Uri Avnery may be one of the most underappreciated of all Israeli political commentators. I don’t read everything he writes, but every once in a while I read one of his columns which captures so perfectly the folly of much of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. His analysis is so spot on that I marvel at his perspicacity. The man is a wonder.
Blood and Champagne, which I first read at Rootless Cosmopolitan, comments on the Imad Mugniyah assassination. Avnery accepts as a given that Israel is responsible. And what is remarkable about his column is that he reviews some of the most significant and historic targeted assassinations which Israel has been responsible for and proves incontrovertibly that contrary to Israeli belief, these acts have not made Israel safer. Davke l’hefech–the acts of vengeance in response have killed far more Jews and Israelis than the original act. Not only that–the assassinations have helped spawn newer and ever more formidable movements of resistance to the Occupation, the Stern Gang, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah being but a few examples.
Here are a few of the most telling passages from Avnery’s essay:
Every reporter, every commentator, every political hack, every transient celeb interviewed on TV, on the radio and in the newspapers, was radiant with pride. We have done it! We have succeeded! We have “liquidated” Imad Mughniyeh!
He was a “terrorist”. And not just a terrorist, a master terrorist! An arch-terrorist! The very king of terrorists! From hour to hour his stature grew, reaching gigantic proportions. Compared to him, Osama Bin-Laden is a mere beginner…
There is and never has been anyone like him. For years he has kept out of sight. But our good boys…have not neglected him for a moment. They worked day and night, weeks and months, years and decades, in order to trace him. They “knew him better than his friends, better than he knew himself” (verbatim quote from a respected Haaretz commentator, gloating like all his colleagues)…
Mughniyeh-the-person has disappeared, and Mughniyeh-the-legend has taken his place, a world-embracing mythological terrorist, who has long been marked as “a Son of Death” (i.e. a person to be killed) as declared on TV by another out-of-use general. His “liquidation” was a huge, almost supra-natural, achievement, much more important than Lebanon War II, in which we were not so very successful. The “liquidation” equals at least the glorious Entebbe exploit, if not more.
True, the Holy Book enjoins us: “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth / Lest the Lord see it and it displeases him.” (Proverbs 24:17) But this was not just any enemy, it was a super-super-enemy, and therefore the Lord will certainly excuse us for dancing with joy from talk-show to talk-show, from issue to issue, from speech to speech, as long as we do not distribute candies in the street – even if the Israeli government denies feebly that we were the ones who “liquidated” the man…
In the eyes of the Israeli leadership, the “liquidation” was a huge success. We have “cut off the head of the serpent” (another headline from Haaretz). We have inflicted on Hizbullah immense damage, so much that it cannot be repaired. “This is not revenge but prevention”, as another of the guided reporters (Haaretz again) declared. This is such an important achievement, that it outweighs the inevitable revenge, whatever the number of victims-to-be.
In the eyes of Hizbullah, thing look quite different. The organization has acquired another precious asset: a national hero, whose name fills the air from Iran to Morocco. The “liquidated” Mughniyeh is worth more than the live Mughniyeh, irrespective of what his real status may have been at the end of his life.
Enough to remember what happened here in 1942, when the British “liquidated” Abraham Stern (a.k.a. Ya’ir): from his blood the Lehi organization (a.k.a. Stern Gang) was born and became perhaps the most efficient terrorist organization of the 20th century…
Everybody knows that there will be revenge. Nasrallah has promised this, adding that it could take place anywhere in the world. For a long time already, people in Israel believe Nasrallah much more than Olmert…
Such worries are far from baseless. All the past “liquidations” of this kind have brought with them dire consequences:
* The classic example is, of course, the “liquidation” of Nasrallah’s predecessor, Abbas Mussawi. He was killed in South Lebanon in 1992 by Apache gunships. All of Israel rejoiced. Then, too, the Champagne was flowing. In revenge, Hizbullah blew up the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, as well as the Jewish community center there. The planner was, it is now alleged, Imad Mughniyeh. More than a hundred people perished. The main result: instead of the rather grey Mussawi, the sophisticated, masterly Nasrallah took over.
