Targeting Ahmadinejad

By Amir Oren

Haaretz

Nisan 24, 5766

Is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is threatening Israel, a "ticking atomic bomb?" Is the decision of the ministerial committee on security - on the day after the terror attack on the Rosh Ha'ir Restaurant in Tel Aviv, to deny Israeli residency to East Jerusalemites who represent Hamas in the Palestinian Legislative Council - a meaningless and stupid decision, which is how it looks, or is it a far-sighted decision that lays the foundation for a further move? Is there a connection between the two issues?

Such a connection is indeed possible and it can be summarized as "targeted killing." An Israeli assassination attempt on Ahmadinejad is an alternative that seems more and more reasonable with the acceleration of his threats to wipe the state of Israel off the face of the earth. The seemingly marginal question of giving senior Hamas people in Jerusalem the ultimatum of either resigning or leaving could influence the implementation of the idea that is making headway among the top echelons of the security establishment - to strike at all the members of Hamas in the Palestinian government, as those responsible for the non-prevention of murderous terror attacks.

The question of assassinations, with its moral, legal and operational aspects, has been grist for the mill of the public debate during the past month. It continues to wait for the decision of the High Court of Justice on petitions that have been submitted against the policy of preventive assassination. Even those who support it, as forced to choose a bad method in the absence of better methods, admit that its usefulness is limited in extent and that its results are unpredictable. Mention is always made of Abbas Moussaoui, who by his death from combat helicopter missiles bequeathed the leadership of Hezbollah on a man more able than he was, Hassan Nasrallah. The blow that was landed on Islamic Jihad by the killing of its head, Fathi Shkaki, in Malta in October 1995 - the last spectacular action by the Mossad that was approved by Yitzhak Rabin, just a few days before he himself fell to an assassin's bullet - was harsh but not mortal. It did not prevent an activist of the organization, who was 11 years old when Shkaki was killed, from committing suicide and killing 11 civilians outside Rosh Ha'ir.

The two new cases that are likely to come under consideration, of Ahmadinejad and of Ismail Haniyeh and his colleagues, belong to the same family but are in some way different from the earlier members of that family. Haniyeh & Co. now bear official responsibility, in addition to that for which Israel exacted an accounting from Ahmed Yassin, Abdel Aziz Rantisi and Saleh Shahadeh. Ahmadinejad is a head of state. Shimon Peres has predicted for him an end similar to that of Saddam Hussein, whom the Americans tried to kill but had to make do with putting on trial in the new Iraqi regime. When chief of staff Ehud Barak articulated the idea of assassinating Saddam in 1992 - the idea behind the planned operation during the preparations for which the Tse'elim Bet disaster occurred - the discussion had not yet culminated in a decision by Rabin (and with the participation of foreign minister Peres) as to whether Israel should take credit for the assassination if it succeeded.

Taking responsibility would have proven that Israel does not show restraint at the firing of the Scuds at it and would have restored something of the deterrence it had lost in the impotence of January-February 1991. However, it would also have made Israel a target for direct and indirect revenge, inside the country and abroad, just as the killing of Moussaoui that same year led to attacks on Jewish and Israeli targets in Argentina.

What is special about Ahmadinejad is that he is not only the head of a declared enemy country, whose military forces - The Revolutionary Guard that is training Hezbollah and is present in southern Lebanon - are acting against Israel, and that he is not only aiming at changing Israel's policy, including the occupation of the Palestinian territories, as leaders both hostile and friendly are doing throughout the world. Ahmadinejad is calling fervently and consistently for the destruction of Israel. The tracking of the Iranian effort to equip itself with weapons of mass destruction is liable to divert attention from a basic fact: The mass destruction is an aim, even when the means for achieving it, the weaponry, are not available yet. This is a war aim, quite simply, which is not within the bounds of the permitted international discourse. As a theoretical exercise, it is possible to guess what the reaction would have been had Israel announced its aspiration to destroy Iran - not to topple the current regime there, but rather to destroy the country of Iran itself.

In the old dispute about strategic deterrence between the Americans and the Soviets during the Cold War, the planners at the Pentagon debated whether to build their system of missiles and bombers "counter force" or "counter value." Against force means to threaten the materiel, the military system of the other side; against value means to threaten the spirit, the control of the Communist Party and the lives of the individuals at the head of the regime.

In deterrence "against value" there is the tempting logic that an individual cares about himself and will prefer to endanger the other, but will refrain from pulling the intercontinental, double-barreled trigger that is aimed at his head. The weakness in this kind of deterrence is in the implementation of the threat: In that case there will be no central authority on the other side for talks on limiting the war and the conditions for ending it.

Facing fanatical Islam, which relies on cadres of suicide terrorists and works in two branches, terror and the nuclear bomb, Israel has two possible channels for deterrence "against value." The first, which could be called "Mecca second strike capability," is a threat that its destruction would lead to the destruction of Islam's holiest places, whether under its control (the Temple Mount) or elsewhere (the Ka'aba in Mecca). Iran, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas - all of them must know that their success in realizing the dream of the destruction of Israel will trigger the Doomsday machine and bring disaster to the religion in the name of which they presume to speak.

For such a threat to be credible and achieve deterrence, it must be spoken in advance, but if Israel dares to brandish this, even as a desperate cry of "Let me die with the Muslims," it will arouse the wrath of a billion believers from Mauritania to Malaysia against it. This increases the relative weight of the second channel - the elimination of leaders whose behavior and policy create existential danger for Israel, tantamount to a ticking atomic bomb. The personal price that will be exacted from them is supposed to deter colleagues and successors. During his few months as president of Iran, Ahmadinejad has acquired for himself an unprecedented negative status, far more so than his predecessors, Muhammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani. He is undermining regional and world stability and his elimination is therefore likely to contribute more to stability than to detract from it. The international condemnation of an Israeli assassination attempt on Ahmadinejad, an action that would predictably be anchored in the memory of the Holocaust, would be limp and tolerable.

An Israeli attack on the leaders of Hamas and their representatives in the Palestinian Legislative Council would encounter stormier but still tolerable reactions, and in the defense towers in Tel Aviv there are those who are suggesting that it be considered seriously. The administration of United States President George W. Bush, which is responsible together with former prime minister Ariel Sharon, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz for the participation of Hamas in the elections that brought it into power, has not deviated from a tough line against Hamas ever since it recovered from the elections.

Since September 11, 2001, Bush and his cabinet have said innumerable times that states that sponsor terrorism are equivalent to terrorism itself. Palestine under the rule of Hamas is a terror organization that has a state and the Haniyeh government, even if it was elected in a free and fair process, is responsible for what happens in its territories. Its refusal to act against Islamic Jihad and the other organizations who are continuing with terror, or even to condemn them, makes it culpable. Without it, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will lead Palestine into new elections (the outcome of which, in these circumstances, is unknown).

If indeed an Israeli operation is launched against the collective leadership of the enemy - the entire Hamas government and its faction in the Legislative Council - this will be a spearhead prevention, not a targeted killing.