Billionaires Packer and Milchan, at center of Netanyahu Investigation, Sought to Recruit Mossad Chief

The State Takes Revenge on Yigal Amir

Democracy is measured partly by its attitude toward lawbreakers who threaten its existence. More than anything, the fear and vindictiveness that characterize the discussion about Amir bear witness to the weakening of Israeli democracy and society.

Every time the murderer Yigal Amir's prison conditions come up for discussion, the rules of logic and wisdom go haywire. The state reiterates its arguments; Amir's attorneys respond; and each side indulges in emotional blackmail, extravagant claims and empty accusations instead of conducting a substantive discussion.

Amir wants to be released from his isolation cell; the state counters that this is impossible for two divergent reasons: First, other prisoners would pose a mortal threat to Amir, and second, Amir is a dangerous security prisoner who is liable to have a bad influence on and incite other prisoners.

Amir replies that he has no intention of committing murder again, and that other "inciters," such as Marwan Barghouti, were not placed in isolation. The comparison to Barghouti - who, in the framework of a peace agreement, would be considered, like many before him, a leader who took part in lethal warfare in the past - is demagogic. And his pledge that he will not kill is laughable. Even if we assume that he dreams of aiming a loaded pistol at Benjamin Netanyahu's head, he would presumably have some difficulty fulfilling this dream while in prison.

But the state's arguments are also fallacious. If Amir is in peril, then the Israel Prison Service must protect him. But at no stage of the discussions about Amir's isolation was it proven that his life is in any kind of extraordinary danger. Those who raped or killed children are constant murder targets, as are state witnesses, but they are not put in isolation. At most, they are kept under observation.

And the claim about incitement is ridiculous. It's true that Amir is an ideological murderer. Outside the prison walls, he has admirers who see him as a successor of the Biblical priest Pinchas, who killed Zimri, thereby becoming a symbol of extremist zeal and, to many, an exemplary figure. But contrary to the widespread belief that Amir acted with the encouragement of extremist rabbis, his supporters believe (and apparently with cause ) that like Pinchas, Amir violated rabbinical counsel out of a belief in his messianic mission to save his people.

Yet even if Amir still clings to this ideology, his powers of persuasion are not demonic, and he is not liable to cause any more damage than any other megalomaniac or psychopath who serves time in prison. The use of the incitement argument sets a troubling precedent that opens the door wide to violations of prisoners' rights. But it is particularly troubling because the state's obstinacy pales in comparison to the pulsating emotions of the public, which demands that Amir rot in isolation.

This heartfelt public desire has no logical foundation. It is based on emotional revulsion at Amir, fear of the murderer within ourselves and lust for revenge. Were a poll to be conducted on the point, it is doubtful whether the public would be able to decide which is worse: killing a child, stuffing the body in a suitcase and throwing it into the Yarkon River; killing three innocent children in cold blood; or putting a bullet through the head of a statesman and thereby causing mortal harm to peace, democracy and society.

Such questions have no answer, nor do they need to have one. A murderer is a murderer, and human society is not supposed to classify cases of murder according to the horror and disgust they arouse. In view of the hysterical responses to the murder cases mentioned above, it is far from clear that Amir is at the top of Israel's scale of revulsion. Nonetheless, most of the public does not believe that isolating him is inhumane.

The reason for this is simple: Despite the efforts made on memorial days, the Rabin assassination was not a formative national catastrophe. On the contrary: It derived from cultural and ideological schisms that have only widened in its aftermath. The assassination presented Israeli society with an opportunity to clarify its positions. Instead, it preferred to block this process with a panicky, hypocritical and sanctimonious reconciliation.

In the context of this whitewash, Amir was defined as a "monster." The roots from which he emerged were suppressed, and the voices lauding his acts were drowned out by the demand to remove him entirely from our consciousness.

Democracy, though, is measured partly by its attitude toward lawbreakers who threaten its existence. More than anything, the fear and vindictiveness that characterize the discussion about Amir bear witness to the weakening of Israeli democracy and society.