News Analysis: In face of terrorism, Rabin signals renewed commitment

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has come to believe, at last, in his own peace policy.

Even after a Hamas terrorist bomb ripped through two commuter buses in the northern Jerusalem suburb of Ramat Eshkol on Monday, Rabin spoke of the necessity of keeping the peace process on track.

He temporarily suspended the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for reaching an interim self-rule agreement so the victims could be buried, but by Tuesday, talks had resumed in Eilat.

Just hours after the bombing, he addressed the nation, urging Israelis to distinguish "between Palestinians who are the enemies of peace and those who seek a negotiated agreement."

Within hours after the bombing, which killed five people, including the suicide bomber, demonstrators congregated at the site of the disaster, chanting "Rabin the Murderer."

More civilized placards contended: "This is Not Peace — It is Terror."

But the prime minister held firm to his course. And with negotiators working feverishly to iron out remaining differences on expanding self-rule in the West Bank, plans to hold a ceremony for signing the interim agreement in Washington, D.C., are "still on," according to sources.

Even in the face of this latest terrorist blow, Rabin is radiating a gritty confidence and commitment to his peace process with the Palestinians.

He is defending it with vigor, scorning its opponents and seeking to assure the Israeli public that the policy — despite the unending series of bloody setbacks — is on the high road to success.

Sources close to Rabin suggested Monday night that the latest terror attack, far from arresting the pace of progress, would catalyze it.

Rabin's apparent steadfastness represents a major change.

Until recently, the prime minister projected a sense of doubt and misgivings about his own policy.

From his less-than-wholehearted handshake with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in September 1993 until this summer, Rabin's rhetoric and body language broadcast the distinct impression that he was uncomfortable with the evolving peace process and that he still harbored concerns about its ultimate success.

The political opposition was quick to pick up on Rabin's seeming ambivalence, especially his undisguised dislike, even contempt, for Arafat.

Likud spokesmen charged that Rabin — long cast as a middle-of-the-road figure in Israeli politics — was being dragged along by his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, and by the dovish wing of his Labor-Meretz coalition Cabinet.

In practice, Peres — flanked by Police Minister Moshe Shahal and Environment Minister Yossi Sarid, both quite dovish — did most of the high-level negotiating with the Palestinians.

Although these ministers were seen as wholly committed, the prime minister himself appeared somehow to be torn by doubts and apprehensiveness. On the one hand, he was seeking a lasting peace. On the other, he openly distrusted Arafat and his fledgling Palestinian Authority.

The change in the prime minister has been dramatic.

Columnist Yoel Markus of the Israeli daily Ha'aretz summed it up in a piece this weekend in which he said the prime minister had become "More Peres than Peres," a reference to the foreign minister's unabashed zeal for the peace process.

Analysts believe the change in Rabin has come in response to the Palestinian Authority's growing effectiveness in stemming Islamic fundamentalist terror from within the Gaza Strip.

Arafat condemned the bombing. In a speech in Gaza City he vowed to "cut the hand" of anyone taking money from outside the Palestinian Authority's area and lashed out at Iran.

"Your money, your bombs and your oil have not regained an inch of our land for us," Arafat said.

Notwithstanding this week's attack, Palestinian security forces and their legal system have come into their own this year, cracking down hard on fundamentalist extremists.

Their behind-the-scenes cooperation with Israel's Shin Bet domestic security service has resulted in successes in averting terrorist attacks, many of them unpublished.

For Rabin, security has always been the key measure of the peace process' viability — and of its salability to the Israeli public.

Pollsters and academic experts agree that personal security is also the key criterion that sways middle-of-the-road voters toward supporting or rejecting the government's peace policy.

Security concerns among Israelis during the winter and spring, when a wave of terrorism took scores of civilian lives, certainly threatened to sweep away both the process and the Rabin government. The latest attack brought the number of Israeli victims of terror since the 1993 Israeli-PLO accords to 82.

And Rabin's own reaction to the repeated acts of carnage was to berate the Palestinian Authority, demanding firmer action on its part and effectively suspending the process until such action was taken and produced results.

Indeed, the 14-month delay in concluding the second phase of interim self-rule has been due principally to the terror-and-security crisis.

The Israeli public got its first insight into the dramatic turnabout in Rabin's attitude in the aftermath of the July 24 terror bombing of a bus in Ramat Gan. Seven people were killed in that attack, including the suicide bomber.

Reversing previous reactions, Rabin praised Arafat and the Palestinian Authority for their efforts to crush Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorism.

Two Palestinian security officers had recently been killed in the course of these efforts, he told reporters. The Palestinians were cooperating with the Shin Bet and fundamentalist activists were being arrested and jailed.

This week, too, he said that there could be no such thing as an infallible security net. But over the weekend there was a success, when Palestinian security forces hunted down and arrested three fundamentalists in Gaza City who had been targeted by the Shin Bet as actively planning a suicide-bomb attack inside Israel.

Likud politicians, responding to the evident change in Rabin, speak now of the "mask of moderation having been stripped off him" — revealing an out-and-out peacenik in the Peres mold.

But on the Labor side, some insiders argue that Rabin's firmer, unequivocal defense of his own peace policy will ultimately serve him well in next year's national elections.

The public wants above all a spirit of conviction and commitment from its leaders, they say, and Rabin's recent declaration, a la Peres, that "we want to stop ruling over another nation," is the kind of pointed and purposeful message that voters can appreciate.

By the same token, Rabin's new outspokenness in praise of peace and compromise may lend greater credibility to his insistence that certain basic positions are not open to bargaining, including his refusal to return to pre-1967 boundaries.

He also spelled out his vision of an Israel at peace with a neighboring Palestinian "less-than-independent state," in which the area of Greater Jerusalem and the strategic Jordan Valley would be permanently annexed as sovereign Israeli territory.

Ironically, Hamas seems to understand Rabin's intent on peace. According to the New York Times, Hamas, in claiming responsibility for the latest bus attack, said for the first time it is aiming to bring Rabin's government down before next year's elections — recognizing Likud also opposes the current path to peace.