December 19, 2018

17 Years Ago: Assassination

I don’t know that the assassination of Rechavam Ze’evi changes the entire Middle East equation, as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced Tuesday. England’s Prime Minister Tony Blair called for a measured response, which struck many Israelis as laughable, considering the massive military force Britain and the United States have arrayed against the Taliban. It may be unfair that Israel must be constrained while America can pummel Afghanistan at will, but so it goes. There is so far no indication that President George W. Bush or our allies are going to let the Israeli minister’s murder change their vision of how the war on terror should be waged, or how the post-war world should ultimately look.

In any case, Bush will find a more accurate measure of his future success not in Israel’s response to the murder, but in Yasser Arafat’s. His Palestinian Authority has been on good behavior lately, facing down street riots, even denouncing the assassination of Ze’evi, a man who called for the mass expulsion of Palestinians. In return Arafat has received assurances that the United States is committed to a Palestinian state as part of a negotiated settlement. If Arafat doesn’t follow through on his commitment to arrest the perpetrators of this latest attack and others, those negotiations will be a long time coming.

How will Sharon’s immediate and justly outraged response be heard in the rest of the world? More than likely as two-faced. Assassination of political and military leaders has been an Israeli government policy. Some groups and governments have criticized it as immoral and counterproductive, but it seems to me the very nature of suicide attacks requires preemptive strikes. Nowadays, even Bush could hardly deny that.

Even so, it is a policy that risks exact reprisal, and that is exactly how others, including numerous Israelis, will view the Ze’evi assassination. Israel’s government has not been doing an ace job of making its case in the court of world opinion, and if Sharon wants the world to view the murder as an earthquake and not a tremor, he and his government need to articulate a strong and public case.

One aspect of Ze’evi’s politics that guaranteed him a seat on the fringe was his determination to not care what the rest of the world thought of his ideas. That may be noble in an opposition politician, but it’s untenable for people who run a government as dependent upon foreign largess, and therefore world public opinion, as Israel.

For Israelis, there’s an additional frightening aspect to Zee’vi’s murder, which took place outside the minister’s room at the Jerusalem Hyatt Hotel. “We’re all wondering if the assassins had help from Palestinian workers inside the hotel,” a colleague in Israel said. “Are Arabs here being radicalized to that extent? ” At press time there’s no indication such fears will be borne out. There’s no question the ongoing violence strains Israel’s civic fabric, but no one wants to face the horrible realities that would ensue if it were to completely tear.