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ASSASSINATION AFTERMATH : U.S. Jews Seek to Tone Down Rhetoric

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Emerging from the shock and grief at the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is an apparent consensus in the American Jewish community that it must cool the inflammatory debate over whether Israel can exchange land for peace with its Arab adversaries.

Although a few American Jews broke out lapel buttons proclaiming Rabin’s assassin a “Jewish hero,” the leaders of mainstream American Jewish organizations--even those critical of the Israeli government’s tactics in the peace process--are pushing both Americans and Israelis to tone down the heated argument over the terms for peace.

If this civility offensive takes hold, it could help acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres pursue peace negotiations with Syria and implement agreements, already signed, establishing Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank.

“This is a message to everybody to watch your rhetoric,” said Arthur Burger of the American Jewish Committee. “People have to be more responsible in their rhetoric so that someone on the fringe does not take it as a justification for violence.”

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A recent poll indicated that more than two out of three American Jews supported efforts of the Rabin government to make peace with the Palestinians and the Syrians. That is a substantially higher level of support than among the Israeli public, where opinion is almost evenly split, polls have shown.

Nevertheless, vocal opponents in both countries have mounted increasingly emotional attacks on the peace process to slow it down and make further concessions more difficult. These attacks have included branding government leaders traitors and accusing them of sacrilege for bargaining away part of the Jewish homeland that their opponents consider a direct gift from God.

But with assassin Yigal Amir boasting this week that God directed him to kill Rabin, many Jewish leaders have concluded that it is necessary to separate politics from religion, never an easy task in Israel.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that in the wake of the assassination, “there is a process of examination and reassessment” going on in the Jewish community.

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“The question of the rhetoric is getting much more attention,” Hoenlein said. “I would hope that there is some way for the unity that is being felt today to be transferred to the future. We will try to help shape that debate in the coming weeks.”

On Capitol Hill, Rabin’s political legacy faces an early test when Congress considers legislation providing $500 million in U.S. aid to support Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Both Rabin’s government and the Clinton Administration said the legislation is necessary to make the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement work.

Morton Klein, a leader of the Zionist Organization of America, said his group will continue to oppose the aid, maintaining that Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization have failed to keep promises they made in the peace pact.

“After two years of the peace process, Yasser Arafat continues to violate virtually every aspect of the accords,” Klein said.

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Reminded that Rabin had argued that PLO compliance was adequate to justify the U.S. support, Klein said, “We have never explicitly attacked Rabin or the peace process. We have attacked Arafat.”


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