Acting Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, in mourning over his slain predecessor, took up the reins of government Tuesday, restating his commitment to peace and pushing ahead with the expansion of Palestinian self-rule in the occupied West Bank.
In meetings with world leaders and in public statements, Peres said he will not seek early elections. He said he is determined to press forward with the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accord in the remaining year of the Labor-led government’s term.
Peres also reportedly told U.S. officials that he is willing to hold peace negotiations with Syria, although Israeli officials said they are not overly hopeful the stalled talks will resume.
“I shall continue the process of peace that we have started,” Peres said after meeting with British Prime Minister John Major. “For us to win peace is more important than even to win the election.”
Peres met with a host of dignitaries who had come for Monday’s funeral of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, including Jordan’s Crown Prince Hassan, who made his first trip to Jerusalem to pay his respects to Rabin’s widow, Leah.
As mourners continued to visit her husband’s grave by the hundreds, Leah Rabin launched a campaign on behalf of the peace process and lashed out at right-wing political and religious leaders for contributing to the atmosphere of hatred that led to his death.
She added her voice to a cacophony of recriminations among political leaders that suggested an end to the stunned nation’s mood of unity following Rabin’s slaying.
Rabin was gunned down at the end of a peace rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday night by a 25-year-old Jewish student who opposed the prime minister’s 1993 peace agreement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Rabin’s killer, Yigal Amir, has said he believed he was carrying out God’s will.
“He [Rabin] wouldn’t want the peace process to stop for anything, even for his life,” Leah Rabin told CNN.
She vigorously condemned opposition Likud Party chief Benjamin Netanyahu for having spoken at a rally against the peace accord in September while demonstrators waved drawings of Rabin in a Nazi uniform.
“Mr. Netanyahu was there. He later talked against it, but he was there and he didn’t stop it,” she told ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America.”
Netanyahu said he would not respond to Leah Rabin or “judge a person in their grief.” But he quickly added that Labor Party politicians making similar charges were “cynically using a national tragedy to conduct a witch hunt” against the opposition.
The national schism was also visible on walls in downtown Jerusalem, where the assassin’s name was painted in tribute. Graffiti praising Amir turned up at several other places around the country.
On the other side of the political divide, an angry Tel Aviv artist, Avraham Tasso, traveled to the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba in the West Bank to pour black paint on a monument honoring Baruch Goldstein, the settler who shot about 30 Muslim worshipers to death last year in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
One gesture of reconciliation came from Amir’s parents, in a letter to Leah Rabin lamenting the tragedy “committed by our son.”
Shlomo and Geula Amir said: “A huge tragedy befell us and all of the people of Israel with the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, may his memory be blessed. . . . The murder is despicable.”
Amir called his parents from jail late Tuesday and told them to “be strong,” according to Israeli television. His father reportedly answered that he should apologize, and his mother said, “Say you regret it, or I won’t be able to support you.”
The Shin Bet security service, meanwhile, concluded an internal inquiry that reportedly describes a collapse in the security apparatus charged with protecting Rabin at the peace rally. Top security officials at the agency are expected to be fired, Israeli television said.
The investigation focused on how Amir managed to get into the parking lot where Rabin’s limousine was waiting and to within point-blank shooting range of the prime minister.
“There’s no doubt this committee found a violation of orders and a breakdown of this security network,” said Israel Television’s military reporter.
“Shin Bet trains for 47 years to prevent this very event . . . and at the moment of truth this network completely fails. Those involved will most likely be fired, and the government will have to decide if the responsibility goes all the way to the head of Shin Bet,” he said.
The driver of Rabin’s car said in a radio interview that as Amir began shooting, the gunman yelled, “They’re fake bullets, they’re fake,” which seemed to slow security agents down.
Rabin was hit twice; the agent who took the third bullet meant for Rabin spoke with Israeli radio about the last minutes of the prime minister’s life. Yoram Rubin would not discuss security issues, but he told the radio interviewer that Rabin got himself into the car after he was hit and said, “It hurts, but not too badly.”
Rubin said he gave the prime minister first aid and that, before losing consciousness, Rabin asked him to tell his wife that he had “behaved like a true soldier in the battlefield.”
Police officials, meanwhile, searched for friends of the assassin who they suspect knew ahead of time of his intent to kill Rabin. Israel Radio reported that many of Amir’s friends have gone underground, and police spokesman Eric Bar-Chen said no arrests had been made.
Bar-Chen said members of Kach and Kahane Chai, outlawed anti-Arab groups, will be questioned in the investigation. Officials believe that Amir’s brother, Hagai, was a member of Kahane Chai, and Amir reportedly was close to the Kach movement. Hagai Amir, 27, is being held on suspicion of giving his brother altered bullets for the assassination.
Justice Minister David Libai said he was preparing new legislation that would allow for the prosecution of political agitators who advocate breaking the law. He also said he will draft a law making it illegal to demonstrate outside the private homes of public figures, as rightists did weekly in front of Rabin’s home.
In an effort to advance the peace process, meanwhile, Palestinian and Israeli military officers met in the northern West Bank city of Janin to discuss the redeployment of Israeli soldiers, and the Israeli government eased the closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that had been in place since Rabin was shot.
Peres has told Palestinian officials that he intends to follow the schedule for the peace accord laid out in the interim agreement that Rabin and Arafat signed in Washington in September. He said he means to meet the deadlines for pulling troops out of West Bank cities so the Palestinians can hold elections for a governing council in January.
The Israeli newspaper Maariv reported that Peres told President Clinton and members of Congress who were here for Rabin’s funeral that he is willing to continue peace negotiations with Syria.
Economics Minister Yossi Beilin said that while Peres wanted to send a positive message to Syria, Beilin was not optimistic.