Saturday's assassination of Abdel Aziz Rantisi was the product of intelligence work and operational calculations. The Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet knew exactly when Rantisi would be exposed to an attack that would cause minimal harm to innocent Palestinians near him. While Israel might still face years of armed struggle waged by radical, hostile elements that cannot accept its existence alongside a Palestinian state created out of a just compromise acceptable to the moderate majority on both sides, there can be no lack of respect for Saturday's show of professional expertise and strength by Israel's defense establishment.
Yet those who are encouraged to see that Israel's military is on target cannot avoid doubts about the integrity of the motivations of those who order uniformed soldiers to squeeze the trigger. Ariel Sharon's positions, and his behavior in IDF roles and in politics, are such that he faces the burden of proof - it cannot be automatically assumed that the order to assassinate Rantisi was motivated purely by the desire to serve the state's interests.
To be sure, Rantisi was not morally immune to such attacks. In the case of terror organizations like Hamas, no genuine distinction can be drawn between the "political" or "ideological" echelon and military operators. The inspiration and the directives for terror attacks are not always formulated in terms that specify targets, locations and the precise identities of victims or suicide bombers. Rantisi, like his cohorts in the Hamas leadership, declared war on Israel. When considering whether, and when, to attack Rantisi and militants who are like him, the basis of the deliberation should be Israel's desire to put an end to the fighting by working out a solution with Palestinians who disagree with Rantisi's path; and the main factor to be weighed in such deliberation is whether an assassination will encourage the moderate camp to struggle against the target's successor and try to break away from the cycle of violence and revenge.
Knocking off Hamas leaders is not, in itself, policy. If these acts aggravate risks faced by the State of Israel and its citizens, they are wrong. Conversely, if they are likely to restrain Hamas and lead it toward the route of a cease-fire (which disappeared rapidly last summer) and encourage the organization to work out practical arrangements with the Palestinian Authority prior to the withdrawal of IDF troops and settlements from Gaza - then the assassinations should not be ruled out. An echo of this approach can be heard in the White House, which followed its mechanical warning that Israel should take into account the possible consequences of its actions by expressing understanding for Israel's right to defend itself against a terror organization (which boasted about the terror attack earlier Saturday at the Erez checkpoint).
Even if it is possible to identify substantive arguments to justify the Rantisi assassination, the timing of the act raises skepticism about the motives of those who decided to carry it out. Sharon was eager to arrive at yesterday's cabinet meeting - and to influence whether top Likud ministers who have expressed reservations about his disengagement plan will join active opponents of the plan or be content to issue vacuous statements - with a military success under his belt. His policy-making ally is Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who has even stronger ongoing links with the IDF's senior staff, and who reportedly demanded Saturday that the army carry out the assassination without delay.
To preserve credibility regarding the justice of their goals and means, decision makers must exercise doubled restraint during this turbulent period.