Not the First and Not the Last

The missiles that smashed Mohammed Def's car caused more than operational movement - damage to the Hamas and its prestige, an alert in Israel for an upsurge in terror.

The missiles that smashed Mohammed Def's car caused more than operational movement - damage to the Hamas and its prestige, an alert in Israel for an upsurge in terror. The missiles also changed the subject, just like the suicide bombing on the Number 4 bus did exactly a week and an hour before the two missiles. That terrorist attack in downtown Tel Aviv showed once again just how powerful an effect Def and his friends have on the agenda, capable of diverting Israeli policy from its course.

In March 1996, Shimon Peres' government was making progress at the Wye River Plantation toward an agreement with Syrian president Hafez Assad's government. Then Military Intelligence commander Moshe Ya'alon believed the direction was positive and fruitful. Def's serial bombings, as heir to Yihyeh Ayash, tempted Peres into conditioning the continuation of the talks on the Syrians publicly condemning the Palestinian terrorism. Assad refused, and Peres brought the delegation home. A few months later, he also went home.

Up until a week ago, Ariel Sharon's government obeyed the voice of reason, which commanded it to wait until George Bush gets rid of Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat's regime is eroded from within by Mohammed Dahlan and Abu Mazen. Arafat was approaching the position Jeremy Bentham holds among certain British people. Champions of eccentricity, a few years ago they astonished the cool-headed former Supreme Court President Justice Meir Shamgar. During a visit of senior jurists from Israel to their counterparts at the University of London, the hosts pointed proudly to a glass case in which a mummified body was kept wearing a suit and an artificial head.

It was Bentham, the patron saint of British liberalism in the 18th and 19th century. The original head was kept in a vault. Once a year, Shamgar and his colleagues - including then former justice minister Dan Meridor - were told, the head is taken out, and reattached to the body, which is seated at the head of a table around which Bentham's admirers sit. They speak to the deceased, not expecting a reply, but not daring to challenge anything he might say.

Such a Bentham, a kaffiye on his head, now sits in the Muqata, and if until two weeks ago it appeared his power was the equivalent of a city editor's in a Ramallah local paper, along came the engineering corps and appointed him editor of a whole floor - the floor in the undestroyed building 2 in the compound.

Through Sharon's generosity, Arafat had a week of resurrection in which the image (true but exaggerated) of a short circuit in Jerusalem-Washington relations lifted his spirits and encouraged him to believe in the chances that he could return to greatness from the humiliation he was suffering. So, he prepared for a lengthy negotiation to break the deadlock around the Muqata and forbade his representative Saeb Erekat to meet with Brig. Gen. Eival Giladi, the head of the strategic planning division in the general staff, or with the head of the Jerusalem and West Bank desk of the Shin Bet.

Giladi, sort of a director general of the IDF's foreign ministry (his boss being Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, the IDF's foreign minister as head of planning), is now dividing his time between the Muqata crisis and the security coordination with the Americans in advance of their determination to topple Saddam Hussein. When the campaign actually begins, the coordination effort on Israel's side will move to Operations.

Soon, air force helicopter crews will begin getting ready for the new Apache missiles from the U.S., Longbows, which the IDF has decided to call "Seraphs," as in angels. With those missiles, helicopter crews will be able to hit distant targets with great accuracy. The "angels" will reach Israel next year and end up in use against the Palestinians - the working assumption in Operations, on the second anniversary of the conflict, is that the conflict won't come to an end in 2003.

Meanwhile, the current missiles used by Apaches are enough to turn Arafat into yesterday's story, with very little tomorrow, a partial correction to what Sharon ruined with his demand to respond to the Bus Number 4 bombing with Arafat's expulsion, dead or alive, beyond the border.

As in the case of Operation Defensive Shield six months ago, the average between the two opposite views - Sharon's extremism and the defense establishment's preference to skip over Arafat - resulted in a compromise that satisfied nobody, other than Arafat. It is very possible that if Def had been caught in the cross-hairs of the missiles last week, right after the Bus 4 bombing, the snafu at the Muqata could have been avoided.

The attempt on Mohammed Def, whether he survived or not, won't spare the IDF the larger, multi-corps operation that it will eventually need to conduct in Gaza, since Dahlan refuses to confront the Hamas or the ruler of the southern part of the Gaza Strip, Jamal Abu Samhadnah.

The growing consensus in the discussions between Sharon and security officials is that operation will include the capture and expulsion of Ahmed Yassin. But meanwhile, today, September 27, is the second anniversary of Israel's first of 627 casualties in the current conflict, David Biri, in Gaza. And tomorrow is another day.