Backlash against right wing gaining momentum in Israel

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JERUSALEM — The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a religious extremist has put Israel's right wing on the defensive.

Still shocked by the murder, the right is now reeling from accusations that opposition leaders provoked Rabin's death with extremist rhetoric.

Among the detractors are Labor Knesset members and Rabin's widow, Leah, who assert that Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and other opposition members did nothing to curb anti-Rabin pronouncements during stormy Knesset sessions and at public demonstrations.

From the right's perspective, the arrest of several young religious extremists in connection with the murder has made a bad situation even worse.

"It was bad enough when we thought Yigal Amir was a lone fanatic," said a Likud supporter attending Sunday's massive memorial rally in Tel Aviv for Rabin, referring to Rabin's confessed assassin.

But "hearing that the assassination might have been masterminded by a Jewish underground and sanctioned by rabbis is almost too much to bear."

Possible rabbinic sanction for the assassination was highlighted when reports surfaced that Israeli police would question two rabbis about whether they approved the killing.

The rabbis, Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitz of Ma'aleh Adumim and Rabbi Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba, strongly denied the allegations.

"They do not have the least shred of truth," Rabinovitz told Israel Radio. Rabinovitz, who openly opposes the peace accords with the Palestinians, was among some 20 rabbis who issued a ruling in July calling on Israeli soldiers to disobey orders to evacuate army bases in the West Bank.

Israel's chief rabbinate is also looking into the matter, after being provided a list of rabbis who had called for Rabin's death.

Although no rabbis have been arrested, the very thought that rabbinical leaders might have sanctioned the murder spurred several angry newspaper editorials.

The Hebrew daily Davar Rishon wrote, "If anyone needs to rend his clothes over the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, it is — first and foremost — the national-religious public, including its rabbis and leaders."

Ma'ariv agreed: "The actual responsibility for the awful deed lies with the spiritual leaders who

incited to murder and gave their approval for murder."

From the right's perspective, the fact that most right-wing and religious leaders have denounced the murder has not prevented a backlash, according to Yehudit Tayar, spokeswoman for the Yesha Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"People here are pretty shaken up. Our office has received several threatening phone calls, and we're starting to hear reports of discrimination."

"There is a real witch-hunt going on," said Ruth Matar, co-founder of Women in Green, a group that opposes territorial compromise.

Although Matar called the assassination "a tragedy for the Jewish people," she placed much of the blame for the long-strained relations between the government and the right-wing squarely on Yitzhak Rabin's shoulders.

The Rabin government "has been the most inciteful in the history of the state. It has likened the Likud to Hamas," she said.

Shmuel Sackett, co-chairman of Zo Artzeinu, another organization opposed to giving land to the Palestinians that has organized nationwide protests, agreed.

The assassination could have been avoided "if the prime minister would have listened more to the right wing and given us the feeling that, at the very least, we were being listened to," he said. "Only out of sheer frustration does someone like Yigal Amir do what he's been accused of doing."

Still, right-wing leaders appear united in their efforts to heal the rift between them and other segments of Israeli society.

"The Yesha Council held a meeting and decided to abstain from any public activities during the 30-day mourning period," Tayar said. "Although we disagreed politically, Yitzhak Rabin was our prime minister. We're also in mourning. We remember him as the chief of staff during the Six Day War."

As to future demonstrations, she said, "We have always been careful about what we said, never called Rabin a traitor, but if you have a demonstration with 100,000 people, it's impossible to control every individual."

That being said, Tayar added, "I would hope that people will be more sober-minded and tone down their rhetoric. In an electrified atmosphere, someone who is unbalanced could react in a violent way."

This view is shared by Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat. Riskin was criticized by many this week, along with Nadia Matar and others, for his role in occupying a hillside near Efrat during a series of settler protests against the expansion of Palestinian self-rule.

Riskin was among dozens of Jewish setttlers indicted by Israeli police on charges of disturbing the public order, striking police and attacking Arabs and their property. Amir, Rabin's confessed assassin, was involved in at least one such demonstration.

"Most of us never dreamed to what extent vitriolic debate can lead to bloodshed," Riskin said. In the aftermath of the killing, he is calling for greater tolerance.

"Forget about Greater Israel; it is not really a reality anymore. Forget about dismantling all the settlements, because it will cause terrible alienation on the part of 50 percent of the country. Somehow we must reach some kind of middle ground in which we give up parts of Judea and Samaria, and keep other parts of Judea and Samaria," the New York-born rabbi said. "This is the only way to achieve a wide consensus without compromising the principles of the government in power."

Although reluctant to point fingers, Riskin clearly sees a need for religious Jews to engage in reconciliation, not recrimination.

"We need to be involved in more bridge-building and fewer demonstrations," he said.

Whether Israel's right wing can overcome being associated in the public mind with the assassination remains unclear, said Hebrew University Professor Ehud Sprinzak, an expert on Jewish fundamentalism.

"The right's future depends on whether or not they will recognize that they have had a direct or indirect part in the creation of the conditions that led to the assassination," said Sprinzak, author of "The Ascendance of Israel's Radical Right."

First the right must "change the rhetoric," he said. "The second is to act forcefully against those marginal elements that are still talking about `Peres the traitor' and the `treacherous government.'"

"If the Israeli right can do that," he said, "it can become what it always should have been: a respectable and constructive opposition."