Israeli sees assassination, but not civil war, looming

Despite unprecedented strife between Jewish settlers and the Israeli government, a leading Israeli political scientist rules out the possibility of a Jewish civil war.

Nevertheless, Hebrew University political science professor Ehud Sprinzak believes Jewish extremists who oppose the current peace process may eventually resort to desperate acts. "I'm afraid of the possibility of political assassination," he said last week.

The professor spoke at San Francisco's World Affairs Council Aug. 31, which meets in the World Affairs Center. About 70 people attended the speech, which was co-sponsored by American Friends of Hebrew University and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

Israelis will never engage in civil war regardless of their political conflicts for several reasons, Sprinzak said in the speech and a later interview.

First and foremost, halachah, or Jewish law, forbids civil war."It's absolutely prohibited to kill Jews," he said. In addition, the nearly 2,000-year exile of Jews from their homeland profoundly affected the Jewish psyche. "There is so much solidarity. You can't imagine," the 55-year-old Israeli native said.

Sprinzak has found no other nation with comparable internal cohesion. Incidents when Jews fired on Jews, such as the June 1948 battle over the ship Altalena, in which the newly formed Israeli government bombed the Irgun's ammunition cargo, are extremely rare , he said.

The self-described liberal, who recently ended a summer stint as a visiting professor at Georgetown University, has written extensively on religious fundamentalism and terrorism. His book, "The Ascendance of Israel's Radical Right," won the 1992 Michael Landau Prize for best political science book on Israel and the Middle East.

Sprinzak estimated that hard-core religious settlers number only about 30,000, but have a base of support among the entire Likud Party membership.

Despite his optimism about a civil war, Sprinzak said the current level of divisiveness in Israel is almost unprecedented.

Up to now, opponents of the peace process have stuck to protests and acts of civil disobedience. However, Sprinzak won't rule out the potential for a political assassination. Although no Jewish leader would ever order the murder of a government official, Sprinzak said, extremists are creating an environment ripe for such actions.

An unstable individual, obsessed with God and personal problems, could arise out of this atmosphere of religious zealousness and political polarity to assassinate a political leader, he said. "I cannot rule it out as a possibility."

Sprinzak considers the Israeli right wing largely responsible for this dangerous juncture, but he believes the mood originated long before the 1993 Declaration of Principles between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Sprinzak looks back to the 1967 Six Day War when Israel soundly defeated its Arab enemies. In the elation that followed, many Orthodox Jews began to view this victory as a miracle and the beginning of the long-awaited redemption that would lead to the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.

So when Labor's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres began talking about ceding the West Bank to the Palestinians, ultra-religious Jews interpreted this act as a "theological disaster" and a "rebellion against God." They believe that "redemption cannot take place in a truncated land," Sprinzak said.

A handful of ultra-Orthodox rabbis also recently began referring to Rabin as a "moiser," or a traitor who hands Jews over to the enemy. According to Jewish sage Moses Maimonides, a moiser can be executed.

"You see more and more settlers in a desperate mood. You hear more terminology like `Jewish traitors,'" Sprinzak said. "You never heard this before."

Extremism has even hardened beyond the rhetoric of the late right-wing radical Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated deporting Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to Arab states.

But not even Kahane called for civil war to defend the territories, Sprinzak said. In an interview with Kahane eight years ago, Sprinzak discussed the idea of zealotry. In Jewish history, zealots helped lead to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. After the destruction, Sprinzak said, halachah condemned zealots. And apparently so did Kahane.

The extremist rabbi told Sprinzak that he "would never give an order to fight other Jews."

"Even Rabbi Kahane…in this particular issue was very cautious."