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In a country where war follows shattering war with clockwork frequency, where grotesque tragedy borders on the routine, one thing remains the cataclysmic event of a generation, the one possibility that beggared even the paranoid imagination: the killing of a prime minister.

Nearly nine years have passed since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. This week, however, the little-faded image - that of an extremist gunning down a gruff, septuagenarian former general to stop him from handing West Bank and Gaza Strip land to the Palestinians - returned to grip official Israel with obsessive force.

The image was not lost on the gruff, septuagenarian ex-general who now holds the office and who once served Rabin as a subordinate officer and later as a prime ministerial advisor on terrorism.

"It pains me that, as someone who all his life defended Jews in the wars of Israel," Ariel Sharon told legislators Tuesday, "I now need defense against Jews, for fear that someone might try to harm me."

Sharon's cabinet opened its week with a warning by Shin Bet Director Avi Dichter of a rising tide of potentially violent extremism among Israelis opposed to Sharon's plan to withdraw from all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four near the West Bank Palestinian city of Jenin.

A chilling assessment by Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi followed late on Tuesday. "I have no doubt," he told Israel's Channel Two television, "that there are people who have already decided that they will 'save the people of Israel' and will assassinate a minister, the prime minister, an army officer or a police officer" - in imitation of Rabin assassin Yigal Amir.

"The practical capability of fulfilling the wish is not always there. But there's no lack of extremists."

The statement was particularly potent coming from Hanegbi, son of Lehi underground fighter and militant rightist Geula Cohen, and who himself stood with the right-wing protesters who clashed with the IDF during then-defense minister Ariel Sharon's 1982 evacuation of the Sinai settler city of Yamit.

As a government, Hanegbi concluded, "It is our obligation to do everything possible to keep us from returning to November 1995."

'Let's hope this time Shin Bet knows what to do'With three pulls of a trigger, the 1995 assassination struck Israel with the psychic impact of a civil war.

For some, the shock of the shooting gave way with startling speed to a firefight of recriminations. Left-wingers laid the blame at the fierce anti-Rabin protest campaign that preceded the killing.

Right-wingers maintained that the left had opted for a campaign of character assassination against all right-leaning and religious Israelis.

Hawks said leftists had conveniently chosen to overlook the Shin Bet's failure to prevent the assassination, even when Avishai Raviv, an informant of the domestic intelligence service supplying information on Jewish extremists, had befriended law student Amir.

Instead, hawks noted, leftists pointed fingers of blame at rabbis reported to have issued halakhic rulings effectively supporting the killing of Jews seen to be putting fellow Jews in mortal danger.

In recent days, rabbis have issued rulings and declarations with striking parallels to those of the period that preceded the assassination.

For many even on the far-right, however, the Rabin killing remains an act with neither parallel nor conceivable explanation, a crime that the right itself must ensure never happens again.

"The myth that a Jew cannot kill another Jew is a myth lacking any historic justification," said senior legislator Rabbi Benny Elon of the pro-transfer National Union party, whom Sharon fired from his cabinet seat last month over his vehement opposition to the disengagement plan.

The danger of a new assassination "exists all the time," Elon said Wednesday. "That is why the Shin Bet exists, and why the the Shin Bet must do its job."

What the Shin Bet and its director should refrain from doing, Elon continued, "is to say that the entire national camp, or all the settlers, are dangerous. These statements create an anti-democratic atmosphere, and the shutting of mouths."

The crucial element, in Elon's view, is that "if I, or anyone else, has information on a new Yigal Amir, heaven forbid, an additional murderer, he should immediately learn the lesson of the last time - not simply decide that such a thing cannot happen - and inform the nearest police station."

If that happens, Elon said, Israel can only hope that the Shin Bet - responsible both for prime ministerial bodyguards and for preventing "Jewish terrorism" - has learned its lesson as well.

"The last time, they installed an agent, Avishai Raviv, paid him a salary for eight years, he became the closest friend of the murderer, and the murder took place anyway.

"This time, let's hope the Shin Bet will know what to do."