It’s a defensible position (though not one I hold) to argue that Israel’s security needs would best be advanced by eschewing retaliation against terrorist organisations. What is not permissible – what in fact is downright indecent when Israel’s civilians require reserves of courage merely to travel on a bus or eat in a restaurant for fear that that journey or that meal will be their last – is to dispute the urgency of those security needs. Yet here are two of the most facile remarks it’s possible to imagine concerning Israel’s assassination this morning of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin:
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw described the assassination as "unacceptable" and "unjustified''. Mr Straw said he did not think Israel would benefit from an attack on an old man in a wheelchair.
And the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said the killing was "very, very bad news" for the Middle East peace process.
What moral relevance the Foreign Secretary imagines inheres in being old and infirm is beyond my training in casuistry to identify. Does he suppose that, because Sheikh Yassin was not himself physically capable of killing Jews, Israel got the wrong man? I imagine he does not, for a couple of years ago – after some peculiarly inept remarks and a feeble non-apology on the same subject by Cherie Blair – he made a sharp distinction between those who carry out and those who order suicide-murders:
When young people go to their deaths, we can all feel a degree of compassion for those youngsters. They must be so misguided and depressed to do this…
But behind those people are some very evil terrorist leaders who do not put their own lives on the line when they are making sure that others' lives are ended.
The first sentence is of course dangerous nonsense. The distinctive characteristic of the suicide bomber’s actions is not that he voluntarily ‘goes to his death’ but that he takes a large number of other people – killed not quite indiscriminately, for the targets are carefully selected to comprise defenceless and often juvenile Jewish civilians – unwillingly to theirs. To call the suicide-murderer misguided doesn’t quite do justice to his act of unmitigated barbarism, while to attribute to him ‘depression’ – as opposed to, say, fanaticism and zealotry – is a speculative hypothesis proffered without the remotest empirical support.
But the second sentence is entirely accurate, as the Foreign Secretary later expanded upon while trying to extricate himself from his absurd initial pronouncement:
Suicide bombing is not remotely a spontaneous act by individuals. It is an action organised by some very evil terrorist leaders who have hatred for the state of Israel.
In this, he echoes the observation of terrorism expert Walter Laqueur in his excellent survey of current terrorist movements No End to War:
The suicide terrorist is only the last link in a chain. There is no spontaneous suicide terrorism. The candidates are chosen by those in charge of the organization. The suicide terrorists are indoctrinated and trained - receiving intelligence information to guide them - and eventually are given the arms and explosives to carry out their mission. The people who guide suicide terrorists have their political agenda. They organize the missions not as a purposeless manifestation of despair but to attain a certain political aim. While the suicide terrorist may be unstoppable, those behind him are certainly not; they can be deterred by inflicting unacceptable damage on them. Thus the leadership of the Lebanese Hizbullah after years of suicide terrorism [a tactic that it initiated in the early 1980s] discontinued these operations realizing that they were no longer very effective.
This is the rationale of Israel’s actions, and it is a compelling one. Assassinating terrorist leaders is an extreme course, and one that no democracy can undertake lightly. Yet Javier Solana (not a politician but an international civil servant, whom I did not elect and who doesn’t represent my views) is exactly wrong in describing the assassination of Yassin as bad for the peace process: it is a fillip for the peace process, and not only because one of the progenitors of terror is no longer on the scene.
A 'peace process' - a term that is both cliche and obfuscation - is effective only if it binds all parties rather than one alone. Otherwise it may stimulate further violence by undermining deterrence and removing constraints on terrorist organisations. Israeli voters have lost faith in this peace process because the Palestinian Authority has for years ignored its obligations to apprehend, and has tacitly encouraged, the bombers of buses, discotheques and restaurants. Any responsible government has the right, indeed the duty, to protect its citizens rather than place its faith in agreements and negotiations that are manifestly not respected by its interlocutors. In discharging that duty, Israel fights for a wider cause than her national security alone.