Background / If Sharon Makes Peace, Is His Life in Danger?

As Israeli hardliners geared up to demonstrate against the prime minister they had labored to elect just three months ago, Israelis voiced fears that the prime minister's sudden peacemaking bid may make him the next target of a fanatic, perhaps deadly, fringe.

On the eve of the 36th anniversary of a war that revolutionized Judaism as well as the modern Middle East, Israel's rightist icon Ariel Sharon closed a landmark summit Wednesday by putting fellow hawks on notice that the road map will level West Bank outposts and oust settlers from their caravan homes, as the government treads the path leading to sharing the Holy Land with an independent Palestine.

As hardliners geared up to demonstrate against the statehood concept, and against the prime minister they had labored to elect just three months ago, Israelis voiced fears that the prime minister's peacemaking bid may make him the next target of a fanatic, perhaps deadly, fringe.

The precedents are not encouraging.

In 1977, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who had rocked the Jewish state to its foundations by invading the Sinai peninsula on Yom Kippur four years before, stunned the world by traveling to Jerusalem to make the Arab world's first formal peace with Israel.

Four years later, on October 6, 1981, an unsuspecting Sadat watched from a reviewing stand as several of his countrymen in uniform stepped out of a military parade and emptied their AK-47 assault rifles into him as he crumpled against a row of chairs.

In 1993, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin - who as army chief re-drew the map of the Middle East on June 5, 1967 by driving his forces into Sinai, the Golan, the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem's Old City - took a dramatic, thoroughly unexpected public step, recognizing Israel's arch-foe the Palestine Liberation Organization, and declaring a freeze on new settlement construction in the territories.

Barely two years on, elated by a huge show of public support at a Tel Aviv peace rally, Rabin was striding to his armored limousine when a young religious right-wing Israeli pumped three pistol shots into his back.

This week, Sharon, a warrior with a fearsome reputation, for decades the guiding spirit of the settlement enterprise in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, jolted the nation by spearheading government approval for the internationally-sponsored road map for peace - a document which mandates a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza by 2005.

Crucially for the right, the road map states that as part of an intial phase, the government of Israel "immediately dismantles settlement outposts erected since March 2001," and "freezes all settlement activity [including natural growth of settlements]."

The immediate consequence of Sharon's embrace of the road map was the appearance of signs pronouncing him a "traitor," a term that has borne dark significance since it gained wide currently in far-right circles in the tumultuous weeks preceding Rabin's murder.

Another reminder of the pre-assassination period was the scheduling of a mass right-wing protest to take place hours after the Aqaba summit in Jerusalem's Zion Square, the site of a virulent anti-government rally held exactly a month before Rabin was gunned down by religious militant Yigal Amir.

Fury, outrage, and shock on the right have reached levels unseen in years - in fact, not since the Rabin era, says Haaretz commentator Daniel Ben-Simon.

The significant difference between anti-Rabin and current anti-Sharon fury, Ben Simon believes, is that "the right viewed Rabin as a traitor in the sense that he did what he did as a secular man and a leftist, and thus a betrayer of the Jewish heritage. They hated Rabin, not only because he was a man of the left and a 'defiler of tradition,' but because he represented a New Israeli with whom they could not identify.

"The problem now is that Sharon is one of them. He is a man who belonged to them. This is a betrayal within the family. The man that put up mezuzahs in every settlement, who drew up the maps of new settlements and established the Land of Israel turns out to be their Judas Iscariot."

For the right, Sharon is more than merely one of the family, Ben-Simon argues. "For the right, Sharon is the head of the family.

"As one of the members of the [settlers'] Yesha Council told me, 'For the very first time since 1967, for the first time since settlement began, we are alone. Once, we were the Right versus Rabin, the Right versus [former prime minister Ehud] Barak. Today, the head of the Right is against us. And now, we, the settlers, are suddenly alone."

Israel's 1967 capture of the whole of the biblical Holy Land shook Orthodox Jewry to its foundations.

Accompanying the rightist revolution led by Likud founders Sharon and Menachem Begin in bringing the party to power in Israel a decade later, Sharon's ensuing settlement drive potentiated a companion revolution within right-wing and religious circles.

To an extent never before seen, the image of the settler as heroic pioneer galvanized and politicized observant Jews and hawkish sympathizers across Israel and throughout the world.

So compelling was the settlement revolution that it became a main focus of rabbical teaching, even in nominally non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox circles, which would spawn some of the most militant opponents of land-for-peace deals with the Arabs, and in the end, the most fiercely uncompromising opponents of such Israeli generals-turned-peacemakers as Rabin.

The threat of possible violence was voiced in an indirect but ominous manner at the weekend by cabinet minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the far-right National Union bloc and a resident of the West Bank settlement of Nokdim.

In a television interview, Lieberman cautioned that uprooting settlements touched nerves so sensitive in Israel that the step could spark civil war.

Compounding the tension, rabbis in the territories were quoted as singled out Sharon in a statement that included the phrase, "How the mighty are fallen" - something commentators compared to a funeral eulogy.

Justice Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Yosef Lapid (Shinui) cautioned against shrugging off the statements as mere talk.

