Can Israel put out the flames?

The Rabin assassination has been blamed on right-wing politicians, says Patrick Cockburn
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The Independent Online
The bitter words of Leah Rabin yesterday blew apart the fragile political unity forged in Israel after the assassination of her husband, the Prime Minister. Mrs Rabin directly accused the right-wing Likud party of creating the violent climate that led to Saturday's terrible events. She said she cold-shouldered its leaders at Yitzhak Rabin's funeral, believing that their words convinced Yigal Amir, the assassin, that "he had the support of a broad public with an extremist approach".

Binyamin Netanyahu, the suave ex-diplomat leader of Likud, was quick to put Mrs Rabin's words down to her immense grief. But he may find them hard to live down. His denunciations of the government for surrendering to Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, by giving up the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians, have been fierce, and he has often seemed not too fussy about the audience he delivered them to. Labour supporters point out that just a month ago in Zion Square in the centre of Jerusalem Mr Netanyahu addressed a rally of 20,000 people opposed to the Oslo agreement at which members of Kahane Chai, the outlawed extremist anti-Arab group to which Yigal Amir belonged, were carried shoulder high through the crowd. Some distributed a poster showing Mr Rabin in SS uniform. Other placards showed the faces of Mr Rabin and Shimon Peres, the Foreign Minister, now Mr Rabin's successor, at the centre of a gun target.

Mr Netanyahu is moving fast to distance himself from members of the religious right, whom he has cultivated in the past. But this may be difficult for him because their violence was extraordinarily visible. They were almost always armed. Their rhetoric was invariably bloodthirsty and they had shown they could move from words to deeds. As recently as last year the Kahane Chai member Baruch Goldstein mowed down 29 Palestinian worshippers in a mosque in Hebron.

The left in Israel now hopes that Mr Netanyahu and Likud will be damned by their old associations. But this is probably wishful thinking. The bitter divisions that created the conditions for the assassination remain. Israeli society has always been less homogenous than it appeared from outside. A large part of the religious and nationalist right believes that giving up even part of the West Bank is a betrayal of the land God gave to the Jews. They may now express horror at Yigal Amir's deed, but his beliefs, as expressed in court, are little different from their own.

The Israeli right is a complex phenomenon. It consists of three main strands: the middle-class rightism that is little different from American Republicanism and is the brand with which Mr Netanyahu feels most comfortable; the old-style nationalists of the right who were once led by Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir; and the religious right which lives in a very different world from other Israelis and has shown an extraordinary capacity for violence over 20 years.

The violence comes from an exclusive ideology - a belief in themselves as the vanguard of the Chosen People - in which the imperatives of territorial nationalism are supplemented and reinforced by the will of God. Even a partial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank is therefore the grossest treachery because it is the abandonment of divinely appointed borders. Yigal Amir's monologue in court this week is a compendium of these views. He said he killed alone but "maybe together with God". He is fiercely anti-Arab and says: "Hasn't the Israeli people noticed that a Palestinian state is being established here?"

Mr Netanyahu and the centre right are far removed from this sort of extremism, but in the past they have tolerated and courted the religious extreme because it was too large for Likud to ignore. Since the beginning of the Israeli state in 1948 the friction between secular and religious Jews has been one of the motors of political controversy and change. Professor Baruch Kimmerling, of Hebrew University, says: "There are two poles in this society. There are about 15 per cent of pure secular Jews and there are about 20 per cent of very religious Jews. The majority are somewhere in between these two hard cores."

Yigal Amir and his brother, Hagai, accused of making 20 dum-dum bullets for the assassination, are almost textbook examples of the introverted world of the religious right. Israel has two education systems. The mainstream is like any education system in the Western world, though it is distinctly Jewish and Zionist. The Amir brothers attended religious schools which are very different, exclusive, narrow and closed to outside influences from junior school to university. The government is now saying that it will compel religious schools in future to teach democratic values.

The brothers were also associated with a second breeding ground of the extreme right: the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. These now play the role within the right that the kibbutzim - socialist and egalitarian communities - once played in the politics of the Israeli left. They produce a dedicated elite and highly motivated officers for the army - although many religious men and women take up an exemption to army service, resented by the rest of Israeli society. Yigal Amir's only appearance on television before last Saturday was this summer when he fought police during a settler demonstration on the West Bank. His fellow students at Bar-Ilan university say he encouraged them to spend weekends at settlements.

"People who think that the religious far right is going to go away because of what happened to Rabin don't understand how far it has been institutionalised in its schools and settlements," said an Israeli observer yesterday. At Kfar Tapuah, a settlement stronghold of the Kahane Chai west of Hebron, a resident explained to Israeli television on Sunday that "if someone felt this was the situation with Rabin, that he was going to kill the Jewish people, Jewish law would permit his killing".

Mr Netanyahu says these are not his views but Labour says that he should be judged by the company he keeps. One leading Labour politician asked, immediately after Mr Rabin was killed, how Likud could claim to be blameless in his death when it had tolerated people portraying him as a murderer and a traitor at its meetings.

Some of this will stick. But Shimon Peres clearly does not believe that it will do enough damage to Likud for him to risk a snap election, though some of his supporters think he is mistaken. The religious right will keep a low profile for the moment. In the meantime, the world is learning that Israel has fundamentalists just as dangerous as any in the Islamic world.