- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

The assassination of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin — the murder of a murderer — is another signal the long hot summer of 2004 may well determine the Middle East’s political course for the next century.

Yassin blessed Hamas’ terror strikes in Israel. The blast effects of a missile, probably a Hellfire, killed him. Bless the bomb, die by Hellfire — it’s the latest iteration of six decades of tit-for-tat murder in Israel and Palestine.

At least that’s the incident’s wretched surface. Killing Yassin is savage, tactical retaliation for two recent Hamas terror attacks in Israel. Prick the surface, and the attack sends an operational political message from Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to anyone in Hamas capable of listening: The impending Israeli withdrawal from settlements in Gaza is no terrorist victory — which was the spin Hamas and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, put on the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.

The broad historical and political context, however, suggests Mr. Sharon and his government sense a rare strategic opportunity, a moment beyond revenge and blunt political signal. The Sharon government may be betting that this summer’s century-shaping potential — a startling compression of global and regional events — can help snap the six-decade cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Start with this fact: Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority has no authority. It’s a corrupt, moribund shell.

Blame Mr. Arafat. Yassin and Hamas leveraged Mr. Arafat’s personal corruption to undermine him. While Mr. Arafat and his pals hid cash in Switzerland, Hamas started clinics. Mr. Arafat, however, long ago capitulated to Yassin.

Mr. Arafat’s rejection of the summer 2000 peace deal crafted by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and U.S. President Bill Clinton ultimately made him the West Bank’s chief thief, rather than independent Palestine’s first statesman. Any deal would have ignited a Palestinian Authority vs. Hamas battle, but instead of waging that necessary civil war with U.S. support, Mr. Arafat chose renewed intifada with Israel.

Another assassination cows Mr. Arafat — that of Jordan’s King Abdullah in July 1951. Abdullah’s murder by Arab rejectionists (absolutists dedicated to eliminating Israel) has proven a deep, ever-festering wound. It sent the message that even Arab war heroes — as Abdullah surely was — would be slain if they sought peace with Israel. Arab rejectionists shot Abdullah in front of a mosque, with his grandson, the future King Hussein, a witness.

Attacking Yassin, as he left a mosque, indicates the Israelis have decided it’s time to fight the Palestinian civil war against Hamas, the one Mr. Arafat declined. The Israeli government has decided it starts this fight from a very strong position.

Israel is doing a better job of thwarting terror attacks. Last year saw a third fewer attacks than 2002. Why? Better intelligence, better security tactics and the elimination of Hamas commanders. However, bigger trends prime Mr. Sharon’s anti-Hamas offensive.

The Arab world is fascinated, watching Iraq’s looming experiment in democracy. Arab governments know this, and it’s why so many of these fossil autocracies hope Iraq fails. An Iraqi democracy completely changes the Middle Eastern calculus. Terrorist cadres will blame Israel for the region’s ills. But the elephant in the room — the repression and robbery of Muslim people by corrupt Muslim elites — can no longer be ignored. Ripples are already spreading — witness Kurd agitation in northern Syria.

Hamas faces a cash crunch. Palestinian terrorists no longer have Saddam Hussein as a backer. Tracking Saddam’s finances is uncovering other paths of terrorist funding.

Rejectionists like Yassin had 53 years since Abdullah’s murder to eradicate Israel. They failed. Israel’s gross domestic product dwarfs the combined GDP of its Arab neighbors.

Does violence beget violence? Rejectionist violence aimed at moderates has certainly led to further violence (include Yigal Amir’s murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as the murder of a moderate by an Israeli extremist). Lack of democracy in the Middle East seeds more violence, regionally and internationally.

The Israelis bet the next generation of Palestinians, with terrorist cash gone and rejectionist guns removed, will look to democratic Iraq as a model — and then help create a resilient, just and fruitful Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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