The suicide yesterday of Israeli Housing Minister Abraham Ofer, accused of involvement in land scandals, is likely to reduce Prime Minister Titzhak Rabin's chances of keeping the leadership of the Labor Party as well as damage the party's chances in the coming general elections, many observers here agree.
Several of Rabin's Labor Party colleagues in Parliament blamed the prime minister today for what they saw as inept handling of the Ofer affair, especially in light of Ofer's repeated denials of wrongdoing.
Defense Minister Shimon Peres, who is Rabin's main rival for leadership of the Labor Party and the office of prime minister in the elections, expected in May, is considered the most likely beneficiary of any backlash against Rabin.
Reports of discussions Ofer had during the last days of his life, including a telephone conversation with a journalist yesterday morning, hours before Ofer took his life, give a picture of a man in public life who is suddenly deserted by his closest friends, and of a delicate situation being clumsily handled by the prime minister and party leader.
"They threw him to the dogs. What kind of leadership does our party have?" Parliament member Shoshana Arbeli, a Labor Party representative, said in an interview today. "How can we ask the people to give us their confidence if we do not even have confidence in each other?"
Ofer, 54, shot himself with a pistol yesterday after driving to a beach near Tel Aviv. Press reports had linked him to alleged illegal skimming of millions of dollars in real estate dealings. Ofer, who had been general manager of Shikun Ovdim, Israel's largest housing company, left a note denying the accusations.
According to Haaretz, the daily paper that has been most persistent in publishing allegations against him, Ofer may have decided to take his life when he heard that the police, who were probing the charges, had received additional evidence with new details implicating him in land scandals.
In a hurried telephone conversation yesterday morning with Yosef Harif, a reporter for the daily Maariv, Ofer said, according to Harif:
"For the past two months I have been living in a Kafkaesque world. It cannot continue this way."
Harif said Ofer recounted a talk he had had the day before with Rabin: "Only tell me what you have against me," he said he had pleaded. "After all, I am a member of your Cabinet and I have the right to ask that within several days it be decided whether there is evidence against me or whether the investigation will be terminated. This way it cannot go on."
Harif said Ofer told him that Rabin had seemed very disturbed and tried to assure Ofer that he was trying to speed up "their" work, but that Rabin did not eleborate who "they" were. Ofer told him, Harif said, that Rabin promised to publish yesterday an official communique stating that there was no foundation to the allegations that had been published against the minister of housing. This communique was never published.
Peres may benefit by default from the tragic incident. He was not involved in the investigation of charges of corruption against Ofer. Nor did he participate in the meeting Saturday of several senior ministers who discussed Ofer's request that the charges against him be dropped or at least that the police investigation of the matter be speeded up.
Several Labor Party members today blamed Rabin for the fact that the press learned of this meeting.
Even though none of the participants is known to have talked to reporters, the high-level makeup of the meeting and the hurried manner in which it was called on the Jewish Sabbath at Rabin's Tel Aviv residence, led to speculation on its purpose.
While the treatment the leadership of the Labor Party gave to its long-time colleague may lose the party some votes, political experts here believe that other voters may be reluctant to support the party, feeling that Ofer's suicide may have given more credibility to the corruption charges.
Rabin appealed today to Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren to allow the burial of Ofer, after a state funeral in Tel Aviv, inside the cemetery. Rabbi Goren gave his consent.
According to the Jewish religion, suicide is a sin and offenders should be buried outside the cemetery proper. But the religious authorities often consider mitigating circumstances in order to allow those who commit suicide to be given their last honors.