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Mideast Assasination

March 22, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Now for more on the fallout from the Yassin assassination, we turn to Khalil Jahshan, a past vice president of the American-Arab anti-discrimination committee and David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy. David Makovsky, was Israel justified in the actions it took today?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think you have to look at two levels, one is the question did Israel have the right to do it and look at the question of the political utility or political wisdom of it. In terms of Israel’s right to do it, I think it’s clear for Israel, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin is the equivalent of Osama bin Laden, and Ayman Zawahiri put together. He is the founder of Hamas, he does not want a two state solution on any level. He’s exhorted for the slaughter of hundreds and hundreds of innocent people. There have been 280 suicide bombs just in the last three and a half years, many of them by Hamas and inspired by its leader. That, I think, is in terms of why Israel did it.

The second element in terms of explaining why it did it is it’s planning to get out of Gaza, take down settlements, something the whole world has — would applaud — that Israel is doing it. But fears that it would send a message that terrorism pays because Israel is pulling out unilaterally. It feels spooked by fact that it unilaterally pulled out of Lebanon and felt the message was to embolden the Palestinian Intifada, Hezbollah declared victory in Lebanon and a Palestinian Intifada started four months later. Israelis see the link. The question is will it weaken Hamas over the long term as Israel gets out of Gaza; that remains to be seen.

GWEN IFILL: OK, you made a lot of point there’s, let me give Mr. Jahshan an opportunity to respond. Do you first of all, I don’t suspect you agree that this was a good thing for Israel to do, but do you agree with Mr. Makovsky’s description of who Sheikh Yassin was?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: I don’t agree with the logic that was presented by mostly Israel officials today in trying to justify the decision they have taken. I believe what they have done today is illegal, it’s politically not just unwise but utterly stupid. And in the long term, it’s going to prove to be harmful not only to the cause of peace and stability in the region but even to Israel’s interests and definitely to U.S. interests in the region and we are already beginning to see the rules of that decision.

Now Sheikh Yassin is a political leader like it or not, yes, his group was involved in terrorism in the sense that they have killed civilians for political purposes. But he’s a political leader, and for the state of Israel to engage in extra-judicial assassination, I mean the hand of Israel that could reach Sheikh Yassin and kill him is the same hand that could have imprison him.

They have imprisoned him before several times, they could have arrested him and put him before a court of law and given him some due process, if indeed they have charges against him. And the logic they have used today is deficient in the sense, basically, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander — in the eyes of many Palestinians many Arabs and many Muslims the same logic applies to Sharon. What makes Sharon and other leaders in Israel think that they are immune to such action from the other side?

GWEN IFILL: Why not arrest him, Mr. Makovsky, why assassinate him?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Because Israel doesn’t control Gaza, it’s under the Palestinian Authority, and –

KHALIL JAHSHAN: Come on, David, it’s not under Palestinian Authority.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Khalil, I mean, explain — has the United States arrested Osama bin Laden or Zawahiri -these are not so easy to get to these people.

GWEN IFILL: Let me let Mr. Jahshan respond.

KHALIL JAHSHAN: When we were attacked in this country by al-Qaida we were not in occupation of somebody else’s country and they were retaliating for that. This is a very significant difference between — we cannot simply just wrap ourselves with the American flag the way Israel is doing today in order to justify its criminal action.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you something based on something Sheikh Yassin said in January, he said we do not fear death threats, we are seekers of martyrdom. Was that true, was he setting himself up in the open in his wheelchair to be attacked since he had been the subject of attacks before and then when I get back to you, Mr. Makovsky, I want to know whether you think that may have backfired, that he got the martyrdom he wanted?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: Definitely he did. I think his career, his record is very clear, he has grown in basically an Islamist persuasion if you will. He had an Islamist political cosmology, his view of the world. He was not necessarily threatened or did not fear death, and certainly he’s going to be, I think, more harmful to Israel’s interests dead than he was alive.

GWEN IFILL: I want Mr. Makovsky to respond to that. Is that possible?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Like I said the issue of the political utility whether this will weaken Hamas over time I think has yet to be seen. I think it’s clear in the short term there will be a spike of attacks, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. But I would refer Kalil to al-Quds newspaper, the leading Palestinian newspaper, on March 10 just twelve days ago when Sheikh Yassin was asked if Israel gets out of Gaza would you stop attacks, he said well maybe from Gaza, but of course we’re going to continue everywhere else, and he justified more suicide attacks.

