Killings May Backfire on Security Issue

As international peacekeepers flowed into Beirut and PLO fighters withdrew from the city, then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was confident that the Israeli siege of Beirut had been a success.

"I believe," he said in late August 1982, "Palestinians will come forward prepared to negotiate with Israel on the autonomy plan proposed by Prime Minister [Menachem] Begin."

Palestinians would now have to deal with Israel on Israel’s terms.

As we know, it did not work out the way in which Sharon predicted. No Palestinians came forward to negotiate Begin’s autonomy plan.

Even based in distant Tunisia, Yasser Arafat and the PLO remained the leaders of the Palestinian national movement. Israel was bogged down in Lebanon for nearly 20 years. A new, more effective opponent, Hezbollah (Party of God), filled the political vacuum resulting from the PLO’s flight from southern Lebanon.

In short, Israel’s effort led by Sharon to destroy the PLO and control Arab politics led to the opposite outcome, a resilient PLO and wider opposition to Israel, including Hezbollah. Israel’s triumphal rhetoric was merely wishful thinking.

Israel’s recent assassinations of Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi and Sheikh Ahmad Yassin should be seen in a similar light. Looking back at Lebanon and many other Israeli attempts to determine the identity of its adversary serves as a reminder that such efforts have usually backfired and worsened Israel’s security situation. From the invasion of Lebanon to the village leagues to targeted assassinations, Israeli policies designed to replace Arab leaders and organizations have, at best, failed miserably, and, at worst, cost Israeli and Arab lives.

Killing established Palestinian leaders, anointing new ones and acting as an uberarbiter for Palestinian organizations has neither brought an improvement in Israel’s security situation nor increased its diplomatic leverage.

In April 1988, Israel silenced the PLO’s Khalil al-Wazir who was seen by some as a proponent of a compromise two-state solution. In February 1992, Israel killed Hezbollah’s secretary general, Abbas Musawi, but his replacement, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has been a strong and more radical leader.

Ironically, Yassin was freed from a life term in an Israeli prison as a result of a botched Israeli assassination attempt of another Hamas official, Khaled Mashal, in Jordan in September 1997.

Israeli manipulation at the organizational level has also hurt Israel’s security. Hezbollah’s rise to prominence in Lebanon is only one example. In the occupied territories, Israel assumed that the rise of Islamist forces in the 1980s would serve as a much-needed counterweight to PLO dominance.

It did — to the point that the outgrowth of these Islamist forces, Hamas, is well-funded and supported by many Palestinians. Although in part, Hamas gains support from Palestinians looking for an alternative to the Palestinian Authority, other Hamas supporters are attracted to the idea of the destruction of Israel.

While eliminating some Palestinian leaders and organizations, Israel has also sought to cultivate new, pliant ones. This approach, too, has failed. In the early 1980s, Israel created the village leagues in the West Bank in an effort to bypass the PLO.

Very few Palestinians took the bait and served as leaders in the village leagues. Apparently, the Palestinian silent majority was not silent because it wanted to live under Israeli rule.

Given the stigma of doing political work for Israel, these leaders tended to be from the margins of Palestinian society and were derided as collaborators. By the mid-1980s, the leagues had gone nowhere.

In taking Al-Rantisi and Yassin’s lives, Israel was playing God in a literal sense. But at a much larger level, Israel has long thought it could play God with regard to Arab and Palestinian politics.

The historical record, however, suggests that such attempts, ranging from targeted assassinations to organizational favoritism, hurt Israeli security much more than they help.

Jeremy Pressman, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, is co-author of “Point of No Return: the Deadly Struggle for Middle East Peace.”