Shaken to the Core

A few months after the assassination of Minister Rehavam Ze'evi, the Israeli intelligence services learned of a discussion that took place among the leadership of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in the West Bank following the targeted killing of its general secretary, Abu Ali Mustafa.

1. Searing the consciousness

A few months after the assassination of Minister Rehavam Ze'evi, the Israeli intelligence services learned of a discussion that took place among the leadership of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in the West Bank following the targeted killing of its general secretary, Abu Ali Mustafa. It seems that all the remaining leaders felt that their lives were now in danger, because the IDF had crossed a new red line with the assassination operation. They concluded that they had to pay Israel back in equal measure - by assassinating a senior political figure - in order to create balance and deter the IDF from carrying out more political assassinations. This was the direct motivation for the decision to go after Ze'evi.

That supposed deterrence was pushed aside last week when consultations held by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz produced the recommendation that Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and other Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders be targeted for assassination. The catalyst was the terror attack at the Ashdod port, which the IDF viewed as a strategic target, indicating a substantial shift in the nature of Palestinian terror. But there were other psychological motivations: frustration over the terrorists' success at turning up the pressure on the IDF and penetrating the security fences that surround the Gaza Strip; anger at the continuation of terror attacks and attempted terror attacks; and a strong desire to deal a severe blow to their perpetrators. It was this mood that led Chief of General Staff Moshe Ya'alon to blurt out an unwarranted statement this week about the increased likelihood of an assassination attempt on Yasser Arafat and Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

Wounded male pride and a sense of disappointment - projected by the prime minister and affecting the members of the general staff - over the failure of all the IDF operations to shut down terror was also, though perhaps not consciously, in the background during the discussions that led to the decision to strike at Yassin. The official explanations were more rational: the need to crush the terror organizations' motivation to keep attempting to strike at Israel after the withdrawal from Gaza; the desire to deflate their stature somewhat so as to increase chances that Mohammed Dahlan will be able to keep order in the Gaza Strip after the IDF pullout; the effort to arouse the Palestinian public to protest the disaster brought on it by the militant organizations, because of the Israeli reprisal actions that come in wake of terror attacks. But behind all of these reasonable-sounding arguments, there were also impulses - to teach the enemy a lesson, to vanquish him, and these superseded other considerations. Thus the chief of staff and his colleagues and the prime minister and his ministers ignored the image that would be seared into the world's consciousness: state- of-the-art Israeli helicopters and rockets smashing an old and paralyzed man in a wheelchair to smithereens as he was on his way home from morning prayers.

Yassin was not worthy of pity. He was a ruthless enemy who preached and incited for the indiscriminate killing of Israelis. When the mother of Ilan Sa'adon begged him to reveal where her abducted soldier son was buried, he smiled and dismissed her pleas. He was a nationalist Palestinian and a Muslim zealot who sought the elimination of Israel and showed no readiness to ever come to terms with its existence. He was part of the Islamic axis of evil that is fighting the world order and sees Western culture as heresy.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak once remarked to an Israeli visitor how surprised he was that Israel released Yassin from prison (in the Jibril deal) and noted that he, Mubarak, had refused to allow Yassin entry to Egypt. Despite all this, the decision to assassinate him was indicative of faulty judgment: It imparts an interreligious dimension to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it exposes Israeli and Jewish targets to extreme revenge attacks, it inspires solidarity among all Muslims and Palestinians, including Israeli Arabs, and it makes Israel look like a country that sees every problem as a nail it must smash with a sledgehammer.

2. A ticking bomb?

The first of the official Israeli explanations was that Yassin was an arch- terrorist and therefore marked for death. The official spokesmen referred to Yassin as a preacher and ideologue and toxic inciter who encouraged and initiated terror activities. Then the explanation was amended to paint Yassin as a ticking bomb: The sheikh was personally involved in putting terror attacks into effect.

Shimon Peres, who was prime minister and defense minister during Yassin's long period of activity, disputed the official version. In an interview with Israel Radio, he was skeptical about Yassin's involvement in the operational level of dispatching terror attacks. Other former ministers, who in the past were involved in determining security policy, also said this week that they were unaware of Yassin's personal involvement in planning any specific terror attacks. Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Shaul Mofaz's predecessor as defense minister, remembers otherwise: He is under the impression that Yassin was active in giving approval for major terror attacks. Military Intelligence chief Major General Aharon Farkash-Ze'evi, said the other day that in the past year, there has been a change in Yassin's involvement: He took part in a meeting at a house in Gaza last September in which a plan for carrying out a massive terror attack was discussed. Though he did not spearhead the initiative, he did participate in the consultations along with Mohammed Deif and Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

This trend was reinforced in January: Yassin gave the approval for the bombing at the Erez checkpoint in which four Israeli security people were killed - including authorization to use a female suicide bomber, Reem Salah al-Riyashi. The explanation he was given as to the need for this operation was the difficulty Hamas was having in carrying out other attacks, and so he agreed, regardless of the fact that this attack would clearly endanger the lives of Palestinians passing through the checkpoint. In terms of Israel's official explanations, this was the straw that broke the camel's back: Yassin's involvement in the concrete planning of a terror attack.

