- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2001

BEIT EL, West Bank In this Israeli settlement, population 5,000, it is hard to find even one resident who thinks Margalit Harshefi should be in prison.

On the bulletin board in the town's main square, supporters of the young woman, convicted five years ago of failing to prevent the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, have hung a petition calling for a presidential pardon.

At the local market, receipts generated by the electronic cash registers include a line at the bottom in bold block letters: "Amnesty for Margalit Harshefi."

It may not be a surprise that Beit El residents are rallying behind Harshefi, the diffident 25-year-old who during a long trial and two appeals came to symbolize Israel's religious settler movement, both for its piety and its extremism.

But recent expressions of support from a wider section of the public among them prominent academics and some top-flight lawyers and the announcement by President Moshe Katzav that he would seriously consider a pardon request, point to a shift in the way Israelis are looking at the 1995 assassination.

What was once uttered only by members of the far right that the killing of Mr. Rabin by an extremist Jew bent on subverting his peace drive provoked an excessive response against settlers and other rightists is now articulated by more mainstream voices.

"It might surprise you to hear this, but I think she's a scapegoat," said Gidi Gov, a popular radio show host who is firmly identified with the political left. "I don't think she should be going to jail," he said in his morning program.

Harshefi, who began serving a nine-month sentence late last month, was 19 at the time of the murder. In the dramatic days after the killing, she was arrested along with other friends of assassin Yigal Amir.

Amir and Harshefi were fellow law students at the religious Bar-Ilan University and had similar political views that, reduced to their ultranationalist core, held that Mr. Rabin was betraying his own people by ceding West Bank land to the Palestinians.

Her trial centered on what she knew about Amir's intentions: what he told her and what she believed. According to Amir's own testimony, he tried to solicit her help for the assassination and boasted to Harshefi at one point that he already had tried killing Mr. Rabin.

Harshefi told judges she never took Amir's blustering seriously. Yes, he talked about killing Mr. Rabin and yes, he owned a gun, but most of the time she thought he was making up stories in order to impress her.

She was convicted and sentenced to prison for failing to report to police what Amir was plotting. The appeals lasted years and ultimately were rejected.

During that time, few Israelis questioned the veracity of the court decisions. Only in the last few weeks have people begun lobbying on her behalf.

"The assassination was a traumatic event for Israelis," said Emuna Elon, a Beit El resident and a columnist for Israel's largest-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth. "So traumatic that it was really a taboo to say anything in Margalit's defense."

Three weeks ago, Beit El residents took out a newspaper advertisement calling for Harshefi's pardon. It included the names of nearly 100 university lecturers and professors, only a few of them settlers.

By last month, when Harshefi began serving her sentence, even prominent members of the left, including Mr. Gov and novelist Dalia Rabikovich, added their names to the list.

While some analysts link the shift to the changing political climate in Israel six months of fighting in the West Bank and Gaza have fostered widespread disillusionment with the Oslo peace deals that Mr. Rabin symbolized others described it as just another political campaign of the radical right.

Avishai Margalit, a professor of philosophy at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, warned that pardoning Harshefi might be the first step to pardoning the assassin himself.

"This is the beginning of a process of whitewashing the Rabin assassination," he said. "When people say they believe Margalit Harshefi, they really mean they don't believe the courts. And this is a bad sign."

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