Letters Show Rabin's Shift to Peace

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

There was only time for a brief handshake and greeting when Raymond Helmick, SJ, finally met Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the September 1993 White House ceremony formalizing the Israeli-Palestinian Liberation Organization accord.

But for Fr. Helmick, a part-time faculty member in the Theology Department, it was a crowning moment to see Rabin, with whom Fr. Helmick had been corresponding regularly, shake hands with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. Fr. Helmick - a founder and member of the US Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East, comprising American Christians, Jews and Muslims - has met or corresponded with most of the major political figures in the region. He watched the ceremony many hoped would be a new beginning for the long-troubled region.

That pivotal event was among the foremost of Fr. Helmick's reflections last week in the aftermath of the Nov. 4 assassination of Rabin. Interviewed shortly after the University memorial service for Rabin, Fr. Helmick recalled the prime minister's to-the-point letters, written as he continued his evolution from warrior to peace-maker.

One exchange last year, shortly after an Israeli extremist went on a shooting rampage at a Hebron mosque, seemed to foreshadow Rabin's tragic death. Fr. Helmick urged the prime minister to set a "behavioral standard" and clamp down on destructive or violent tendencies among Israeli settlers.

Rabin responded by noting several steps the Israeli government had taken to prevent a repetition of the massacre. "Most importantly," Rabin wrote, "the government has banned two Jewish extremist groups advocating terror and violence. Through these steps, my government and I want to make it clear: No form of terrorism and extremism retains legal standing in Israel.

"The recent conclusion of the Gaza-Jericho Agreement is proof that our mutual will to settle disputes through political dialogue remains stronger than the will of those who aim to thwart the peace process."

Fr. Helmick began his correspondence shortly after Rabin became prime minister in 1992, starting with a sharp letter criticizing Rabin over the exile of more than 400 Palestinians.

Rabin's replies were "short and direct, but like any statesman he was cordial" without tipping his foreign policy hand, he added.

Over the months, however, Fr. Helmick said he could see Rabin exhibit a willingness to bring the nascent peace process with the PLO to full flower. When Rabin announced his acceptance of the accord, Fr. Helmick wrote to praise him and told Rabin he had entered the pantheon of Israel's historic leaders.

While Rabin's death at the hands of an Israeli rightist likely heralds a turbulent period, Fr. Helmick predicted the peace process would survive him.

"I think large numbers of Israelis, perhaps 50 to 60 percent, are truly hoping for peace, but full of anxiety," he said. "There are also smaller, perhaps equal numbers of extremists on both sides. As for the Palestinians, the one person they learned to deal with is gone, one who seemed terribly difficult but in the end proved to be a person they could work with."

Though investigators are uncovering an apparent conspiracy in Rabin's death, Fr. Helmick said a "witch hunt" of all those opposed to the PLO accord would be counterproductive, since most Israelis, though wary of the extreme right, do not favor a severe crackdown.

The Palestinians may actually find Acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres easier to deal with than Rabin, Fr. Helmick added, but there is some question as to how effective Peres will be navigating in Israel's charged political atmosphere.

"At the same time, don't underestimate Peres," Fr. Helmick added. "He was not a soldier like Rabin was, but was critical to the industrial mobilization of Israel early on, and [first Israeli prime minister] David Ben-Gurion was his patron. He understands that he needs to be seen as working on continuing the peace process."

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