Campaign incidents touch raw nerve on leaders safety

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Last week, when prime minister candidate Amnon Lipkin Shahak made a campaign stop at a market in Tel Aviv, he was severely jostled. One heckler shouted, "The next bullet's for your head."

Adding tension to the national campaign was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's macho crowd-pleasing gesture at a political meeting near Haifa.

"Everyone here is Likud?" he asked. When the crowd roared an affirmative response, he removed a bulletproof vest his bodyguards had urged him to wear.

The two incidents touched the same nerve — a question of how safe the country's political and judicial leaders are, particularly during an already heated campaign.

The president of the Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, is now accompanied everywhere by Shin Bet guards. Other Supreme Court justices are also protected, as is Jerusalem District Court Judge Vardi Zyler, who ruled last month that the draft exemption system for fervently Orthodox yeshiva students is unlawful.

In November, a Haifa man was jailed for three years for physically attacking a local judge, Menachem Ne'eman.

Considered a favorite to unseat Netanyahu, Shahak, a former army chief of staff, had visited the market one day after he declared his candidacy at a Tel Aviv news conference in which he called Netanyahu "a danger" to the nation.

When centrist Shahak turned up at the pro-Likud stronghold, vendors and shoppers almost instantly filled the air with fruit, curses and upraised fists.

Shahak waded into the thick of it, and his handful of aides struggled to protect him.

Later, local police complained the neophyte politician had neglected to inform them in advance of his itinerary, leaving himself needlessly exposed to possible violence.

In the wake of the incident, Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein instructed police to take immediate action against anyone suspected of threatening a politician.

For his part, Shahak, who is campaigning on a platform of bringing unity to the Israeli people, said Israelis needed to relearn "to talk instead of shouting."

He did not withdraw his characterization of Netanyahu as dangerous but explained that he had not meant, as some pundits understood, that the prime minister was toying with the idea of embarking on reckless military adventures as a way of wooing votes.

Instead, said Shahak, he was referring to Netanyahu's exploitation of the deepening fissures in Israeli society for the prime minister's own short-term political survival — and that was the danger that must be removed.

Tel Aviv police, meanwhile, arrested Oded Gipps, a 31-year-old unemployed man who later tried to convince a judge he was sorry for telling Shahak, "Today, you will die." Gipps was released on bail and forbidden to attend political meetings until June 6 — excluding Netanyahu rallies.

The country at large seemed horrified at what happened at the market. Memories came flooding back of the ugly public demonstrations against Rabin in the weeks preceding his assassination.

Adding to the poignancy was the fact Shahak projects himself as Rabin's designated heir — a self-declared role vigorously contested by Labor Party leader Ehud Barak.

Meanwhile, a debate on the democratic process flared: Can police stifle free speech and free association, the mainstay of election campaigns in an open society?

Israeli commentators were commenting on the cordons of security thrown around Netanyahu by the Shin Bet domestic security service at his every appearance. But can anyone fault the Shin Bet? The agency's guard has not been let down since the night of the Rabin assassination. In fact, its role has been extended to cover a growing number of judges because controversy around the courts has grown in recent years, particularly as some Orthodox critics charge that judges are far too secular in their rulings.

The court's accusers do not come solely from the Orthodox sector, however. Last week, Netanyahu's former top aide, Avigdor Lieberman, launched a new political party with a sweeping condemnation of the nation's "elitist" law enforcement system.

Lieberman, seeking support mainly from immigrants from the former Soviet Union, complained about Israel's becoming a "police state."

Regardless, it doesn't look like the debate will end soon.