Yahya Ayyash deserved to die. The so-called Hamas “engineer”, who was assassinated in January 1996, had perfected the suicide vests worn by Hamas terrorists, turning them increasingly lethal. His killing sparked widespread enthusiasm among Israelis. Then Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who approved the plan to booby-trap Ayyash’s cellphone, was portrayed for the first time in his life as the kind of ruthless leader Israelis yearn for.
The end is known. The killing of Ayyash enraged Palestinians and pushed Hamas to carry out four suicide bombings within eight days, in which 59 Israelis were killed. The shock and fear that gripped Israeli public opinion turned Peres from valiant hero to impotent loser paved the way for Benjamin Netanyahu’s sensational victory in the May 1996 elections – and changed Israel forever.
On August 15, 2001, Israeli missiles killed the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Abu Ali Mustafa, following a series of car-bomb terror attacks. The PFLP promised revenge against Israel’s “senior political echelon” and within two months made good on their threat by assassinating Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi. The killing radicalized Israeli public opinion and made Zeevi, hitherto ostracized for his extreme right wing views and support for “transfer” of Palestinians, into a national hero. Thousands attended his funeral.
Nonetheless, in the collective memory of Israel, the link between cause and effect has been severed. Targeted assassinations - whether they decreased terror attacks, as was the case after the 2004 killing of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, or increased terror attacks, as was the case during the so-called “Black March” that followed the 2002 assassination of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades commander Raed Karmi, in which 130 Israelis were killed, or even anointed Hassan Nasrallah as Hezbollah leader after predecessor Abbas al-Musawi was killed in 1992 - are deemed, almost by definition, not only as eminently justified but as uniquely effective, no matter what.
This is why the assassination of Qassem Soleimani has not only elicited nearly universal and otherwise understandable support - the man was a sophisticated and implacable foe of Israel - but also collective condemnation from anyone who dared point out the operation’s potentially destructive consequences. Donald Trump was once against hailed as Israel’s hero and savior while Democrats who expressed reservations were painted by Israeli commentators as weak-kneed appeasers who had lost the plot.
America’s historic memory, however, is markedly different. The very term “targeted assassination” conjures the spate of undercover assassinations carried out by the CIA from the 1950’s to 1970’s, when they were ostensibly declared illegal. Many Americans realize that some of the right wingers who were cheering Trump today were the ones who pushed George Bush to invade Iraq in 2003, in what turned out to be one of the most misconceived and poorly executed wars in U.S. history.
Unlike his Israeli fans, most Americans cannot separate Trump’s supposedly brave if brazen decision to approve Soleimani’s assassination from his otherwise erratic and impulsive conduct in all other arenas, foreign and domestic. Trump’s threat to destroy 52 Iranian targets, including world heritage cultural sites, is not only a barbaric notice of intent to commit war crimes, unbecoming of any U.S. President, it is also a symptom of the kind of presidential inanity that could ignite the Middle East - and inflict a harsh blow on Israel itself.
Netanyahu is one of the few world leaders who have publicly praised the U.S. operation, and despite the temptation of scoring valuable points in the election campaign, he has refrained - so far at least - from claiming credit. Netanyahu did not repeat his assertion from two months ago, made in response to queries about what then seemed like Trump’s willingness to engage with Iranian President Hassan Rohani, that “You can't tell the president of the United States who to meet, but no one has influenced, and continues to influence, the tough stance against Iran more than me, and everyone knows that.”
Netanyahu is obviously trying to deprive Tehran of any public excuse for retaliating against Israel. But he also remembers how his enthusiastic support for the Iraq invasion during his 2002 testimony in Congress - as a private citizen - has haunted him ever since. Netanyahu is undoubtedly pleased by the escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Tehran but unlike most of his citizens, he also remembers that today’s widely hailed targeted assassination could easily turn into tomorrow’s roundly condemned folly and national catastrophe.
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