Jerusalem — The assassin, now a proud daddy, was beaming.
On Sunday, 12 years to the day that he gunned down Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, Yigal Amir was celebrating his son’s brit in a tent set up on the grounds of the Rimonim prison near Netanya, where he is serving a life sentence.
The next day, every media outlet in the country showed images of a clean-cut Amir smiling and waving to supporters with his right hand and holding the bassinet with his left.
Dressed in a button-down beige shirt and khaki pants, a kipa and tzizit (ritual fringes) hanging over his belt, the bearded murderer looked like any proud Orthodox Jew welcoming his son (who was conceived during a conjugal visit) into the Jewish people.
To the horror of Israeli government officials and many private citizens, sympathy for Amir appears to be gaining momentum in circles not considered ultra-right wing.
His supporters — many of whom believe he is innocent and have for years spun out complex conspiracy theories about Rabin’s assassination — are in the midst of an aggressive marketing campaign to free the imprisoned killer.
The campaign, which has so far included demonstrations at the prison where Amir is confined for life; bumper stickers declaring “Free Yigal Amir” and the circulation of 150,000 copies of a video designed to pull at the heart strings of the Israeli public (now being widely distributed over the Internet), was begun — perhaps not coincidentally — less than a month before Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is expected to make territorial concessions to the Palestinians at the Annapolis summit conference.
Olmert has sworn never to release Amir and many prominent Israelis, including Rabin’s daughter, former Deputy Defense Minister Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, have been sharply critical of the pro-Amir movement. According to Ha’aretz, clemency is the “prerogative of Israel’s president” and President Shimon Peres, who was steps away from Rabin when he was gunned down, has said Amir shouldn’t be pardoned.
Public interest in Amir was raised this week, after he was permitted to attend his son’s circumcision ceremony.
Also on Sunday, large numbers of fans attending a Betar Yerushalyim soccer game booed during the moment of silence held for the slain prime minister. Reporters said that some fans could be heard chanting songs praising Amir.
The crowd’s reaction to the moment of silence is significant, said Bar Ilan University political scientist Asher Cohen, because “most Betar Yerushalyim fans aren’t far-right extremists. They’re just Likud supporters who don’t support Amir’s actions, but they don’t support the current peace process either. We’re hearing this from mainstream right wingers, not just the extreme fringe.”
The trend seems to be born out by a recent opinion poll in the Maariv newspaper, which showed that a quarter of the general public believes the government should pardon Amir in the year 2015, when he has served 20 years of his life sentence. Thirty-eight percent of the Jews who defined themselves as religious in the survey (about 14 percent of the overall population) said Amir should be released immediately.
Oz Almog, a sociologist at Haifa University specializing in Israeli society, agrees that such views are “not a shame anymore and [have] become, particularly in religious circles, quite common. Let’s not exaggerate: this opinion is not held by most of the Israeli public. But if 12 years ago there was one Yigal Amir, today there are 1,000. This illustrates to what extent Israeli society is losing its moral character.”
That argument cuts both ways, say Israelis who fear Olmert will not only hand over chunks of Jerusalem and the West Bank to the Palestinians during the Annapolis conference, but will release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners with blood on their hands.
“On the same day that the newspapers are reporting that Olmert plans to release large numbers of Arabs with Jewish blood on their hands, the same government speaks with such certitude about never releasing Amir,” says Ruth Matar, founder of Women in Green, an organization opposed to territorial compromise. “Aren’t the lives snuffed out by these terrorists just as precious as Yitzchak Rabin’s?”
This is one of the points put forth in the professionally produced video being disseminated by the “Free Amir” campaigners from a group calling itself the Council for Democracy.
The video begins with remarks by Amir’s mother, who notes that he “was always someone special, an exceptional soldier” and ends with a plea by his wife, Larisa, who married Amir after he was imprisoned, to free her husband. Along the way it shows Rabin signing the Oslo Accords with the late Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and the angry public reaction to it.
To remind people of the mood at the time, the video shows mass rallies by right-wing demonstrators holding up placards of Rabin in a keffiyah head covering juxtaposed with Arafat or surrounded by Nazis. The next images are of a weeping Esther Wachsman, whose soldier son, Nachshon, was abducted by Arab militants, followed by horrible scenes, including ZAKA rescue personnel scraping up body parts, from countless bombings of buses and cafes.
Also on the video, Ehud Ya’ari, a well-known political analyst, is shown on the nightly news stating that Rabin, had he lived, would have given away land to Syria. Scenes of busloads of Palestinian prisoners being released by Israel and a shot of imprisoned Palestinian militant Marwan Barghouti, rumored to be on the list of prisoners slated to be released, round out the flashbacks.
“Let’s assume you know that your neighbor is transferring weapons to terrorists,” says an Orthodox man on the video. “Would you stand by or would you kill him?” An Israeli singer declares, “It’s time to free Yigal Amir.”
A composed Larisa Amir, the assassin’s wife, says in Russian-accented Hebrew, “This is not just our struggle. It’s your struggle.”
Framing the new discussion about Amir as a marginal battle between the far right and the far left, Dan Schueftan, deputy director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa, said, “There is a tiny, negligible minority in Israel that considers him a hero, and they’re very vocal. People on the other extreme of the political spectrum [the far left] find it very convenient they have such a provocation; it makes it easy for them to mobilize their lot on the other side.
“What you have is an unholy alliance between the two extremes — those who condone [Amir] and those who want to frighten people by bringing his name up again to adopt their political views. Of course the media are always interested in anything insignificant but that looks very appealing.”
Of the public discourse now revolving around Amir, Almog said, “What was once considered inconceivable is now conceivable. There are no longer any red lines.”
While it is impossible to know whether he was sharing more of a warning or a prophecy, even Rabin’s son, Yuval, mentioned the possibility that Amir might be released by some future government.
During a Tel Aviv memorial service for his late father, Yuval Rabin said, “What started out with a marriage license, permission to have a child and a brit, will end up with a murderer walking among us with his children, happy and free.”