TEL AVIV (JTA) – On the 12th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, news about his killer threatened to overshadow annual memorial ceremonies.
Coverage of assassin Yigal Amir has dominated the front pages of newspapers here in recent weeks. Headlines ask in bold letters: Will Amir be able to attend the bris of the baby son he and his wife are expecting any day now? How is it that Amir was allowed to marry and father a child, anyway? Will Amir be released from prison early?
“For 12 years, people memorialized Rabin’s doctrine, until they ran out of words,” Nahum Barnea, one of Israel’s leading columnists, wrote in Yediot Acharonot on Wednesday, the Hebrew calendar date of the assassination.
“In the absence of innovation, some of them are starting to take an interest in the doctrine of Yigal Amir,” Barnea wrote. “The gang of losers that has grouped around him does not deserve the holy wrath that is directed at it. There is nothing to them but a pathetic need for attention.”
But it is Amir who is getting attention, and plenty of it, buoyed by a campaign launched by the extreme right to release him from prison – a development that has succeeded in rattling the nerves of a nation still deeply polarized by the 1995 assassination.
A recent poll in the daily Ma’ariv found that more than a quarter of the Israeli public believes Amir will be released from prison after serving 20 years of his sentence – that’s just eight years away. The survey found that 26 percent of the public at large and 42 percent of Israelis who define themselves as religious support freeing Amir at that time.
Some polled in the survey said they would want to see Amir released even sooner.
Details of Amir’s relationship and eventual marriage in 2004 to Larissa Trimbobler, a divorced Russian immigrant who already had four children, has received great attention in the Israeli media. The fact that Amir was allowed to marry in the first place sparked controversy, as did the eventual decision to allow conjugal visits.
Before conjugal rights were granted, Amir was caught trying to smuggle a plastic bag containing his sperm to Trimbobler from his prison cell.
Twelve years after the assassination, historian Michael Oren says, the societal divisions that marked the era in which the prime minister was murdered remain as wide as ever.
The left has turned memorializing Rabin into a “display of leftist power,” and the right calls for Amir’s clemency or “extols him as a hero,” said Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a conservative Jerusalem think tank.
“The Rabin assassination still goes to the heart of division that goes right through Israeli society, not only between the right and left but between Israel as a secular, normal state and as a Jewish state with a role in a Messianic agenda,” Oren said. “The Palestinians are almost ancillary to the story.”
In the immediate aftermath of Rabin’s death, the religious right wing expressed a sense of being deeply ashamed of Amir, who came from among their ranks. At the time, Amir said he felt the rulings of some extremist rabbis – who had said or written that it would be religiously permissible to kill Rabin because of his peacemaking efforts with the Palestinians – sanctioned the murder.
But in recent years, as the religious right wing in Israel has become more insular, it has distanced itself from the public rituals of memorializing Rabin, Oren said.
Concerned by this trend, one Orthodox synagogue in Rehovot held a special memorial service Tuesday night in memory of the slain prime minister. Prayers were read and speakers citing religious texts warned of the dangers of civil war and a breakdown of Israeli society.
During a special Knesset session held in Rabin’s memory, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said extremists must not be allowed to dictate political terms between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Israel’s aspiration for peace will not be stopped by the bullets of a vile assassin,” said Olmert, who is expected to travel to Annapolis, Md., this fall for a peace summit with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority.
“As we move toward the Annapolis talks, I hope we won’t see violence used as a tool of policy,” said Batsheva Genut Iluz, director of international affairs at the Rabin Center, a Tel Aviv-based institute established in Rabin’s memory to memorialize the prime minister and ensure Israel learns the lessons of his assassination.
The memorial service at the Rehovot synagogue stood in stark contrast to the ongoing campaign for Amir’s release by members of Israel’s extreme right.
In their latest public move, they produced a short film titled “Peace is Made with Brothers” that announces “Next Passover Yigal will be home.” Copies of the film are being handed out across the country.
The video and the national chatter about a possible early release has drawn condemnation from Israeli politicians who say no such possibility exists.
Eitan Haber, perhaps Rabin’s closest adviser and confidante, often speaks out on issues concerning Rabin’s memory.
He penned bitter and terse words in Wednesday’s Yediot Achronot.
“You can all take note: This villain will only leave prison on a gurney covered with a sheet,” Haber wrote. “Actually, why waste money on a sheet? A rag will suffice.”