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From Rabin’s Funeral, the Scene and the Unseen

It’s Monday. The clock here is ticking toward 4 a.m. In Jerusalem it is nearing 2 p.m.

Seated in the first row beside his wife, Hillary, is President Bill Clinton, a black yarmulke, or skullcap, sitting high on his block of gray hair. Beside him, his face showing no emotion, is Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Jordan’s King Hussein arrives with the taller Queen Noor, who takes a seat beside Israeli Foreign Minister and acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres. British Prime Minister John Major is seated beside impeccably tailored Prince Charles, who wears a red flower in his lapel. Former Presidents George Bush and Jimmy Carter are visible in the throng, as are House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Her eyes hidden behind dark glasses, the widow, Leah Rabin, arrives with her family and warmly hugs an elderly man. They are seated. A weeping daughter rests her head on her mother’s shoulder.

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Funeral time.

Although only CNN provided extended coverage of Saturday’s assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, ABC, CBS and NBC did join cable’s 24-hour news network in going live for the funeral Monday morning. The networks jetted their VIP anchors to Israel for early-morning coverage that beamed home pictures supplied by Israeli TV. With KTTV-TV Channel 11 taking the CNN feed, that gave funeral-watchers here five options.

The last burial of a political figure to draw this much live coverage was former President Richard Nixon’s in April, 1994. It’s hard to envision a funeral for any other foreign leader getting such TV attention, its sheer bulk indicating Israel’s significance to the media as well as to a U.S. government that has dealt some of the cards at the Middle East peace table.

Even as it severs, death unites and reconnects, creating vibrantly moving portraits and dramatic gatherings that fill a television screen with powerful people metaphors--in this case, Arabs and Jews rubbing shoulders in a bitterly contested city--that appear to signify hope. That’s what we want to read into them. However satisfying, though, such emblems can be dangerously misleading.

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Absent from this one were Syrian President Hafez Assad, without whom no meaningful Middle East peace agreement can be achieved, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who was said to have stayed home out of concern that his presence would exacerbate tensions.

Also unseen in this group photo were the deep divisions in Israel over the Rabin government’s peace negotiations with Arafat, so deep that his alleged assassin is an Israeli fanatic.

Imagine the response if the killer were Arab. Imagine the explosion of rage in the United States, where already there exists a predisposition in some circles to see Arabs primarily as perpetrators of violence. For example, the show business trade paper Variety recently ran a story about Islamic fundamentalists in Kuwait wanting to ban “Tom and Jerry” cartoons from appearing on Kuwaiti TV, seeing in them something sinister and sacrilegious. The paper ran its story beside a drawing of Tom and Jerry tied to stakes, awaiting execution by an Arab firing squad. It was ugly, insulting and distorting.

Not that some of the most prominent attendees at the Rabin funeral had not themselves felt the brush of violence. Some of Hussein’s forefathers were gunned down, and attempts have been made on his life, too. Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated, as were two of Kennedy’s brothers.

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On the screen, meanwhile, Rabin’s flag-draped coffin was being carried into view by Israeli generals, and Leah Rabin was crying. At some point there was a military salute to Rabin--a man who died by bullets getting buried by bullets. Then came the ritual of a wailing siren, then, one by one, as if passing through a turnstile, the eulogizers.

It was a good time to contrast the approaches of news divisions and their opinions of who mattered most. Both CBS and NBC showed file footage and chatted during the first several speakers, including Israeli President Ezer Weizman. Hussein’s moving remembrance, with Israeli military officers standing rigidly behind him, got TV’s attention across the board. As did Clinton and Peres.

When Mubarak came to the podium, though, Katie Couric began an interview on NBC’s “Today” show in New York with former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, even though the Egyptian leader’s attendance at the funeral was said by experts to be very significant.

And United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali got snubbed by everyone but CNN: CBS went to a commercial, Couric resumed speaking with Baker and “Good Morning America” co-host Charles Gibson, who was in Jerusalem, interviewed Rabbi Marc Gellman, who was in New York. So much for the stature of the U.N.

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You took away from the morning’s coverage a sense of the enormous sadness pervading Israel and Rabin’s family (the latter conveyed in a remarkable eulogy delivered by his granddaughter) and also--because the news media like to put people into slots and keep them there--indelible images of Rabin being the brave, tough soldier, and his successor of the moment, Peres, being the dreamer and poet.

Also evident was the extent to which grief is global. By the time the military men again lifted Rabin’s coffin, this time to transport it for burial, KNBC-TV Channel 4 in Los Angeles had withdrawn from NBC coverage in favor of local news. As Rabin, the leader of Israel, was being lowered into the ground, KNBC had on the screen the pictures of two brothers who had been killed in Los Angeles. Just two more casualties in a city where senseless death is a siren that never stops wailing.

For everyone, funeral time.


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