Israelis were consumed by debate Thursday over a presidential decree granting freedom to a woman imprisoned for not acting to prevent the assassination six years ago of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Hours of radio talk shows and pages and pages of the leading newspapers were dedicated to heated argument over President Moshe Katsav's decision to commute the sentence of Margalit Har-Shefi, a right-wing Jewish settler who knew of assassin Yigal Amir's plans but did not alert authorities.
Several politicians worried that the commutation sent the wrong message just as security officials are warning that Jewish vigilantes may be plotting revenge killings of Palestinians and perhaps of other Jews.
Late Thursday, three Palestinians--including a baby--were shot to death as they rode in a car near the West Bank city of Hebron, where radical Jewish settlers and Palestinian militants clash almost daily. A shadowy group of Jewish extremists calling itself the Committee for Security on the Roads telephoned police to claim responsibility, Israeli state television reported.
The Israeli police commander for the West Bank, Shahar Ayalon, confirmed to Army Radio that settlers were suspected in the drive-by shooting. Four other Palestinians in the car, including another infant, were seriously wounded.
Extremist settlers who have come under fire on West Bank roads have been threatening to take the law into their own hands, though mainstream leaders do not condone such action.
The debate over clemency for Har-Shefi dredged up memories of how Rabin's 1995 assassination ripped the nation asunder and, in retrospect, may have set in motion the ultimate unraveling of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Ideological differences that have blurred here in recent months as the Israeli public's mood has generally shifted to the right were suddenly cleaved anew in the Har-Shefi controversy. Hard-liners, who believe Har-Shefi was being made a scapegoat, celebrated her imminent release and praised Katsav as "wise" and "brave." The political center and left--and Rabin's family--were furious.
"Why, why, Mr. President?" asked Noa Ben Artzi-Pelosoff, Rabin's granddaughter, whose emotional eulogy at the slain leader's funeral moved the world to tears. In an open letter to Katsav, she said Har-Shefi's settlement, Beit El, will be rejoicing "again, about the assassination, as they did six years ago. . . . Not even reducing her sentence has erased the stain."
Rabin's daughter and Ben Artzi-Pelosoff's mother, Deputy Defense Minister Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, said the move caused "harsh pain" to the family and Israeli society.
Ignoring three court decisions confirming the verdict and a prison board's ruling that Har-Shefi, 25, continued to show no remorse, Katsav decided to lop three months off her nine-month sentence. She is to be released Aug. 10.
Har-Shefi maintained that while she heard Amir talk about killing Rabin--and that she too believed the Israeli leader was a traitor because of his peacemaking overtures to the Palestinians--she never thought Amir would act.
"The president's decision is particularly odious because [it comes] at a time when there are increasing threats to political leaders and concern about the existence of a new Jewish underground," said Yossi Sarid, head of the leftist opposition Meretz Party.
Eitan Cabel, a member of parliament from Rabin's Labor Party, filed an appeal with the Supreme Court to force Katsav to rescind the decision. The president also will be ordered before a parliamentary committee to explain his thinking.
Katsav defended his decision on Israeli radio, saying he has not declared Har-Shefi innocent but merely found that she has served enough time.
"She is guilty and she remains guilty," he said.
Katsav, who is from the conservative Likud Party, denied he was responding to political pressure in releasing her. Har-Shefi had become something of a martyr for the right wing, and her release was seen by opponents as a sop to increasingly radical settlers.
Zevulun Orlev, a parliament member from the pro-settler National Religious Party, praised Katsav for "not giving in to the hypocritical pressure of the foolish disciples of the Supreme Court and the prosecutors."
Hatzofe, the largest right-wing newspaper, said that by granting clemency, Katsav had "restored meaning to the word justice."