Not Everyone Is Replaceable

In the decades-long confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah and its patrons in Iran, one round was completed yesterday - not the first one. But another round began, and it won't be the last.

In the decades-long confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah and its patrons in Iran, one round was completed yesterday - not the first one. But another round began, and it won't be the last.

Since the Palestine Liberation Organization took hold of Lebanon in the late 1960s, the war has never ceased. A year and a half ago it reached another boiling point, which cooled down after a month of fighting and sent Israel, shocked and suffering from anxiety, to Dr. Winograd for a checkup. Yesterday, regardless of the perpetrators' identity, a new count has started, which also will not bring the drawn-out conflict to a decision and victory. The confrontation was not born with Imad Mughniyah and did not die with him.

Mughniyah's assassination has a substantive side but also a psychological one. Both challenge the myth commonly disseminated by those who fear (because they know why) that they will be targeted for assassination. It is the myth that "everyone can be replaced." This myth aims to keep Israel and other countries from targeting senior figures in terrorist organizations. The theory is that there is no point in taking such action if every assassination only further enrages the masses and stokes their determination to rally to the cause. Moreover, sometimes the successor is more effective and worse for Israel than his predecessor.

The standard example is the killing of Hezbollah leader Abbas Musawi 16 years ago. If Musawi was trouble, his deputy, Hassan Nasrallah, who got the job after after Musawi's death, is worse trouble.

Whoever agrees with the general public and the Winograd Report that the main problem of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces in the summer of 2006 was in the people at the top, cannot deride the significance of people in key positions.

If this was not enough, those disseminating the myth are keen to operate both on defense and offense, proving that they do not believe their own fables. They hide for months and even years - Mughniyah was a world-record breaker - to avoid being targeted. The assumption is that they are driven by courage, to a certain extent, or at least by a reconciliation with what their future holds. There is also the fact that they do not volunteer to participate in the suicide bombings that their subordinates carry out. This leads to the conclusion that not only their will to survive keeps them from such operations, but also their concerns about how the organization would function without them.

Judging from the behavior of Nasrallah and Mughniyah, we can conclude that they doubted the assumption that they, like everyone else, are replaceable. They, who ordered attacks in which dozens and hundreds lost their lives, also did not hesitate to order assassinations of individuals - key people. Whoever decided to murder Bashir Gemeyal and Rafik Hariri did not avoid such attacks because Amin Gemeyal and Saad Hariri or other leaders would have filled their spot. The murderers assumed, justifiably, that the quality of the original cannot be imitated.

Of course, they have not always been able to foresee the side effects. In the first case they managed to foil the peace talks between Israel and Lebanon; in the second case they failed and brought about the withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon.

This is the substantive aspect of the removal of a first-rate expert from the scene. Mughniyah belonged to the blacklist of arch-terrorists whose organizations will find it very difficult to prepare a replacement for them, with the kind of skill, professional knowledge and personal contacts in the shadow world, where trust and experience are acquired through years of work. The bedlam that this creates in an organization hurt in this way, and so suddenly, leads to further intelligence and targets.

Also important is the psychological aspect: the ability to reach a specific location in the Syrian capital, know precisely where a fugitive is hiding under a false identity, prepare the lethal mechanism, carry out the assassination and disappear without a trace.

The significance is that Mughniyah, a master of terrorism and special operations, finally met worthy adversaries. This was not done through an F-16 bombing or a missile fired by an unmanned aerial vehicle, as the Americans do in Iraq and Afghanistan - if we are to believe the Arabs who blame Israel of undercover operations, like those oft-repeated stories attributed to the Sayeret Matkal elite commando unit, or Caesarea, the secret Mossad unit. This operation will not deter Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guard, but it will be a reminder that others are also not deterred.

Had the Israeli assassination attempt succeeded in July 2006, when Nasrallah and Mughniyah were officially in the crosshairs, it would have been, to use the language of the Winograd Committee, a "tiebreaker" through a special operation. Whoever the perpetrators of the assassination may be, it was better late than never.