A week after the assassination by Israel of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, it is easy to draw up a list of justifications for the act. It is equally easy to demonstrate that on balance the killing was a serious mistake, reflecting a dangerous absence of strategic wisdom on the part of its perpetrators. But this entire discussion of the assassination of a terrorist must not be allowed to obfuscate the more important basic fact that the assassinations reflect: none of the relevant leaders has a realistic strategy for peace, or even for ending the violence.
This targeted killing was justified because Sheikh Yassin was a major terrorist leader, and in the post 9/11 era there are no longer inhibitions about eliminating terrorist leaders. It was popular with the Israeli public because the public, legitimately, wants its terrorist tormentors to be punished. With Israel having announced its plan to leave the Gaza Strip, it was legitimate to expect that terrorism from and within Gaza would cease; when it did not, and when Hamas leaders, with Hezbollah’s backing, escalated the terrorism (the Ashdod port attack), it made sense to launch a campaign to send a message of strength, and to diminish Hamas in favor of more moderate Palestinians, as part and parcel of the withdrawal plan. And while the murder of a quadriplegic political-religious figure in a wheelchair as he was leaving a mosque undoubtedly seems grotesque and cynical, it does send a deterrent message to Yassin’s fellow religious terrorist leaders: witness the effect of the hu! miliating capture of Saddam Hussein on the likes of Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi. A previous round of assassinations led Hamas to agree to a hudna or ceasefire.
There is also an obvious political angle–cynical, but real–to the Yassin killing. By this act, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon silenced the militant critics of his disengagement plan within the Likud, and seemingly enhanced his "irreplaceable" status in anticipation of a possible criminal indictment. Some would add that there is an international angle, too–one that refers to the global war on terrorism: the election of the Zapatero government in Spain, with its platform of withdrawing from Iraq on the heels of the Qaeda attacks in Madrid, ostensibly sealed Yassin’s fate, in the sense that a strong and aggressive anti-terrorist message was called for to counter the impression of appeasement emanating from Spain.
All these arguments and more can be mustered to justify the Yassin assassination. Yet it remains an act of futility, if not stupidity. While it may reduce Hamas’ capabilities by striking at one leader and forcing others to go deep underground, it does not deter; on the contrary, it only increases the motivation of both the lower ranks and the leadership to kill Israelis, now including Israeli political leaders. While some moderate Arab leaders who fear militant Islam may secretly rejoice over Yassin’s killing, they remain angry at Israel and embarrassed by its actions. Jordan’s King Abdullah, in particular, was compromised and weakened in Arab eyes because he had met with Sharon scarcely two days before the assassination. Plans for the end-March Tunis Arab summit to reinforce the commendable Saudi peace initiative of two years ago were scrapped (along with the entire summit) by compromised Arab moderates. Perhaps of most concern, Yassin’s martyrdom is liable to incite the Ar! ab street to greater religious extremism and anti-Americanism, far from the borders of Israel.
After balancing out the pros and cons of this assassination, and in general of the policy of assassinating the political leadership of anti-Israeli terrorist organizations, the bottom line points to the strategic bankruptcy not just of Israel, but of all the relevant parties. Israel and the Palestinians appear to be capable of responding only to violence. It is difficult in logical terms to support the convoluted claim that we are softening up Gaza in March 2004 in anticipation of a justified withdrawal that is sponsored by a lame duck prime minister for all the wrong reasons (e.g., holding onto the West Bank) and which, if it happens, is scheduled for the summer of 2005. The seemingly endless succession of empty slogans emanating from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) leadership since this intifada began–"let the IDF win," "burn defeat into their consciousness," "Hamas is a strategic enemy" (what was it before, a tactical enemy?)–all reflect the lack of a strategy for endin! g the violence and winning the peace.
Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership, including that of Hamas, have even less of a claim to a realistic strategy: they started the current conflict, have suffered far more, and appear to have learned nothing, whereas Sharon is at least planning to disengage. And US President George W. Bush seems oblivious to the damage caused by our conflict to his program of "freedom and democracy" in the Middle East.
If only Sharon at least had a realistic strategy for peace, assassinations might not be necessary. Certainly they would be far more justified.