WASHINGTON -- There's a maxim old as time that says, when you strike out and kill a religious leader anywhere in the world, you're likely to start a religious war.
Is it probable that Ariel Sharon killed Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the leader of the Palestinian Hamas movement, to show Israeli strength as he departs from Gaza, as he himself says? Or is it possible that the Israeli prime minister really WANTS a religious war?
When the sheikh, a quadriplegic 67-year-old who played a double role as saintly Muslim religious man and political leader of a terrorist organization, was killed by Israeli missiles last week at 5:30 a.m. as he left his morning prayers in his mosque, the Israeli government insisted that it had targeted a man "responsible for hundreds of Israeli deaths." Yet, it was the sheikh, whose burial soon after was met with riotous lamentations all across the Arab world, who had gone along with the "hudna," or ceasefire, last year.
Haaretz newspaper correspondent Danny Rubinstein immediately predicted in his column that Yassin's heir, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Palestinian refugee from Ramle who studied medicine in Egypt and is far less compromising than was Yassin, "will bring his own radical political stamp to the organization and will try to impose his authority on Hamas overseas."
Most important, Rubinstein foresees Rantisi forging connections with Hezbollah leaders (from Iran, Syria and neighboring Lebanon) and also with Iranian figures. If this is true, it would be even more threatening to Israel's security because it would mean that Hamas might take on a world role, even to the point of hooking up with the independent al-Qaida groups emerging everywhere.
Hamas has never targeted Americans before; but Rantisi hints that he will, and Rubinstein predicts that the Hamas leader will maintain a military style and emerge as a kind of counterpart to Hezbollah's Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the man who has shown himself to be an effective anti-Israel leader in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, prominent Palestinian journalist Hani Habib, a columnist with the al-Ayyam newspaper, mused: "I'm afraid that after the assassination of Sheik Yassin, the military wing will dominate the political wing, contrary to the balance that we've seen between the two in the past. Sheikh Yassin kept that balance. The man could do things that others could not."
And Shaul Mishal, a Tel Aviv University professor and co-author of "The Palestinian Hamas," foresees a power struggle within the Islamic movement that would likely result in the ascendancy of a militant "young guard" of "street leaders" who have come to the fore in the past three years; they would "cement links with international groups, such as al-Qaida, and ... spread their campaign of violence beyond the Middle East." (Some analysts even foresee suicide bombers in America.) "I am concerned," Mishal said, "at the chaos that this young, inexperienced generation might create if it gains more power."
So, why did Ariel Sharon do it? Does he believe that such a crude show of unexpurgated power against already humiliated people will make them give in? What does this have to do with the talk still burbling around about an Israeli-Palestinian peace process and treaty? And finally, what does it have to do with America's need for Israel as an ally in our increasingly deepening involvement in the Middle East?
The prime minister's office says that, in accordance with his recently announced plan, Sharon wants to leave Gaza, withdraw Israeli troops and transfer some of the settlers to the West Bank. But he wants to leave Gaza with a show of strength so the Palestinians there do not, as the Lebanese did three years ago in South Lebanon, view an Israeli pull-out as a victory. His plan is centered around the gigantic wall he is building between Israel and Palestine, a wall that puts the water aquifers that the Palestinians need on the Israeli side. Sharon would break up the 40 percent of the West Bank that is left into separated and helpless Palestinian cantons, and not a state.
Ariel Sharon has always been a man immersed in war, violence and conflict -- they are the handmaidens of his life -- and he may believe that he can beat the Palestinians into submission -- even though, as history proves, such violence only creates more invigorated enemies to stand up against you.
Meanwhile, he is almost single-handedly remaking the Middle East into his version of a Greater Israel that will effectively be the regional "consul" of the United States.
As to any role the U.S. played in the Yassin assassination, it is probably true, as both sides assert, that Washington had "no notice" of it. Indeed, why would anyone bother to tell America, particularly with so many sympathizers of Sharon in the Bush government? And so Ariel Sharon went ahead, with no thought of Washington, which seems utterly compliant to anything he does.
Washington doesn't seem to realize that with the Yassin assassination, the Sharon government has rescinded every hope that "the road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad."
But besides ending the peace process, Sharon has undercut American policies in Iraq, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, as one could see when Iraqis immediately went to the streets against Americans after Yassin was killed. Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani responded by calling Yassin's killing an "ugly crime" and acting against the Americans by again refusing their electoral plans.
Ariel Sharon is well on his way to accomplishing what he really wants -- his form of an Israel "statelet" of South African-style cantons, the loathsome Europeans and Arabs safely at a distance, and Israel and America bound together, largely alone, in the Middle East, fighting the same enemies and facing the same dim futures.
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