However, one should also keep in mind something else government spokesmen were saying this week: that the basic decision to assassinate the political leadership of the terror organizations was made eight months ago - six months before the bombing at the Erez checkpoint - and that an attempt to do so was previously made last September (with an assault on the house in Gaza where senior Hamas leaders were meeting). The attack at the Ashdod port also hastened the decision: In the IDF's assessment, the second terrorist was meant to blow himself up among the rescue forces that rushed to care for those wounded by the first terrorist's bomb, but something went wrong with the plan. In other words, the IDF believes the dispatchers of the Ashdod suicide bombers were out to pull off a mega-terror attack. IDF leaders also noted that Rantisi, a declared master terrorist, was named as Yassin's successor. It stands to reason, therefore, that the role of the Hamas leader is essentially to be personally involved in the initiation of terror attacks.

Added to these considerations was a new definition of Hamas, as formulated in talks with the defense minister: The movement is a strategic threat to Israel and should be treated differently from the other terror organizations. According to this view, Hamas is capable of influencing the country's agenda and its way of life, and so its power must be neutralized. Assassinating its leadership is just one means; other steps must also be taken: weakening its financial capabilities, the social support system it has built, its power of incitement and its international ties.

Two days ago, as the IDF surveyed the immediate consequences of Yassin's assassination, a note of satisfaction was evident in the discussions: The declared three days of mourning were not fully observed by Gaza Strip residents. Stores opened on Monday, there was no overwhelming popular support for a continuation of the demonstrations, and schools opened, too. There was also noticeable anger among the Palestinian population toward Hamas for the suffering brought on by Israeli countermeasures. The motivation to strike at Israel did grow, but the ability to do so was lessened. The guiding tenet of the militant groups - to activate suicide bombers and other terrorists as the sole means of contending with Israel's technological superiority - remains intact. But striking at their leaders forces them underground, limits their capability and reinforces the recognition formulated in their internal discussions, i.e., "Yes, we encourage suicide attacks, but we are not a suicidal organization." In other words, the survival instinct is stronger than the aspiration for revenge.

It won't be long before we see to what extent these assessments by Israel's decision-makers were grounded in reality and how much they were influenced by wishful thinking and partly unconscious emotional motives. After all, in the same breath, senior IDF officers say that there is competition between the Palestinian terror groups over who will be the first to successfully carry out a mega-attack against Israel. When the Israeli reaction to the assassination of Yassin is anxiety over what lies in store and dense fortifications, it's not so easy to be convinced that the assassination is contributing to state security.

3. The alibi

Those who made the decision to assassinate Yassin also had a preemptive measure prepared to rebuff criticism of the wisdom of their judgment: They warn from the outset that a massive attack will undoubtedly come, but they argue that it would come anyway, regardless of the assassination. They say that there has already been an attempt to commit a mass-scale attack (with the booby-trapped gas tanker at the Pi Glilot depot) and the terror organizations' ongoing efforts to find a chink in Israel's security in order to commit such a large attack are well known.

According to this logic, Palestinian terror is an uncontrollable phenomenon unaffected by Israeli behavior. If that's the case, then what good do the assassinations do?

4. A salad

The assassination of Yassin showed how Ariel Sharon is capable of undermining the disengagement plan to which he is ostensibly committed. He explained the assassination as arising from the need to paralyze Hamas' ability to sow terror, and to enable the IDF to leave the Gaza Strip without leaving behind conditions that would facilitate a continuation of terror attacks. But at the same time, the action was also volatile enough to derail the unilateral withdrawal plan - since the killing of Yassin could easily spawn a cycle of actions and reactions that would create a situation, or the semblance of one, that would compel the IDF to remain in Gaza.

A similar contradiction was evident yesterday in the prime minister's vote in the Knesset on the bill intended to ensure that a special majority is needed on any decision to remove settlements: Sharon supported it, even though it makes it harder for him to achieve a Knesset majority for the evacuation of Gaza. Perhaps Sharon joined proponents of the bill because he figured that it would pass anyway and that he was better off looking like he didn't oppose it (in the end, it failed to pass by one vote). His vote, however, revealed his hypocrisy: One who declares his intention to dismantle the Gaza settlements cannot join a parliamentary move meant to torpedo that very move.

In one way, at least, Sharon is consistent - in the contradictory positions he presents in relation to the disengagement initiative. One minute he presents it as a security constraint and the next as a diplomatic move deriving from President Bush's vision for Middle East peace; he announces his readiness to evacuate the Gaza Strip without putting any price tag on this, and a few days later, he presents Bush with a request to be rewarded for his decision; he announces that the fulfillment of his plan should be thought of as an interim step subject to change, and later, he seeks to use it to nail down the final status borders (by annexing settlement blocs); he hints at his intention to include a significant number of West Bank settlements in the withdrawal, and later he says there will only be perhaps five or six; at one point he talks about a total pullout from Gaza and two weeks later, accepts the IDF's recommendation that Israel maintain a connection to it; one day he insists on the principle of unilateralism inherent in his initiative, and later he listens to the position of the defense establishment that says a way should be found, unofficially, to coordinate the withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority; one time the plan is presented as Israel's clear position and not long afterward reservations on the part of the general staff are revealed; one time he promises a national referendum on the plan and two weeks later, when that idea runs into trouble, he reneges on it.

At the time of this writing, it's unclear how palatable the heads of the American administration will find this salad. Sharon's emissaries - Dov Weisglass, Giora Eiland and Shalom Turjeman - were due back in Israel today with some answers.