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Presumably, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon examined the intelligence assessments on Palestinian society when he asked the security cabinet to approve the execution of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, so Sharon knew that by doing so he was sealing the fate of a few dozen Israelis. No intelligence officer on the Palestinian desk who was following the mood in the streets of Gaza and Nablus was predicting that the day after the eradication of the Hamas leader, the streets of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem will be safer. Government spokesman can say that getting rid of Yassin prevented a "mega attack." Do a thousand Israelis have to die in one day, for a terror attack to get the title "mega attack?" Are 1,000 fatalities over 40 months "mega terror?"

If there's ever a commission of inquiry into the way the decisions were made, Sharon will find it difficult to present a single document that gave him reason to believe that killing the most admired man in the territories would save even one Israeli. On the assumption that investigators will find their way to the proper people among the Military Intelligence Research Department officers or veterans of the unit, they'll hear that the experts warned that Yassin's heir will be even more extreme than he was.

One does not need to be a leading Orientalist to take into account that harming the Hamas leader would heighten the stature of the clergymen Israel has managed to strike. All it takes is average intelligence to understand once again Sharon made Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's day. A few weeks after Nasrallah pried 400 free passes for prisoners out of Israeli hands, in exchange for three coffins and a lone crook, Hezbollah's leader won, at no cost to him, the role of Gaza's leading clergyman.

Sharon should have known that the days are gone when the forced departure of the leader of a fundamentalist Islamic group would win the blessings of the leaders of the moderate secular groups. Sharon's cheapness with former Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, who was imposed on Yasser Arafat, confirmed the suspicions prevalent among pragmatic Palestinian politicians that the Israeli government is not at all interested in a moderate partner for a settlement. They found final confirmation of that in the public complaint made by Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon about how Israel missed an opportunity to nurture a Palestinian leadership that is opposed to violence.

Yassin, like Arafat

The Palestinians understood that as far as Sharon was concerned, they - Arafat, Abu Mazen, Abu Ala and Yassin - are all the same. That message, that as far as Israel is concerned there are no differences between moderate and extremist, religious fundamentalist and pragmatist, has trickled down to the last of the Tanzim's ranks. The result was predictable. Instead of cooperation between the Israeli government and the new Palestinian government, we got cooperation between the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and the Hamas cells. Sharon should have known that if Arafat were to suddenly decide to declare war on Hamas, he would have encountered mass disobedience if not outright rebellion. Arafat took the risk of civil war only once, in the middle of the 1990s, when he believed that the arrest of Hamas activists in Gaza was necessary to save the Oslo process.

The unilateral disengagement plan being cooked up in the Sharon and Bush kitchen made clear to Arafat that he has to forget the road map and pushed him into Yassin's bed. Sharon made no effort to separate the two. On the contrary, to remove any doubt that as far as he was concerned the Palestinian Authority is as lost a cause as Hamas, he sent his right-hand man, Dov Weisglass, empty-handed to a meeting to prepare a meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia. Abu Ala's advisers, Hassan Abu Libda and Saeb Erekat, said their boss very much needs the release of a few hundred Palestinian prisoners. Weisglass promised to find out if it was possible but made sure to say it would be very difficult to get such a release past public opinion. His interlocutors understood that if they don't get hold of some Tennenbaum, there's no point to Abu Ala even mentioning the prisoners.

A proposal by the Palestinians that the two leaders discuss resuming the joint military committees was meant by a total refusal from Weisglass. He told them that at most, it would be possible to discuss coordination between regional commanders, at the level of districts or a city. A similar response was given to their request that Sharon listen to what Abu Ala had to say about the route of the separation fence. Sharon's lawyer said the route is Israel's business, and that at most, it might be possible to discuss the practical procedures involved for Palestinians to get through the fence's gateways. An hour later the Ashdod terror attack took place and the meeting between Sharon and Abu Ala was canceled. Yesterday, Arafat called Yassin a "holy martyr."

It is difficult to assume that the ramifications of the assassination of Yassin on the safety and security of Israeli citizens and on the mood and balance of forces in the territories were not taken into account by Sharon. Sharon killed two birds with one missile. First, the execution of Israel's most hated handicapped person freed Sharon from the image of being a defeatist and made him "Arik, King of Israel," once again in the Likud Central Committee. Secondly, closer ties between Hamas, Hezbollah and Fatah in Gaza is the best proof of all that there is nobody to talk to about painful concessions in the West Bank.

Moderate or not

For Israelis, alive, and certainly dead, Yassin was the image of extremist Palestinians, a religious fanatic who wanted nothing but war, a kind of combination of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The flood of reactions to his execution, which came from all over the world, showed that there was a difference between Yassin and those two. It's doubtful that the heads of the European Union would have protested against the assassination of Saddam Hussein. It is difficult to believe that the president of Egypt would publish a condemnation of the execution of bin Laden. The difference is in the worldview that Yassin held. In a conversation with an Israeli in jail shortly after the February 1993 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, he rejected violence by Muslims in foreign lands, not even in the hated U.S.

That year, in September, on the day after the signing of the Oslo Accords, Yassin told the same Israeli that Arafat does not have the mandate to give up an inch of holy Palestine. However, he did not protest against the agreement. The Palestinians should accept everything the Israelis offer them, the sheikh said, and then continue demanding their rights and what they deserve. Whenever he sensed his people had grown tired of the struggle to liberate Palestine, he ordered a lull in the attacks to gather strength. It's strange to say it about someone confined to a wheelchair but the best characterization of him was as a long-distance runner. Over the past year he called for a cease-fire and temporary recognition of Israel in the 1967 borders, an arrangement reminiscent of the long-term interim agreement that preceded Sharon's proposed disengagement plan.

A Western diplomat who spent considerable time with Yassin, when asked to help forge a cease-fire agreement between Hamas and Fatah, says he was surprised to meet a balanced man with a sense of humor. He listed to his colleagues and preached dialogue and collective leadership for Hamas. Those characteristics made him into a popular arbitrator with the broad secular public.

Menachem Forman, the settler rabbi from Tekoah, who met often with Yassin before the hudna, is convinced that the chances of making peace between Israel and Palestine through Yassin was better than the chances of an Israeli government with the PLO. "Assassinating Yassin," said Forman, "is another step of despair of the peace process, like Sharon's disengagement plan."