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  Slain Leader's Legacy Lives On, Assassin Admits

Yigal Amir
Convicted assassin Yigal Amir believes Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin deserved to die for forfeiting land God gave to the Jews. (Reuters)
By Laura Blumenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 1999; Page A1

HERZLIYYA, Israel The man who pumped three bullets into Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin admitted this week that although he killed one of Israel's most famous peacemakers, he has failed to kill the peace process.

Yigal Amir, the 29-year-old religious extremist who is serving a life sentence for Rabin's assassination, also said he favors Rabin's protege Labor party leader Ehud Barak in the upcoming elections. He joked that if elected, Barak might end up like Rabin.

Banned from talking to journalists or anyone else outside his immediate family, Amir allowed a Washington Post reporter to listen in on a speaker phone conversation with his mother this week. He offered a rare glimpse of his life in deep isolation, days spent bent over holy texts on his concrete desk, answering fan mail from teenage girls, lathering up in a shower in front of 24-hour security cameras.

Geula Amir
Geula Amir is allowed to speak to her son, Yigal Amir, for 15 minutes each day by phone. (By Will Yurman Special to the Washington Post)

His mother, Geula Amir, 49, talked to her son from his old room at the Amirs' white stucco home here, in a northern suburb of Tel Aviv. He was 60 miles away at a prison in Beersheva, gripping a receiver handed through a slot in the metal door of his windowless chamber, where he is in solitary confinement.

Amir spoke to his mother in heavy, depressed tones, issuing sentences in rapid bursts. On Nov. 4, 1995, he fired a 9mm Beretta and thought he would change history forever; instead, the former law student got prison forever.

"Don't ask how I feel, and don't ask what I'm eating," he had told her in an earlier conversation. "If you ask me, I'll hang up." So this time his mother tried to direct the conversation to politics. "Who are you voting for?" she asked. (In Israel convicted felons are allowed to vote.)

"I don't know. I wouldn't mind Barak," said Amir. "He's the same as [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu. Both are keeping the peace agreements, continuing on Rabin's path."

For Amir and other religious extremists in Israel, Netanyahu has proved to be a bitter disappointment. Amir has said he shot Rabin out of religious conviction, to prevent the return of the West Bank to the Palestinians. But Netanyahu has not prevented that return, and a Palestinian entity if not a state now exists on land formerly held by Israel.

Amir believes that Netanyahu is going out of his way to punish extreme right-wingers like himself, and that Netanyahu deserves to lose.

"You'll have better prison conditions" if Barak is elected, said Geula Amir.

"The left won't feel like they have anything to prove," Yigal added.

But he made it chillingly clear that he has not changed his views about the righteousness of his actions. According to Amir, a leader like Rabin, who forfeited land God gave exclusively to the Jews, deserved to die.

"You don't watch television," his mother said, "so you don't see it, but you would die laughing Barak keeps showing these ads of him shaking hands with Rabin, standing next to Rabin, and he promises that he'll continue on Rabin's path."

"So let him follow Rabin," Yigal snickered. "Maybe he'll end up like him too."

"Oh, shut up, you're disgusting," said Geula, scolding but affectionate.

These talks are part of the Amir family routine. Every day, between 6 and 7 p.m., a guard from the Beersheva prison in southern Israel calls on a special line that reverses the charges. After the guard confirms that the voice on the other end belongs to Amir's parents or to one of his seven siblings, he transfers the call. After 15 minutes, a bell rings, signaling the end of the conversation.

On this evening, Geula talked to her son from the room he used to live in. Unlike the rest of the house, the walls in this room are fresh, and the windows new. After the assassination, police ripped the place apart, and discovered a cache of weapons.

"I don't know," she said. "I'm not sure what you did was worth it."

Amir laughed bitterly. "You have no faith," he said. "If I hadn't [killed Rabin], there would have been a Palestinian state for a while already, no Jewish settlements, we would have lost everything."

"But there already is a Palestinian state," his mother said with a sigh.

Her life revolves around her daily talks with her two jailed sons (Yigal's brother Hagai, is serving a 12-year sentence for hollowing out the assassin's bullets, making them more lethal.) Attendance at the nursery school she runs from her home has dropped from 37 students to 17. Last year, on the anniversary of Rabin's death, someone torched the family car.

