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Rabin assassination leaves rift in Israel

As Israeli and Palestinian negotiators convened for talks in the United States on Monday, Israelis sparred bitterly over responsibility for the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and over the troubled peace that is his legacy.

Sara Netanyahu, wife of Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, lashed out at leftists and accused them of organizing a campaign of incitement against her husband similar to the one some leftists say Netanyahu and right-wingers created before Rabin's killing on Nov. 4, 1995.

"For the last couple of years, a campaign of incitement has been organized against my husband," she told Israeli army radio Monday. Rabin's widow, Leah, and others on the left have frequently charged harsh rhetoric from Netanyahu and his followers created a climate that fostered violence against Rabin.

Passionate debate over the crime continues unabated, even about how to memorialize Rabin. The group Shalom Haver, taking for its name President Clinton's memorable farewell to his friend, has sold 100,000 candles dedicated to Rabin's memory. Another group, the right-wing Effort, is urging the public not to buy them.

Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani called for an independent inquiry into persistent allegations of a conspiracy surrounding Rabin's assassination by a right-wing Jewish zealot.

"It's blood libel," an angry former Labor Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who succeeded Rabin, told Israel Television Monday, referring to conspiracy theories that have blamed Israel's General Security Service, and Peres himself, for the killing.

"It's above and beyond incitement people even would listen to or believe these lies."

Ordinary Israelis who have not yet come to terms with the assassination and the gaping rift it left in Israeli society prepared for two weeks of events to commemorate Rabin, the warrior-turned-statesman who was a chief architect of Israel's 1993 Oslo peace accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The heart of those accords _ that Israel would trade land for peace with the Palestinians _ remains as controversial today as it was in 1993, and Netanyahu criticized the Oslo process before his election in May 1996.

Convicted assassin Yigal Amir said he killed the Labor leader because Rabin was giving away West Bank lands many Jews consider their biblical birthright.

The Israeli left has argued that allowing the Oslo process to fail will consign another generation of Arabs and Jews to the cycle of Mideast violence.

"In Israel, bullets are only fired from right to left," said one pro-Labor analyst, dismissing Likud allegations left-wingers are trying to create a climate of incitement against Netanyahu's government.

"There have been three efforts to burn the private residence of the mother of Yigal Amir," said Joseph Lerner, a director of Independent Media Review and Analysis, a conservative group monitoring public opinion.

Two polls released last week indicated startling support for political assassination in Israel.

One survey conducted by Bar-Ilan University found some 27 percent of religious teens and 4.5 percent of secular youth supported the Rabin assassination. A second poll done for Israel Radio indicated 300,000 Israeli Jews could justify or support assassination of political leaders. The survey suggested Netanyahu, left-wing Meretz Party leader Yossi Sarid and Peres, in that order, were most at risk.

"Post-assassination Israel is a different nation," Herzliya Mayor Eli Landau, a moderate Likud leader, wrote Sunday in the Israeli daily Maariv. "The opposition relates to the elected government as if it is a radical enemy of the state. The coalition repays the favor with stigmas and useless blame. Religious-secular relations have deteriorated to the lowest level."

As Israel prepared to mark the second anniversary of Rabin's death, which falls on Nov. 12 under the Hebrew calendar, one of the strongest messages came from an unexpected quarter, Sara Netanyahu.

Asked in the interview with army radio about leftist protesters who have started calling her husband the "murderer of peace," she replied:

"It is developing into a disgrace because it's in essence the same thing. They (leftists) who are in key positions are doing the same thing, and that is irresponsible, because if that (incitement by the right) brings about . . . as they claim, murder, what could this lead to?"

And the passion of the debate seems unlikely to diminish.

Monday, Kahalani added his voice to those of a few prominent members of the government by calling in the Knesset for establishing an independent board of inquiry to investigate allegations of a conspiracy leading to Rabin's assassination.

Israel Radio reported that Kahalani was basing his request on recent disclosures by Avishai Raviv, leader of the shadowy right-wing group Eyal, who has indicated he was acting as a General Security Service undercover agent when he initiated activity in Eyal and befriended Yigal Amir before the assassination.

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