Sharon Warned of Right-Wing Threat


By Ofer Shelah

Published July 09, 2004, issue of July 09, 2004.
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TEL AVIV — Less than a decade after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, political assassination has moved once again to the center of Israel’s public debate, with intelligence officials warning of an “imminent threat” as right-wing rabbis openly debate how violently to resist the evacuation of settlements.

“I have no doubt that some people have already decided that when the time comes, they will save Israel by murdering the prime minister, a Cabinet member or an army or police official,” Internal Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi said in a television interview this week.

The director of the Shin Bet security service, Avi Dichter, told the Cabinet on Sunday that right-wing opposition to Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan “is becoming more extreme and more dangerous.”

In private conversations, the Forward has learned, Dichter and other top Shin Bet officials are voicing concern and frustration at their inability to crack what they consider dangerous cells among the settlers and their supporters.

The warnings come after a series of recent declarations by rabbis forbidding the evacuation of settlements as a violation of religious law. Settler leaders, including some prominent political figures, have called for extreme measures to block evacuation.

One respected rabbi, Avigdor Nebenzahl, chief rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem, declared last week that withdrawing from the territories might incur the so-called din rodef, or “verdict of the pursuer,” a religious categorization traditionally punishable by death. “Whoever gives away parts of the land of Israel to others should be considered according to this verdict,” Nebenzahl told a rabbinical gathering in Jerusalem.

He hastened to add that the verdict could not be carried out in this day and age. Nevertheless, security officials took the declaration very seriously. The phrase, drawn from the Talmudic injunction, “Whoever comes to pursue you, kill him first,” was discussed among rightist rabbis in reference to Rabin in 1995, and the phrase was cited by Rabin’s killer as a motivation for murder.

Prime Minister Sharon himself publicly acknowledged the severity of the threat this week during a July 5 Knesset debate called to discuss the warnings. Sharon took a lighthearted approach, telling a questioner that he had not begun wearing a bulletproof vest because “there are no vests made in my size.”

Earlier that day, however, Sharon gave vent to deeper emotions during a meeting with the Shinui Knesset caucus. “It is amazing that I, who spent my life defending Jews, must now be protected from Jews,” he said during a meeting with the caucus. Addressing Shinui leader Yosef Lapid, the justice minister, Sharon flatly called for action. “Speaking to you not as a friend, but as justice minister, this is something that must be uprooted,” Sharon said. “All these conferences and rhetoric cannot be allowed.”

The attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, was expected to convene a meeting of legal and security chiefs this week to consider handing down indictments against several of the more extreme spokesmen.

Nonetheless, the security warnings are causing an uproar among right-wing rabbis and politicians, who accuse Dichter of anti-settler “incitement” based on vague and unfounded charges.

Dichter “wanted to incite against the settlers, in order to legitimize their evacuation,” said Yishai Bebad, spokesman for the Rabbinical Council of Judea, Samaria and Gaza.

The events preceding Rabin’s 1995 murder are a major topic of conversation among heads of Shin Bet’s security branch, the unit responsible for the safety of the prime minister and other top officials. They recall that Carmi Gillon, the Shin Bet chief at the time of the assassination, painted a chillingly accurate portrait of the would-be assassin — a resident of pre-1967 Israel, operating alone and not affiliated with any known organization — and yet, for all his prescience, he and his people were unable to locate Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin. Today they believe the similarities between then and now are too striking to ignore.

As in 1995, continued progress on the diplomatic front toward withdrawal from the territories seems to hinge on a single person. When Sharon first raised the idea of disengagement last December, most settler leaders voiced hopes that he was bluffing and would not follow through. The skepticism was followed by celebrations in May following the defeat of the Sharon plan in a Likud referendum. But the celebrations turned to bitterness as Sharon made clear that he would ignore the Likud’s “no” vote and pass the plan directly on to the Cabinet.

Finally, the last-ditch hope that Sharon would be unseated by corruption charges was stymied last month when the attorney decided not to indict him for bribery. Now, Shin Bet sources say, Sharon stands in the eyes of extremists precisely where Rabin stood in 1995: as the person whose removal may prevent giving away parts of the promised land to the enemy.

Shin Bet officials angrily contrast their inability to penetrate the Jewish far-right with their recent successes in obtaining accurate and timely intelligence on Palestinian terrorists. The agency is widely seen as the entity most responsible for the sharp decline in suicide attacks during the last six months. But dealing with Jewish extremists, officials admit, proves to be a totally different matter.

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