* Before that, Golda Meir ordered a series of “liquidations” to revenge the tragedy of the Israeli athletes in Munich (most of whom were actually killed by the inept German police trying to prevent their being flown to Algeria as hostages). Not one of the “liquidated” had anything to do with the outrage itself. They were PLO diplomatic representatives, sitting ducks in their offices…The result: the PLO became stronger and turned into a state-in-the-making…
* The “liquidation” of Yahyah Ayyash in Gaza in 1996 resembles the Mughniyeh affair. It was carried out by means of a booby-trapped cellular telephone. Ayyash’s dimensions, too, were blown up to giant proportions, so that he had become a legend already in his own lifetime. The nickname “the engineer” was attached to him because he prepared the explosive devices used by Hamas. Shimon Peres, who had succeeded to the Prime Ministership after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, believed that the “liquidation” would lend him huge popularity and get him re-elected. The opposite happened: Hamas reacted with a series of sensational suicide-bombings and brought Binyamin Netanyahu to power.
* Fathi Shikaki, head of Islamic Jihad, was “liquidated” in 1995 by a bicyclist who shot him down in a Malta street. The small organization was not eradicated, but on the contrary grew through its revenge actions. Today it is the group which is launching the Qassams at Sderot.
* Hamas leader Khaled Mash’al was actually being “liquidated” in a street in Amman by the injection of poison. The act was exposed and its perpetrators identified and a furious King Hussein compelled Israel to provide the antidote that saved his life. The “liquidators” were allowed to go home in return for the release of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmad Yassin from Israeli prison. As a result, Mash’al was promoted and is now the senior political leader of Hamas.
* Sheik Yassin himself, a paraplegic, was “liquidated” by attack helicopters while leaving a mosque after prayer. A previous attempt by bombing his home had failed. The sheik became a martyr in the eyes of the entire Arab world, and has served since as an inspiration for hundreds of Hamas attacks.
THE COMMON denominator of all these and many other actions is that they did not harm the organizations of the “liquidatees”, but boomeranged. And all of them brought in their wake grievous revenge attacks.
The decision to carry out a “liquidation” resembles the decision that was taken to start the Second Lebanon War: not one of the deciders gives a damn for the suffering of the [Israeli] civilian population that inevitably falls victim to the revenge…
Why, then, are the “liquidations” carried out?
…I suspect that the real reason is both political and psychological. Political, because it is always popular. After every “liquidation”, there is much jubilation. When the revenge arrives, the public (and the media) do not see the connection between the”liquidation” and the response. Each is seen separately. Few people have the time and the inclination to think about it, when everybody is burning with fury about the latest murderous attack.
In the present situation, there is an additional political motivation: the army has no answer to the Qassams, nor has it any desire to get enmeshed in the re-occupation of the Gaza Strip, with all the expected casualties. A sensational “liquidation” is a simple alternative.
The psychological reason is also clear: it is satisfying. True, the “liquidation” – as the word shows – is more appropriate for the underworld than for the security organs of a state. But it is a challenging and complex task, as in a Mafia film, which gives much satisfaction to the “liquidators”. Ehud Barak, for example, was a liquidator from the start of his military career. When the “liquidation” ends in success, the executioners can raise glasses of champagne.
A mixture of blood, champagne and folly is an intoxicating but toxic cocktail.
Avnery has here captured so precisely the folly of this assassination. Israel has gained a measure of revenge for its humiliation in the Lebanon War (Mugniyah is reputed to have been the operational mastermind behind Hezbollah’s success). But at what price? How many Israeli embassies or Jewish synagogues will be bombed in retaliation? Which Israeli minister will be targeted? Which innocent will become the next Jewish martyr?
I feel much like I felt in the run up to the Iraq invasion. Everyone seemed to be chomping at the bit for war. The word from Washington was there was no choice. Sadaam was wholly evil. The world’s security depended on our taking him out. If we didn’t we’d see a mushroom cloud over the horizon some day.
But I was dubious. The more the chorus belli resounded the less I trusted what I was hearing. The same is true regarding Mugniyah’s killing. We will not be safer for his death. On the contrary. We will all as Jews be more vulnerable. And the thinking and decision-making that went into his murder betrays not our strength or a moral victory, but our weakness and vulnerability. For as Avnery says, neither Israeli intelligence which dreamed up the operation nor the Olmert government has an answer to what ails Israel’s security situation. Gilad Shalit is still a captive. Qassams still rain down on Sderot. So killing a terrorist is a substitute for real policy and real answers.