Every other Monday, often accompanied by her husband, Shlomo, 56, a religious scribe, she visits Hagai, 30, in a prison in Ashkelon, an hour and a half down the Mediterranean coast.

Every other Tuesday, she drives their '87 Suzuki for a five-hour round trip to visit Yigal, where she endures a thorough search by security guards. On the last visit, she said, a guard reached under her nutmeg-colored wig and extracted the pin that clasps her ponytail. It could be used as a weapon.

On this particular evening, Hagai phoned home at 5:40, an hour before Yigal. Hagai sounded lively and engaged, compared to Yigal's humorless, apathetic tone:

"How are you, my soul?" Geula said, out of breath from bolting up 20 steps to the second-floor bedroom.

They began with small talk the underwear she brought him is too tight, he complained and moved on to politics.

"What's new?" she asked. "There are rumors Yigal won't vote."

"I don't think I will, either."

"During the last elections, Yigal said it was our moral duty to vote," said Geula. Both of the imprisoned Amir brothers voted for Likud candidate Netanyahu in May 1996.

"Back then we had hope, we had expectations. Do you expect anything from Netanyahu? I don't," said Hagai. "So let him lose. It'll be good. If Barak is elected, it will unify the religious right. No one will be able to stand up to them. Not one Barak, not a billion Baraks."

Geula told Hagai that she was going to speed up writing her book about the assassination. "Our economic situation is bad."

"It's not bad."

"Not of the nation, you moron, the economy of our house."

"You should describe the events of that period. People won't believe the crazy things that happened. It's like when you read a book about the British rule or the days of Stalin."

"Next week there'll be a holy rabbi in Herzliyya. I'll ask him what to do."

"You can't tell anything from these prophecies," Hagai said.

"Last time I went to the rabbi for a blessing, he said, 'Don't worry, the boys will be freed soon.' He said he would live to attend your weddings."

"Yeah, well how old is he?" Hagai said sarcastically.

Before Hagai said goodbye to his mother, she reminded him that he would be allowed a rare visit with Yigal soon. "When we walk though to see Yigal," she told him, "they announce on the loudspeaker: 'Return all prisoners to their cells.' The area is emptied, not a soul allowed near us. Clinton! I always say the Clintons have arrived. We walk through whoosh like peacocks."

A Prison Authority spokeswoman said that the Amirs are isolated from the other prisoners because they fear one of the inmates might attack them. They have a private visiting room, down the hall from Yigal's cell, in a wing cut off from the rest of the prison. "When he murdered Rabin there was an outrage against him," said spokeswoman Orit Messer Harel. "The prison authority treats him fairly."

He is allowed to receive mail, bundles of it, from teenage girls with crushes on the handsome assassin. They write to him, telling him their problems, and he writes back dispensing advice. One girl, his mother said, wanted to commit suicide. Another was upset because her parents divorced and her mother moved to France.

Most of the day, though, Yigal just sits and studies Talmud, the books of ancient Jewish law.

"What are you going to do on election day?" Geula asked Yigal.

"What do I do every day?" he said.

"Study, study, study, study, study," she replied.

He told her he had decided he is not going to vote: "It's a waste of time."

"The left will celebrate if Barak wins," said Geula, "and you'll be seen as a big failure."

"So I failed," said Yigal, sullenly. "And everyone else wins."

"The right wins, too?" she asked.

"Ach, Mom, you take politics too personally," said the man who killed a prime minister. "It's all decided from above."

"Yeah, but I'm living down here, below."

The other line rang. It was Amitai, Yigal's 12-year-old brother, calling from the central bus station, asking for a ride home: "Mom? Could you pick me up in Nof Yam?"

Yigal interrupted, offering from his maximum security cell: "You can take bus number 29."

After the boy hung up, Geula told Yigal he had gone to the mall with his friends from school.

"The worst kind of friends," Yigal said. "What does he have to go to the mall for?"

"Leave him alone. He hardly ever leaves the house. He's deathly afraid, Yigal, this period has been really hard on him. He is afraid to leave the house."

"Bad friends," the assassin said. "Look after him. Don't let him just wander around with a bad crowd."

The other telephone rang again. A girl named Elinor one of Yigal's pen pals was on the line. "Mom," Yigal said impatiently. "Connect her to me."

Geula patched her son through. Then she put the receiver down on the couch and walked downstairs, leaving the two of them alone.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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