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NEWS ANALYSIS Israel grapples with free speech after death threat mars campaign

JERUSALEM, Jan. 11 (JTA) — As Israel plunges into an election campaign, the country is struggling to find the right balance between being a boisterous democracy and a society still traumatized by the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Within days after campaigning began, a debate welled up over the acceptable limits of public discourse as Israelis react — sometimes with barely disguised rancor — to the candidates seeking their vote. The issue came rushing to the fore last week after centrist candidate Amnon Lipkin-Shahak made a campaign stop at a market in Tel Aviv. Considered a favorite to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even before he announced his candidacy, the former army chief of staff found himself jostled and threatened as he made his way through the market. One heckler shouted, “The next bullet”s for your head.” Further charging the political and psychological atmosphere was a crowd-winning gesture Netanyahu made last week at a political meeting near Haifa. “Everyone here is Likud?” the premier asked. When the crowd roared an affirmative response, he removed a cumbersome bulletproof vest his bodyguards had urged him to wear. The two incidents have touched the same raw nerve. In a nation where people are far from reserved in their passions, how safe are the country”s political leaders, particularly during an already heated election campaign? Shahak visited the open-air market one day after he declared his candidacy at a Tel Aviv news conference, where he called Netanyahu “a danger” to the nation. When Shahak turned up at the market, a traditional pro-Likud stronghold, vendors and shoppers wasted little time in letting him know how that remark had played in their circles: Fruit, curses and upraised fists filled the air. Shahak waded into the thick of it, and his handful of aides struggled to protect him. Later, the local police complained that the neophyte politician had neglected to inform them in advance of his itinerary, leaving himself needlessly exposed to possible violence. In the wake of that 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 his own short-term political survival — and this was the danger that must be removed. After the marketplace furor, a group of vendors visited Shahak at his home on Sunday evening, television crews in tow, to express their regrets and extend an invitation for a more hospitable return visit to their place of business. Previously brandishing their fists and hurling abuse, they now came bearing baskets of fruit and flowers. Tel Aviv police meanwhile arrested Oded Gipps, a 31-year-old unemployed man who later attempted to convince a judge of his remorse for having told Shahak, “Today, you will die.” Gipps was released on bail and forbidden to attend any political meeting until June 6 — apart from rallies for Netanyahu. 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 that Shahak is projecting himself as Rabin”s designated heir — a self-declared role vigorously contested by the Labor Party leader, Ehud Barak, also a former army chief of staff and close Rabin confidant. The debate regarding the boundaries of public discourse is particularly poignant during an election campaign, which is essentially an arena for argument — the essence of the democratic process. Candidates choosing to make televised visits to open-air markets are deliberately courting vigorous expressions of support and dissent. Are the police to be allowed to stifle free speech and free association, which are the mainstay of election campaigns in an open society? Israeli commentators have discussed in the past the effect, both on the premier and on the public, of the thick cordons of security that are thrown around Netanyahu by the Shin Bet domestic security service at his every appearance. Reservations over these measures — however understandable they are in the wake of the Rabin assassination — are naturally enhanced at election time, when candidates need to engage in personal, grass-roots campaigning. Netanyahu”s decision last week to remove his bulletproof vest enraged many on the left because of its implication — that the premier was in danger if anyone in the hall was not a Likud supporter. But along with the rage, there was also sympathy with his predicament, which is shared to a lesser extent by Barak, who is also protected wherever he goes by stern and uncompromising Shin Bet officials. Granted, Netanyahu sought to make political capital out of last week”s appearance in Haifa — although some thought he did so tastelessly. But the basic challenge to the workings of the normal political process remains unresolved. Yet who can fault the Shin Bet? Not only has the agency”s guard not been let down since the night of the Rabin assassination, it has been extended to cover a growing number of judges. The president of the Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, is now accompanied everywhere by 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. Controversy around the courts has grown in recent years, particularly as some Orthodox critics charge that judges are far too secular in their rulings. But the court”s accusers do not come solely from the Orthodox sector. Last week, Netanyahu”s former top aide, Avigdor Lieberman, launched his 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.”” While Lieberman came under fire for indulging in dangerous populist rhetoric, some observers are alarmed by the increasing frequency with which judges find themselves threatened and harassed. In November, a Haifa man was jailed for three years for physically attacking a local judge, Menachem Ne”eman. The sentence was clearly aimed at halting the deteriorating standing of the courts among some parts of Israeli society. Without doubt, both the candidates and the courts needs constant protection. But at the same time, many observers worry that it is dangerously easy to let that need grow into an end unto itself. The real goal, they say, is democracy — and protection is only the means to ensure it.