Israel gains little, risks much with Yassin killing

March 23, 2004|By Shibley Telhami

FOR YEARS, one Israeli government after another considered but in the end rejected killing Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, the militant Islamist Palestinian organization. This has not stopped the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from doing just that.

In the end, it is difficult to discern what has changed this Israeli equation and even harder to see how any good could come out of this action.

Israelis have an understandable hate for Hamas as an organization, which has carried out horrific attacks against innocent Israelis.

But the logic in refraining from killing Mr. Yassin in the past was largely related to consequences:

Such an attack would be less likely to reduce violence in the long term and probably would increase it in the short term.

It would focus attention on Israel's "targeted killings" policy, which has been strongly criticized by many around the world, especially by human rights organizations.

It would raise the stakes by targeting the highest levels of leadership.

It would make diplomatic efforts more difficult.

Has anything changed to make the consequences any different at the moment? Not likely.

First, there is the suggestion that past attacks on Hamas' leaders have, in fact, deterred the group from escalating its attacks.

It is hard to know for sure what best explains Hamas' actions.

But even assuming that its leaders in part worry about retaliation, the consequences in this case are likely to go in another direction: Mr. Yassin was not just another one of many Hamas leaders targeted in the past, he is the founder of the organization, its symbol and its central political leader.

Hamas' credibility will be seen by its followers and others in the region to be on the line. It is likely that it already has a plan to respond, since this attack could not have come as a surprise; Mr. Yassin barely missed being killed by another Israeli attack only months ago.

Such a response could include an escalation such as targeting Israeli leaders, which would in turn generate a massive Israeli reprisal. It is difficult to see how diplomatic efforts could have a chance in an environment of escalation.

Second, while Mr. Yassin was the key political leader and almost certainly had much say in the strategic direction of the organization and even decisions related to its military branch, he was not a nuts-and-bolts operational leader. His killing is unlikely to affect Hamas' operational capabilities at the same time that it is likely to generate more recruits.

Third, the most important impact of his killing is likely to be in the vacuum it will leave at the top of Hamas' political leadership. This will make Hamas more unpredictable, less disciplined and less amenable to enforceable short-term deals, such as the cease-fire agreement that former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas was able to negotiate last summer, opening the door briefly for some promising diplomacy. Mr. Yassin was able to enforce such discipline, but it is not clear that anyone else could do so at the moment.

Fourth, unlike lower-ranked and lesser-known Hamas leaders Israel has targeted in the past, Mr. Yassin was a well-known figure in much of the Arab and Muslim world. Although many in that world don't condone Hamas' actions, especially the suicide bombings, many others unfortunately do.

Still, one of the reasons Mr. Yassin was able to attract followers in the region was his defiance in the face of seeming weakness: He was a frail quadriplegic, a wheelchair-dependent old man who graduated from Israeli prisons and always sounded fearless.

He was for many a metaphor of the helpless state of affairs that Palestinians appear to endure in the eyes of most in the Middle East. This image, in the end, serves to garner sympathy for the wrong cause -- the cause of militancy instead of the cause of freedom through peaceful means.

All this comes as Mr. Sharon plans to visit Washington to coordinate his proposed unilateral "disengagement plan" with the Bush administration. If there was hope that such a plan could be implemented in the context of a modest tacit or formal agreement with the Palestinians, with the support of moderate Arab states, the prospects of such an outcome are now diminished.

The Bush administration's inclination to demote Arab-Israeli peacemaking in its priorities during an election year also will be reinforced as the death of Mr. Yassin serves to remind how diplomatic prospects remain at the mercy of violent events.

Shibley Telhami is Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution.

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