Rehavam Ze'evi was a young officer in the elite Palmach during Israel's 1948 War of Independence when he draped a sheet over his body one day, climbed on a goat and rode it into the mess hall. The barber had just shaved Ze'evi's head, so the skinny fighter with the wire-rim glasses bore a striking resemblance to Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian pacifist. The nickname stuck. But as he told me in Jerusalem in one of his last interviews before Palestinian gunmen fatally shot him, "Of course, the nickname Gandhi has nothing to do with my views."
Gandhi, who was Israel's tourism minister, also headed the Moledet Party, which calls for the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs. "I believe there is no place for two people in our country," he said. "Palestinians are like lice. You have to take them out like lice."
Gandhi's assassination in October marked the first time a Cabinet minister or Knesset member had been killed in the long war with the Palestinians. A special session of the Knesset was convened and a black sash was placed on his chair. "His legacy we will fulfill," intoned Sharon. "May God avenge his blood." The education minister immediately called for Gandhi's "legacy" to be included in the school curriculum.
Even left-wingers mourned his death. "It is another one of those mornings that make you crazy," Yossi Sarid, the head of the opposition left-wing Meretz Party told reporters. "I'm utterly devastated by this murder…. We did have moments of personal closeness and affection."
Despite his openly racist views, Gandhi was akin to royalty. He was a seventh-generation Jerusalemite, a storied warrior in the nation's army. Born in 1926, Gandhi rose to become the head of intelligence in the Palmach, the left-wing commandos nominally under David Ben-Gurion's Haganah (predecessor to the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF). A general during the Suez War of 1956, Gandhi planted the Israeli flag on Mt. Sinai. A man of imperial tastes, he kept two full-grown pet African lions tethered outside his office when he was military commander of the West Bank in the early 1970s. And he was erudite in Israeli history, having edited some seventy books on the subject.
Shortly before he was murdered, Gandhi bolted the right-wing coalition government, complaining that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was too soft on Arafat. "Arafat is the most evil person for the Jewish people after Hitler," Gandhi said. "Other than Hitler, there is no one else who has caused so much death."
At his graveside, Gandhi's son implored Sharon, "Arik, take revenge the way Gandhi would have avenged you."
Sharon declared that the deliberate targeting of a high-ranking Israeli official had taken the war to a "new level"–beyond the horrors of Palestinian drive-by shootings and suicide bombings. Of course, Sharon didn't see the similarity to his own highly controversial policy of assassinating Palestinian leaders and suspected gunmen in what the United States has denounced as "extrajudicial killings." Sharon gave Arafat a week to turn over Gandhi's killers, and then dispatched tanks to blast their way into six Palestinian towns and villages to hunt for so-called militants. The IDF had itchy trigger fingers. More than forty Palestinians were killed in just a few days, including some civilians who were clearly trying to flee the withering tank and machine-gun fire, according to news accounts.