CONSIDER the scene: A right-wing Israeli opposition leader stands before a boisterous crowd outside the Knesset deploring the Israeli government's negotiations with a people he terms "murderers." He accuses the country's leaders of having the blood of dead Jews on their hands, employs Nazi imagery to describe them, and urges the audience to resist and defy the government.
This does not describe a recent anti-peace rally in Israel or the words of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. The event took place 44 years ago. The speaker was former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and the rhetoric is eerily familiar. The aforementioned reference describes the wrenching debate in Israel over accepting reparations from Germany for the crimes of the Holocaust. Mr. Begin's incendiary words led a mob to attack Israeli lawmakers while they were debating the issue. Windows of the Knesset were smashed, left-wing leaders were attacked, and a fragile Israeli democracy barely survived its first brush with rebellion.
In the past three years, the inflammatory rhetoric of the right has been disturbingly comparable. The actions of those who reside under their banner of opposition has been tragically similar as well. While the leaders of the right have not directly called for resistance, or explicitly labeled government leaders as Nazis or traitors, their words have inflamed passions and created a climate of divisiveness that made the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin possible.
The events of 44 years ago and of the past three years are illustrative of the incendiary rhetoric that has often characterized the right wing in Israel. During the reparations debate, Begin accused Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his left-wing allies of establishing "concentration camps" for those who opposed his policy toward Germany. During the Likud's reign, both Begin and later Yitzhak Shamir characterized Palestinian terrorists as Nazis and warned of another Holocaust should Israel grant the Palestinians self-determination.
Mr. Netanyahu is no different. On the hustings, he often described Israel's pre-1967 borders as the "borders of Auschwitz." His recent denials of excessive hyperbole notwithstanding, these statements unmask the divisive effects such words can have on political debate. Consider the implications of such a construct: If returning the West Bank to the Palestinians would create another Auschwitz for Jews, than how should one define the Israeli leaders who would make such a deal? By enacting policies that would lead to another Holocaust for the Jews, leaders such as Shimon Peres and Mr. Rabin become no different than Nazis, encouraging the complete destruction of the Jewish people.
In a sense, the historical rhetoric of the Likud has come back to haunt it. For years, the Likud leadership, from Begin to Shamir to Netanyahu, has used the imagery of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust to describe the outcome of trading land for peace with the Arabs. For those individuals on the right who may be less politically sophisticated than the Likud's leaders, such rhetoric can have a frightening, almost affirming, effect. It allows them to perceive leaders who give land to the Arabs as akin to Nazis and therefore worthy of elimination.
In his defense, Netanyahu has never explicitly called Rabin or Mr. Peres Nazis. His use of the term "borders of Auschwitz" may simply be excessive political rhetoric. But in political debates, words can provide the impetus for those who hold even more extreme views. In 1951, Begin may have not meant for his supporters to smash the windows of the Knesset or attack lawmakers, but his words served as a catalyst for such actions.
After a recent rally opposing the Oslo II agreement, which included speeches by Netanyahu and others, demonstrators marched toward the Knesset where they attacked Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. Although it's doubtful that Netanyahu called for or would have endorsed such action, his words and those of others may have created the climate for such an event, offering validation for those who find such actions acceptable.
Netanyahu, while not directly employing the extreme language of the far right, has been more virulent in denouncing Rabin and the so-called PLO-Hamas terrorist state in Gaza than he has in denouncing members of his own camp who have used such inflammatory words. If anything, his actions seem to indicate an acquiescence or ambivalence toward the rhetoric of those who would take justice into their own hands to stop the peace process.
In wake of Rabin's assassination, some have noted that Netanyahu rarely spoke up when the banners of Kach, the banned, extremist political party of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, which advocated the expulsion of all Arabs from Israel, were displayed at anti-peace rallies. Netanyahu has said, "It's not the job of political parties to keep public order." True, but it is the job of political leaders to speak out against the voices of intolerance and hatred that find shelter in their camp. Netanyahu's words and actions, like those of his predecessors, created a political climate in which the views of the extreme right could find a home.
Yigal Amir is a logical outgrowth of years of vitriolic and incendiary language directed toward Israel's neighbors and Israelis who sought peace with them. Netanyahu didn't pull the trigger that felled Rabin, but he, and many others on the right, must bear responsibility for the actions of the man who did.