Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Was the Israeli attempt on the life of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi detrimental to Israel's security, as President Bush has suggested? Bush's implicit argument is that by firing missiles at Rantisi, the Israelis weakened the hand of the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who has been trying to pressure groups such as Hamas to refrain from terrorist attacks. The problem with this argument, however, is that it is refuted by the very existence of the Palestinian prime minister in the first place.

Yasser Arafat appointed Abbas prime minister under heavy international pressure, (only) after Israel had decided to declare its complete refusal to deal with Arafat, confining him to his Ramallah compound and attempting to isolate him from contact with his worldwide diplomatic supporters. When Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon first made this decision last spring, in the wake of operation Defensive Shield, he was widely and roundly condemned, in exactly the same tone, and with exactly the same argument, that is used today against the Rantisi strike. By attacking Arafat, it was claimed, Israel was only discouraging him from embracing moderation, and spurring moderates to make common cause with him in his defense.

In fact, Palestinian terrorists like Arafat and Rantisi have repeatedly demonstrated their complete unwillingness to abandon extreme demands and murderous methods under any circumstances short of the destruction of Israel. Hence, expecting moderation from them in response to Israeli restraint is (and has been proven time and again to be) an utterly futile approach. Moreover, their power depends not at all on the sympathy of moderates, but rather on their ability to wring concessions from Israel through terrorism. Thus, to the extent that Israel refuses to attempt to mollify them--indeed, that it attempts instead to capture or kill them--their power diminishes, and the credibility and prospects (however slim) of moderates such as Abbas (if, indeed, that is what he is) are significantly enhanced.

This is precisely what has happened with Arafat; once Israel declared him "irrelevant", his support and credibility among "moderates" in the international community quickly began to erode. (His standing among Palestinians has also declined modestly but steadily.) If the world can be (at least partially) persuaded that Yasser Arafat ought to be frozen out of the "road map", then why not Abdel Aziz Rantisi as well?

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