JERUSALEM -- The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist tragically overshadowed a year of tremendous progress in Israel. Under the leadership of the former top army general, Israel leapt ahead economically with a 5 percent growth rate that for 1995 was one of the western world's highest. Rabinproudly pointed to soaring exports, Israel's burgeoning high- tech industries and massive investment in the country's infrastructure as a direct result of progress in peace with the Palestinians. Israelis, however, were left at the end of the year trying to cope with Rabin's Nov. 4 assassination. While the murder trial of self-confessed gunman Yigal Amir was scheduled for mid-December, a state commission of inquiry headed by former Supreme Court Justice Meir Shamgar continued to hear testimony on how the protective web around Rabin had failed. The myth of the invincible Israeli security network was shattered by the slaying. Two weeks after the shooting, a stunned nation watched a news broadcast of Amir, 25, coldly re-enacting the crime for police. The slightly built extremist demonstrated how he calmly walked past Rabin's bodyguards and fired two bullets into the Nobel Peace Prize winner from point-blank range. The killing forced Israelis into a reassessment of where the political tide had taken them. The right-wing opposition was just as shaken as Rabin's supporters. All year they had called for the government to be 'toppled' and thousands of demonstrators would chant 'Rabin is a traitor' at rallies protesting the handing over of land captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war to Palestinian control.
'I will never forgive those who called Yitzhak Rabin a traitor,' said his successor, Shimon Peres. 'To my great sorrow there are hundreds, maybe thousands of such people in the country even today who support violence and murder.' While tension is always high in Israel, security forces had been on the alert for attacks by Islamic fundamentalists violently opposed to the peace process. It never occurred to them that a Jew could carry out such a deed. The year started off violently as two suicide bombers from the radical Islamic Jihad blew themselves up Jan. 21 at a crowded bus stop near Tel Aviv, killing 22 Israelis. Islamic Jihad and the militant Hamas organization claimed responsibility for dozens of bombings and shootings that killed more than 80 people and wounded hundreds more in a bid to halt the peace process. The attacks continued throughout the year, but only strengthened Rabin's resolve to push ahead with the Palestinians. After months of negotiations the two sides appeared to be deadlocked over the complex task of separating some 1 million Palestinians from 140 Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. In August, teams of some 200 negotiators led by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres, then foreign minister, held nine straight days of almost round- the-clock negotiations at the Egyptian resort of Taba. The marathon talks paid off and leaders of Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians gathered at the White House Sept. 28 for the signing of the Oslo II accord. The historic agreement paved the way for the November withdrawal of Israeli troops from Arab cities and villages in the West Bank. The redeployment of soldiers was to continue through the end of the year, setting the stage for Palestinian elections in January 1996. The success of the agreement was followed by the signing of several cooperation accords with Jordan and a solid Israeli showing at the Middle East and North Africa Economic Summit held in Amman in October. To quell Arab fears of Israeli economic domination, the Israelis toned down their approach and made it a point to present billions of dollars in proposed joint projects with their Arab neighbors. The success of Israel's peace efforts with Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinianswas countered by the failure to make any progress with northern neighbors Syria and Lebanon. The issue of returning the strategic Golan Heights, also captured in 1967, almost brought down Rabin's government as two renegade members of his party bolted and voted against the slim Labor Party-led left-wing coalition. The government survived the vote, but Peres faces myriad challenges in the coming year to ensure the peace process continues. Oslo II is only an interim agreement. Hundreds of details are yet to be worked out with the Palestinians, the biggest being the thousands of Palestinians who remain in Israeli jails and the Israeli troops who remain in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to protect Jewish settlements there. How Peres will handle the negotiations with the Palestinians and Syria will be critical for his government as Israelis head to the polls late in 1996. Television images of smiling Palestinian police being received by thousands of cheering residents of the West Bank showed the world the joy of a people gaining freedom after 28-years of military occupation as Israeli troops made way in an organized and peaceful transfer of power. But the vivid memory of 1995 will probably be that of Rabin's weeping granddaughter Noa, choking out her words of love for her grandfather as the world watch transfixed by her sorrow. 'You will forgive me, for I do not want to talk about peace,' she told the greatest assembly of world leaders ever to set foot in Israel who came for the soldier-turned-statesman's funeral. 'People greater than I have already eulogized you, but none of them was fortunate like myself to feel the caress of your warm, soft hands.' 'The ground has slipped away from under our feet and we are trying, somehow, to sit in this empty space that has been left behind.'