next Israeli election campaign next year?

You bet it would. And might a shell-shocked Israeli electorate turn away from any candidate seen as being too closely associated with Arafat or too sympathetic to his Palestinian cause?

Very likely. And Peres, despite his years in the forefront of Israeli public life, is the Israeli politician most vulnerable to this kind of smear. He's already seen by many Israelis as far too eager for peace with the Palestinians, someone who might compromise their security in the process of realizing his dreams. Another reminder of any closeness with Arafat could prove politically fatal.

The fact is that Rabin and Peres formed as strong a team as their LaborParty could field and that even together they could stay in power by only a razor-thin majority in parliament. With Peres alone or with some relative newcomer in the top spot or by his side, Labor is extremely vulnerable to Likud and its opposition to any more deals with the PLO.

Right-wing extremists and others belonging to the radical Jewish settlers' movement may represent less than 3 percent of the electorate, but Israeli politicians know those votes can easily swing an election toward the Likud and its popular hard-line leader, Benjamin Netanyahu (pronounced net-an-YAH-hoo).

And Netanyahu, a former ambassador to the United Nations, knows how to strike precisely the right chord in tight situations. He has unequivocally condemned Rabin's assassination, of course, but at the same time he has maintained the Likud Party's credibility as the democratic alternative to what many see as a failed or unwise peace option with the Palestinians.

It's useful to keep in mind at this point that real Israeli opposition to the peace option with Arafat hasn't even begun yet. So far, the two sides have been talking about the Gaza Strip, which few Israelis care about, or the occupied West Bank of Jordan, which many consider important but not at the very core of Israel's existence.

Next year, possibly as early as the spring, that essential core of Israel comes up for discussion in something known as the "final status talks." These are the negotiations that will determine whether the Palestinians form a sovereign state of their own and if its capital city will be Jerusalem as the PLO demands.

This is when things get rough, when Israel will need a strong, rock-solid leadership to get it through the most trying time since it became a nation 47 years ago. In a time like that, going ahead with the peace process will be risky indeed. Likud and its hard-line opposition to any more deals will have great appeal.

Peres and his supporters know this well. And so too does Arafat.

Put this all together and it's easy to see why Arafat decided to watch Rabin's funeral on television.

And why Peres or any other Israeli politician who supports the peace process must have been glad he did.

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