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Op-ed

When Shin Bet warns of political violence, Israel’s history requires we listen

25 years after the Rabin assassination, the man charged with protecting Israel and its leaders from internal security threats fears a repetition. His warning must be heeded

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, April 11, 2021 (Courtesy)
Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, April 11, 2021 (Courtesy)

Unsurprisingly for the head of a shadowy security agency, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman is a man of few public words. During and after last month’s mini-war with Hamas and Gaza’s other terror groups, during two press conferences at which the prime minister, the defense minister and the IDF chief of staff addressed the nation at length, Argaman spoke last and spoke briefest.

Argaman’s resort to issuing a public statement on Saturday night warning of a serious rise in violent discourse, especially on social media, with a consequent growing danger that somebody is going to get physically hurt, was thus particularly out of character. That the generally understated Shin Bet chief decided he had no alternative but to create great big alarming headlines only underlines how serious he considers the danger to be.

Argaman did not invoke the Rabin assassination in his statement, but unnamed security officials, speaking to journalists after he had issued his warning, explicitly paralleled the current eruption of foul allegations of political treachery, betrayal and ostensible national political crisis, to the weeks and months before a far-right Jewish extremist, Yigal Amir, gunned down prime minister Yitzhak Rabin on the night of November 4, 1995.

It was not known as of Saturday night whether the Shin Bet chief had spoken to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before he issued his warning, which he accompanied with a plea to politicians, rabbis, educators and other public figures to speak out to try to defuse the danger. It came a day after Netanyahu related in a Facebook post to the Shabbat Torah reading about the 10 spies who “spread false reports about the Land and weakened the spirit of the people out of concern for their own personal interests.” (The Bible relates that the spies who bore false witness were struck down by a plague and died.) Netanyahu went on to demand that “those who were elected with the votes of the right must stand up and do the right thing: establish a strong, good, right-wing government that will protect the Land of Israel, the citizens of Israel and the State of Israel.”

Netanyahu has claimed in recent days that the emerging new government, which he insists on branding “left wing” although it includes three right-wing factions, endangers “the Land of Israel, the State of Israel, and the Israel Defense Forces.” His brother-in-law Hagai Ben-Artzi declared in a television interview last week that the actions of those politicians moving to oust Netanyahu meet the Biblical definition of treason.

In an act of quite astounding irresponsibility, just hours after Argaman sounded the alarm, a group of Orthodox-nationalist rabbis issued a statement asserting that the emerging new government “will harm the most fundamental matters of religion and state” and endanger Israel’s existential security interests, and urged supporters to “try and do everything so that this government is not formed.”

Some of the signatories subsequently denied that their letter constituted precisely the incendiary incitement that Argaman had warned against. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, for instance, insisted in an Army Radio interview on Sunday morning that it was self-evident that the rabbis were not encouraging any breach of the Torah, which he said forbids hateful deeds, words or even thoughts.

Such blithe confidence that nobody reading their statement would be moved to pick up a weapon would have sounded terrifyingly naive even without the memories of the Rabin assassination a quarter-century ago. In the wake of that political murder, carried out by a man who purported to believe that he was acting with some rabbinical support and in accordance with divine will, the rabbis’ statement is beyond reckless.

It is not too late for them to reissue the statement, this time to include their subsequent clarifications that it cannot and must not be interpreted as a call to political violence. As Argaman stated, it is incumbent upon them, and upon all other politicians, rabbis and other public figures — from the prime minister on down — to defuse the current fraught climate, not to exacerbate it.

We have been down this road before. The man charged with protecting this country and its leaders from internal security threats — whose agency is still deeply scarred by the failure to prevent the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin — fears that we are speeding down it again.

Woe betide us all if his strikingly uncharacteristic warning is not urgently heeded.

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