Text size

On Monday, after Abu Mazen commenced his public diplomatic campaign to appease Hamas and the other militant organizations, Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi could be seen whispering amiably into the ear of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin on Gaza City's main street. There was no need for any state-of-the-art intelligence to determine their whereabouts. Anyone who wanted to could have bumped off the two of them for the price of one missile. Rantisi was not the type of wanted man who needed a hit team sent out after him. He could be detained anytime, just like Yassin or Ismail Abu Sanab or Mahmoud al-Zahar. These men are not in the "ticking bomb" category, even if they are responsible for dispatching terrorists.

The assassination dilemma, i.e., the matter of how urgent it is to assassinate a terror boss, stopped being put to the sensitivity test, not to mention the wisdom test, long ago, and this is not what matters at the moment with regard to Rantisi. The decision to eliminate him is evidence that Israel has made up its mind to strike at the so-called "political echelons," which is another way of saying that it no longer accepts the premise that terror organizations consist of a military wing and a political wing. They're all terrorists.

Israel is in good company: There are other countries that don't distinguish between terrorists and ideologues when it comes to terror organizations. Jordan had no problem expelling the leadership of Hamas from Jordanian soil. With and without trial, Egypt has executed the leaders and members of terrorist cells. Even the United States would willingly assassinate Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's spiritual mentor, if it could only get its hands on him.

The problem is that the war on the leadership of Hamas and Islamic Jihad is no longer just a battle against terror organizations. It is being fought in a context, and that context is the road map. Hence the timing of the assassination attempt cannot be dismissed as inconsequential. Timing, in this case, is everything.

The last decade and a half has supplied plenty of justification to attack Hamas and those who run it. If, nonetheless, there were good reasons not to lay a hand on its leaders until now, it seems strange - to us, not the Palestinians - that the policy should suddenly change.

The simplistic explanation, currently in vogue among the Palestinian leadership, is that Israel wants to stymie progress on the road map. Israel was surprised by the determination of the Americans, and expected the Palestinians to stall. Abu Mazen sounded too serious about wanting to move forward, and his historic public declaration that the armed struggle was over made it clear to Israel that the Palestinians might not let another opportunity go by. So the time was ripe for something dramatic.

A more sophisticated explanation is that Israel opposes a cease-fire between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It doesn't want a hudna (Islamic truce); it wants these organizations to disappear. Negotiations between them will hinder a serious crackdown on terror, so they must be stopped.

The third explanation, cited by opponents of Abu Mazen, involves a conspiracy: On Monday, Abu Mazen warned that anyone who opposed dialogue would face the consequences. On Tuesday, Israel carried out Abu Mazen's threat. So there you have it: a joint undertaking carried out by Israel and the Palestinian Authority against the Palestinian people.

It seems clear that all these speculations have more to do with the timing than with the assassination attempt itself.

Is that the end of the road map? Not necessarily. Palestinian Authority officials believe that America now understands better than before that Israel is the neighborhood bully, and it would be a tactical error to release Israel from responsibility if the Palestinians decide to halt the process. The best outcome, as far as the Palestinians are concerned, is that America will start supervising not only the implementation of the road map, but also the finer points of what Israel is up to, including how it fights terror.

At the moment, it seems the Palestinians will adopt a stance that goes like this: We will continue negotiating as if Israeli terror doesn't exist, if only to stay in America's good graces. Meanwhile, the citizens of Israel had better be on the alert. After a targeted killing, Hamas and Islamic Jihad always settle the score. But their methods are more efficient: They go in for untargeted killing.