"Threats against Sharon must not be taken lightly," said Lapid, who in the past has himself been the object of thinly-veiled threats by prominent religious figures. "One extremist remark can spur another, and extremists are playing with fire. This is the atmosphere, and we know that this can indeed happen."

Rightist ire at Sharon deepened Monday, when his deputy defense minister suggested that up to 10 "flagrantly illegal" unauthorized settlement outposts could be taken down in an initial inplementation phase of the road map, the Bush administration's hope-against-hope for Middle East peace.

"One cannot ignore the fact that at the fringe of the rightist camp are fanatic people who are liable to be dangerous," Lapid said. "When Lieberman says that [dismantling outposts] could lead to civil war, it's hard to know whether he is warning or threatening."

Lapid stressed that right-wing protest against the road map, and against evacuating settlements, withdrawing from territory and holding talks with Abu Mazen was entirely legitimate.

"But on the fringe of this camp, there are indeed people who are dangerous to the public, and who are liable to be tempted to carry out violent acts "

Many religious and right-wing politicians were quick to condemn the talk of civil war and to reject verbal attacks on Sharon, arguing that Israeli media had intentionally blown extremist sentiment out of all proportion in order to de-legitimize the settlers and opponents of the road map.

"This is a libel that borders on villainy," National Religious Party leader Effi Eitam said of media reports cited rabbical opinions declarating that the government had no authority to dismantle settlements or cede territory.

"What I am hearing, is rabbis reiterating, emphasizing over and over again, that hands should not be raised in anger, that violence should not be used in any way, shape or form, regardless of the ideological disputes between Jews."

But some religious figures took a dissenting, if carefully phrased, stance on whether certain circumstances could justify violence of Jews against Jews.

The possibility of a civil war does exist, said Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, rabbi of the Nablus-area Har Bracha settlement, and the son of a former head of the hardline Rabbis Committee of Yesha (the West Bank and Gaza Strip), Melamed said. "It's obvious that when you hurt people, tough problems can be created."

Asked about signs branding Sharon a traitor, Melamed said that "this is quite a strong term, but it also has a degree of truth." In reversing himself on the issues of settlements and peace moves, the prime minister had displayed a "betrayal of values."

Like many on the right, Melamed voiced confidence that the removal of settlements would never come to pass, predicting that the Palestinian Authority would first fail to keep its part of the peace bargain, curbing terrorism from militants in its midst.

But Melamed refrained from issuing a public call to refrain from violent resistance to evacuation. Asked to publicly counsel militants against taking violent acts, Melamed demurred, saying that "Arik Sharon sent me here to settle. Should I now apologize? As the person whose endangering the country, it's he that needs to apologize now, he's the one who has to justify himself, not me."

"I am flabbergasted," said Rabin's daughter, former lawmaker Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, of the words of Rabbi Melamed and Zar. "I hope those who should be worried, heard these remarks as well," she said, indicating the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency.

She said the remarks were nearly identical to those made by far-right Israelis in the months prior to the 1995 assassination. Rabin-Pelossof quoted Amir as having said that "If I hadn't sensed that I had support, I wouldn't have done what I did."

"I don't think that the State of Israel, that Israeli society, can afford to allow itself to contend with enough act as horrible as this."

In fact, the sledgehammer impact of the Rabin assassination may be a factor that actually helps to prevent a recurrence. "The right has yet to free itself of the trauma of the Rabin murder," notes Ben Simon, quoting one rabbi as saying "One more killing like this, and there will no longer be a state of Israel."

"In other words, even the far-right cannot allow itself to demolish the [national] home."

If someone should decide to kill the prime minister, "even the Shin Bet secret service cannot completely prevent it, just as it cannot head off all terrorism," Ben Simon says.

"This is because murder derives from an atmosphere, an atmosphere of murder. And the atmosphere today is not one of murder, but one of deep rift, of tears, of sitting shiva [mourning]. You don't see the effigy dolls of Sharon being hanged, you don't have rabbis issuing the calls of 'Din Moser' and 'Din Rodef', [effectively, rabbinic licenses to kill Jews who betray fellow Jews], the tools that brought about the Rabin murder."

If Sharon goes ahead with peace moves that lead to the partition of parts of the territories from Israel proper, the step will constitute the defining story of Israeli society, Ben Simon concludes.

"Slicing apart the Land of Israel will be a life-or-death surgical operation on the very heart of the society The question is, will the patient recuperate and arise as a new man, or will he die on the operating table?"

The process could be so profound that it could be tantamount to civil war, "leading either to rebirth, or to collapse."

The importance of the territories and their tie to Jewish heritage is such that it is unclear if the "rabbinic-religious-redemption side can really live without these areas. Every one of these places is mentioned in the Bible. The real question is the extent to which Bat Yam, Herzliya, and Rishon Lezion can fulfill their sense of Jewish experience."

For many Orthodox Jews today, the territories are the very focus of their identity. "All of the national religious Jewry has become nearly addicted to that identity. Just as secular Jews may have universal values of personal freedoms and the like, national religious Jewry has absolute identification only with the territories. All rabbinic rulings are confined to this, not such issues as social distress or poverty.

"Therefore, if you take this away from them, you are taking everything. This may bring about their total collapse, and it's possible, that in their collapse, some may want to take others with them, including the prime minister."