So here’s a case where Israel will be taking down settlement, getting out of Gaza and Sheikh Yassin is calling for further attacks. This person does not want a two-state solution. He wants the destruction of Israel and he’s been utterly consistent in saying that it should be done through violence.

GWEN IFILL: How about that?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: There are also counterparts on the Israeli side, there are members of the Israeli cabinet who do not necessarily endorse a peaceful resolution with the Palestinian — to the Palestinian problem. There are people on the Israeli side including chief rabbis that have over the years made pronouncement that are so racist and so beyond the pale, does that justify Palestinians going after these people and assassinating them –

GWEN IFILL: Let me try it this way. Assuming it was the correct thing to do to assassinate Sheikh Yassin because he’s such a danger and was showing no indication of attempting to reach any kind of peaceful compromise with Israel, by assassinating him, has Israel attained its goal of trying to end that kind of recalcitrance, or is it going to encourage a million other little Sheikh Yassins?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think Sheikh Yassin was a unique individual being that he’s the founder of Hamas, he’s not so easy to replace. And unlike Israeli members of Knesset, I’m not here to defend them, but this man is calling for people to blow up people in pizza parlors and discos, et cetera, and buses. So let’s be clear about that, there’s a major distinction there. Will it will weaken Hamas over time I think we will have to see.

But the point is, the psyche of the Israeli government, here pulling out of Gaza which a lot of people would like, but their fear is is this going to be a repeat of Lebanon that Israel pulls out unilaterally and the message is the more you broke people up, the more Israel withdraws and I think what they were trying to do here was to send the opposite message that they want to try to weaken Hamas over time.

GWEN IFILL: What about the psyche of the Palestinians, Mr. Jahshan, for instance Ahmed Qurei was widely seen as a moderate force in this whole exchange. Are moderates now out of the discussion?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: Moderates have certainly been weakened and today they are definitely an endangered species. I think if there is a beneficiary to this, I think Hamas. You and I will be talking about this a year or two from now and you will see that Hamas will emerge as a result of this assassination as the number one, the premiere political movement in Palestine, should things move in a political direction. So Israel is going to, or has contributed through this action to the exactly the opposite of what its been trying to justify today.

GWEN IFILL: David Makovsky let’s talk about the U.S. role in this. We heard Condoleezza Rice say this morning, well, not basically say it was a — but we pointed out all the reasons why Israel would have take then attack.

Later in the day the U.S. Administration said they were deeply troubled by this, weaker language than we heard from the United Nations and France and Britain who all condemned it outright. What did you hear in those exchanges today from other countries, especially from the U.S.?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think the United States is in a very difficult position, on one hand it is pursuing bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, so it’s not going to criticize Israel. On the other hand the Israelis are not going to tell the United States advance so no one can say that the U.S. gave Israel a green light, amber light, whatever you like. So I think on one hand the United States is not out to also offer support, too, which would perhaps make itself a target for attacks, perhaps justifiably. So the idea of no comment or substantive no comment might not be such a bad policy.

But I think the key thing here, we shouldn’t lose track of this, is the quiet U.S.-Israel talks going on and Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza — today began the fourth round of secret — quiet talks , they’re not secret — on having that happen, and frankly that will speak volumes. We all want a two-state solution, we want dignity for both sides, if the U.S. can choreograph Israel’s exit from Gaza and pulling out of settlements, I think that will send a very important positive message and I think that’s where the focus of the administration is right now.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Jahshan, what did Palestinians here in the United States’ statements today?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: I think the official statements today by Condoleezza Rice and by Scott McLennan and others basically lacked credibility, it was a very weak position even though they’ve amended it by this afternoon. But again as you implied, compared for example to the position taken by our strongest allies, including Britain which described this act as illegal, compared to the position taken by the United Nations on behalf of the international community that Kofi Annan released today. The position the White House took this morning was shameful.

GWEN IFILL: Kalil Jahshan and David Makovsky, thank you very much.