Amid escalating far-right rhetoric branding him a Nazi collaborator and a traitor for his Gaza withdrawal plan, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was asked in the Knesset last week if he wears a flak jacket under his shirt to protect him from assassination.
"No," the heavyset premier replied. "They don't come in my size."
But many politicians and analysts believe the possibility of another assassination is no joke. They say that killing an Israeli prime minister - or a spectacular act of anti-Arab violence by extremist elements - could derail the planned withdrawal of about 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank, and that incendiary far-right pronouncements, including invocations of the Holocaust and plans to place a ritual curse on Mr. Sharon, are paving the way for such acts.
Tensions ratcheted up further on Sunday when talks between Sharon and settler leaders ended amid mutual recriminations after Sharon rejected their demand for a referendum on the withdrawal plan. The settler leaders warn of a possible civil war if there is no referendum. A handful of far-right demonstrators picketed the meeting, holding signs that read "Sharon is a traitor" and "Don't meet with traitors."
"In a divided society words can kill," says Amnon Rubinstein, a minister in Yitzhak Rabin's Cabinet when Mr. Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing extremist opposed to his ceding land to the Palestinians. Mr. Rubinstein says the current climate "definitely" resembles that which prevailed prior to Mr. Rabin's killing. "The Prime Minister is being accused of being a traitor and this may trigger another assassination attempt."
But Sharon says he remains steadfast in his pursuit of withdrawal despite mounting opposition. Monday, as fighting continued in Gaza killing at least five Palestinian militants, he said he would not back away from removing settlements.
The Yesha council, the leadership group representing the 220,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, says it shuns incitement, believes only in peaceful protest, and opposes the labeling of Sharon as a traitor.
"We disagree with Sharon's policy, but he's the prime minister, we respect him and he's given his life to the well-being of the country," says Josh Hasten, a spokesman for the council.
But some influential rabbis are now saying divine law - as they interpret it - takes precedence over government decisions. A former chief rabbi, Avraham Shapira, last week called on soldiers and police to refuse to participate in evacuating settlers, likening doing so to "desecrating the Sabbath and eating unkosher food." Sixty other rabbis have also called on soldiers not to participate in an evacuation.
The antiwithdrawal campaign has turned personal. Protesters have hoisted pictures of Sharon with the label: "the dictator." It is a reference to, among other things, his shunning of the results of an April Likud party referendum that came out against withdrawal.
Last month, a self-styled rabbi from the Psagot settlement, Yosef Dayan, said on television he is ready to place a ritual curse, the pulsa denura, on Sharon, the same curse he and others placed on Rabin before his assassination. "There are people who wish Sharon dead ... I am one of them. Can't I wish?" he said.
But the pronouncement that sent shockwaves through the political system was by a West Bank settler, Nadia Matar, the head of the Women in Green, a far-right group. She compared Yonatan Bassi, a religious Jew who heads the government's disengagement administration responsible for evacuating settlers, to Jews who are perceived as collaborators with the Nazis for helping to arrange the deportation of Jewish communities to the death camps. She termed Mr. Bassi "a modern version of the Judenrat (Jewish council) - in fact a much worse version" since he acts voluntarily while the Judenrat was coerced.
She said a letter Mr. Bassi reportedly prepared for the settlers was similar to a letter sent by the Judenrat to Berlin Jews in 1942. "The 1942 document ended with an emotional plea to the Berlin Jewish leadership to behave calmly and thus ease the process of deportation," she said.
Left-wing leaders warned that her remarks pave the way for violence. They urged that Ms. Matar be indicted for incitement. The Yad Vashem state Holocaust memorial institution has issued a call for refraining from using expressions and concepts taken from the Holocaust in the public debate.
In an interview, Matar, who was questioned by police over the comment, not only stood by her remarks, but broadened them to include Sharon. "Ariel Sharon and Bassi are on the same level," she says. "By playing into the hands of the Arab enemy, Sharon and Bassi are much worse than the Judenrat."
Avshalom Vilan, a left-wing legislator, says: "The moment people are compared to Nazis it becomes a license to kill them. If a limit is not set, we will arrive at another political assassination."
Uri Elitzur, editor of a settler journal, says that the allegations of incitement and comparisons to the Rabin assassination constitute "an effort to silence legitimate opposition.... If you disagree with someone, write an article against their view, don't shut them up," Mr. Elitzur says. "Rabin died because his bodyguards did not secure him properly, not because of incitement." He says that Matar's statements are "foolishness" but adds, "she has the right to express herself even if I don't like what she says."
But Yoni Fighel, senior researcher at the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism in Herzliya, says Israel needs to move immediately to protect itself with tougher laws and tougher enforcement against Israelis like Matar. Far-right stickers, videoclips, and pronouncements "are fueling a saturated atmosphere in which the smallest event can cause an explosion," he says. "There is a system of far-right incitement that is creating the conditions for violent activity. We are just one stage away from this happening."
Matar says Sharon and Bassi are the ones planning to engage in violence. "It is their plan of using soldiers to uproot Jews, to destroy homes and synagogues, that's where the violence is, where the crime is." she says.