Security for ministers stepped up as peace opponents dig in heels

JERUSALEM — Security for government ministers has been heightened amid hardening political opposition in Israel to the peace process with the Palestinians.

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and other cabinet ministers have been the targets of public outbursts in which they were heckled or physically attacked.

Rabin said that while he was concerned about the growing political violence, he was not worried about his own personal safety.

"This doesn't seem to be a personal problem, but rather a severe public problem," Rabin told Army Radio.

Protests against the government's peace policies with the Palestine Liberation Organization have become increasingly vocal — and physical.

In one of the most violent outbursts last week, a right-winger charged at Rabin during an annual gathering of Israel's English-speaking community at the Wingate sports academy in Netanya. Bodyguards pushed the protester away.

"Rabin is endangering the lives of Jews, creating a terrorist state and taking severe measures, so he shouldn't be surprised if harsh measures are also taken against him," Itamar Ben Gabir, an activist in the militantly anti-Arab Kach movement, told Israel Television.

Ben Gabir was shown on TV holding the hood ornament from Rabin's Cadillac. It was stripped from the car during anti-government demonstrations two weeks ago.

Ben Gabir told the reporter that if activists could get close enough to Rabin's car to take the ornament, they could also get close to Rabin.

In another incident, Religious Affairs Minister Shimon Shetreet was accosted during a religious ceremony at the Western Wall last week, during which people in the crowd called him a "traitor."

The opposition has come not only from disaffected Israeli citizens but also from officials of the government's opposition.

During the annual Jerusalem parade last week, Likud Knesset member Tzachi Hanegbi drowned out Rabin's remarks by broadcasting his own anti-government comments on loudspeakers he had secretly set up near the reviewing stand.

The prime minister has lashed out at the opposition, calling such acts incitement and proof that it does not have a legitimate argument to stand on.

The latest incidents have sparked a hail of accusations between Labor and Likud parliamentarians.

Labor Knesset member Rafi Alloul called on Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair to strip Hanegbi of his parliamentary immunity, in order for charges to be brought against him for the incident at the Jerusalem parade.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected claims that he has been the driving force behind the acts of incitement.

At an opposition rally in the West Bank settlement of Efrat last week, Netanyahu said, "We cannot condone physical attacks against Cabinet ministers or representatives of the government.

"We have to express ourselves in the ballot box, not through violence," he said.

Yet some peace process opponents, including one ultra-religious leader, have publicly called for people to physically act against the peace process.

Meanwhile, another anti-government demonstration took place in downtown Jerusalem Thursday of last week.

Protesters from the grass-roots group Zo Artzeinu, or This is our Land, blocked traffic by leading a number of sheep on leashes onto a main thoroughfare.

The demonstrators said they wanted to illustrate the point that they did not plan to let the government's policies lead them like "sheep to the slaughter."

Police removed the sheep — and the demonstrators — from the road.