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Support for Rabin’s Party Builds After His Assassination : Israel: Labor had been stigmatized as a haven for aging socialists and corrupt bureaucrats. Now joining it has become fashionable.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The telephone started ringing at Labor Party headquarters the day after slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was buried. It hasn’t stopped since.

Suddenly, joining the Labor Party--stigmatized for years as the haven for aging socialists and corrupt bureaucrats--has become fashionable.

Before Rabin’s assassination by a right-wing Jewish law student, the party was lucky to get five to 10 new members a week, General Secretary Nissim Zvilli said.

“In the past week, we have had 2,000 people join the party,” he said. “We have had thousands of phone calls and letters. People want to know what they can do to help.”

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The challenge facing the party now, Zvilli said, is how to ensure that the “silent majority” activated by Rabin’s killing stays involved through the next elections.

Labor strategists believe that majority is made up of people who voted for Labor or parties to the left of Labor in the last elections, plus the “floating voters” who make up their minds in the last days of an election campaign.

Labor is looking to hold on to those floating voters who were outraged by Rabin’s assassination, who blame both the religious right and the Likud. Their votes could help the party build a more solid parliamentary majority than the 63 votes it can now count on in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s Parliament.

Labor also wants to ensure victory for its candidate in the first direct election for prime minister.

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If acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres keeps his word, elections for Parliament and prime minister are still 11 months away--a lifetime in politics.

Labor is desperate to ensure that it is left with more than paving stones covered with melted candle wax outside Rabin’s home and walls covered with graffiti eulogies to him when next year’s campaign gets under way.

It needs to find a way to make supporters out of the hundreds of thousands of mourners who came to Rabin’s grave, to his home, to a memorial rally for him, Zvilli said.

“We believe that most of these people are going to continue to support the peace process and the movement against violence,” Zvilli said. “But it is very important for us to mobilize them, to keep them active throughout the year.”

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Among the people Zvilli is aiming for are first-time voters--young people and new immigrants who together will account for nearly half a million votes in the elections.

These are people who mourned Rabin because he was seen as a pragmatic man struggling to secure for them the “normal” life they have glimpsed in the three years that he served as prime minister.

Rabin touched them deeply when he said he was struggling to ensure that their children would not have to fight in wars as he had fought all his life.

But he also did much to improve their economic security.

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During his three years in office, Israel’s annual economic growth rate averaged 5%--it will be 6 1/2% this year. The per-capita gross domestic product zoomed to $14,000 a year, putting the nation on a par with several European states.

Tourism boomed, exports boomed, and Israel became one of the world’s leaders in high technology and computer software production.

A nation that once was embattled and shunned has established relations with dozens of countries--several of them former enemies. It saw the “Zionism is racism” pronouncement of the United Nations rescinded. It saw Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat transformed from a demon terrorist to a partner in peace. And it saw the president of Egypt and the king of Jordan attend, in Jerusalem, its prime minister’s funeral.

But it also saw a wave of bloody terrorist bombings carried out in the heart of Israel, and was filled with doubts about Arafat’s ability and desire to put an end to such attacks. It saw the increasing desperation of Jewish settlers in once-occupied lands, and it worried that territorial compromise with the Palestinians might lead to civil war among the Jews.

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Many of those who publicly mourned Rabin believe that he may have been the only Israeli politician capable of combining the skills of a statesman with the skepticism and caution of a soldier as Israel completes the painful task of pulling out of West Bank towns and villages and contemplates exchanging the strategic Golan Heights for peace with Syria.

Peres--a man with none of Rabin’s military credentials--will have to persuade the floating voters that he can be trusted to complete Rabin’s unfinished agenda.

Peres will have to appeal to the floating voters’ hopes and allay their fears.

Many political analysts believe that the public mourners were showing their revulsion against the religious-Zionist ideology that confessed assassin Yigal Amir espoused, and that the Likud and its religious-party allies embrace. It requires another political decision for those mourners to actually vote for the Labor Party.

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For years, Labor has watched helplessly as young voters supported small parties on the far left or the far right of the spectrum. Its activists, its leadership and, increasingly, its voters were among the oldest of any of Israel’s many parties. Saddled with an image of aging leadership, an antiquated socialist ideology and creaking institutions, Labor had little to offer youth.

Rabin’s assassination has given the party a martyr.

It also left it with a leader, Peres, whose own image has at least temporarily been varnished because he was Rabin’s partner in peace and is seen as his heir apparent.

Some Labor activists believe that Labor actually needs to do very little to win enough votes to secure a parliamentary majority because the right has been thrown into such a severe crisis after one of its own killed the prime minister.

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“The most important thing for Labor is to just not make any mistakes,” said Alon Liel, director general of the Planning and Economics Ministry and a longtime Labor activist. “Labor just has to carry on, run the country and fulfill their agreements.”

But Zvilli is sure that the party must actively reach out to the nonpolitical Israelis, the undecided Israelis who in the wake of the assassination believe that they must do something to ensure that Rabin’s peacemaking efforts continue and succeed.

Labor’s central committee will meet tonight to debate how best to capitalize on the renewed public interest in the party, Zvilli said.

He will recommend forming two committees, one to deal with youth and one to form a volunteer corps “to make sure that Shimon Peres does not stand alone.”

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Zvilli could provide no specifics on what either committee will actually do.

“We are still thinking about it,” he said. “Remember that it has only been 10 days since the murder.”

Peres too has spoken publicly several times on the need to keep the droves of young people who publicly mourned the prime minister interested in politics and of the party’s obligation to secure a lasting peace that will provide a better future for the nation’s children.

The target for Labor in the coming year, Zvilli said Wednesday, is the 15% to 20% of voters who are considered the floating center, capable of voting for either Labor or Likud.

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About 300,000 18-year-olds will vote for the first time in the 1996 elections, Zvilli said. An additional 180,000 new immigrants, most of them Russians, will also vote for the first time.

Labor activists have been poring over Russian-language newspapers, trying to gauge how the newcomers are reacting to the prime minister’s assassination, he said.

Few new immigrants participated in any public displays of mourning, but their newspapers show that as a group “their reaction was very similar” to that of the rest of Israeli society, Zvilli said. “They were very shocked--they don’t believe that in Israel this can happen.”

So Labor also wants to devise a strategy for reaching out to that community, to get across the message that Labor is the party best equipped to pursue Rabin’s peace policies and guard Israeli democracy, he said.

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