The Israeli-Arab dispute, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is subsumed within it, is so deep-rooted and complex that its unfolding cannot depend on any single personality, significant as that particular individual seems to be while he is active. The dispute between the peoples is about land and religion, borders and culture. Its roots stretch back dozens and perhaps hundreds of years, and nobody knows what its future holds. The influence exerted by particular figures - no matter how they attain power or how their lives come to an end - is limited.
One question stems from this analysis: Should Israel wait for nature - or some enemy - to do its part, or should Israel initiate attacks against a leader of a state or a movement that wages war against it? The moment one of these two options is chosen, it is impossible to know how reality would have materialized had the other route been taken.
The assassination of Yasser Arafat's deputy, Abu Jihad, curbed the Palestine Liberation Organization's ability to carry out attacks in 1988; but it did not restrain the intifada, and it removed from the Palestinian leadership an internal rival to Arafat who might today have led a moderate stream within the Palestinian Authority.
The assassination of Abbas Mussawi put the more dangerous Hassan Nasrallah at the top of Hezbollah's power pyramid, and it thrust harsh reprisal terror attacks upon Israelis and Jews. The killing of Yihye Ayash was designed to prevent terror attacks that the Hamas "engineer" had planned; but this assassination sparked a brutal wave of terror attacks, one result of which was the turning of the scales in Israel's prime ministerial and Knesset elections.
If Ayash was the "engineer," Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was the master architect of Hamas, an organization to which distinctions between "political" and "military" wings do not apply. Hamas's Iz a Din al-Kassam battalions murdered Israelis with the blessing of Hamas's leaders, headed by Yassin. Sheikh Yassin did not grant immunity to any group of civilians in Jerusalem, Netanya, Tel Aviv, Ashdod and elsewhere. So he had no moral right to expect that Israel would grant him such immunity from anti-terror attacks.
The Yassin assassination was justified, no less so than American assassinations (which have yet to succeed) of Osama bin Laden and his cohorts would be justified. But "justified" does not mean necessary and wise: To say something is "permitted" does not always mean that it is "worthwhile."
Yassin did not provide strong arguments in favor of sparing his life; to the contrary, he responded to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's declaration of intent to evacuate settlements and troops from the Gaza Strip by claiming victory, and by continuing the Hamas campaign of terror attacks. His activity undermined the shared Israeli-Palestinian interest in attaining an Israeli majority for the Gaza pull-out, and transfering the region to orderly PA control.
Yassin's assassination, however, was not a necessity in terms of thwarting terror attacks; and a very high price is likely to be paid for it.
For days, in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, Israel will be forced to remain on high alert against the possibility of a wave of terror attacks, and expressions of rage in the territories and among Israeli Arabs, and perhaps in Islamic states. It is to be expected that the assault by the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet security service on Hamas leaders will continue in this period. But the true measure of the decision to assassinate Yassin will be seen in months to come, after the storms abate: The wisdom of yesterday's assassination is to be measured by the extent to which moderates on both sides consolidate their positions, and the conflict moves from a stage of escalation to one of reconciliation.