Machiavelli in the Middle East
By David Ignatius
Tuesday, March 23, 2004; Page A19
PARIS -- "It is much safer to be feared than loved," wrote the philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli nearly 500 years ago. That harsh logic can be seen in Israel's assassination Monday of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the leader of the terrorist group Hamas.
It follows that for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, it's better to be seen as ruthless than as weak. That's especially true now, when Sharon plans to make a concession to the Palestinians by withdrawing from settlements in Gaza. The danger in this unilateral withdrawal, one of Sharon's advisers told me several months ago, is that terrorist groups such as Hamas might think they had "won" by forcing an Israeli retreat. Israeli defense analyst Zeev Schiff explained in the online edition of the newspaper Haaretz on Monday: "The message that Israel sent out by assassinating Sheik Ahmed Yassin is that when the disengagement from Gaza is finally implemented, Hamas will not be able to claim that the withdrawal was promoted by the group's operations."
But even Machiavelli believed that intimidation has its limits. Just a few sentences after the famous passage quoted above, he cautioned: "Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred."
By that Machiavellian measure, Sharon has failed. An enraged Hamas has vowed new suicide bombings in retaliation, and governments across the Middle East and Europe issued statements on Monday condemning Israel. "It's unacceptable, it's unjustified and it's very unlikely to achieve its objective," said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
But will the Israeli operation work? That's the question a modern Machiavelli would ask. The killing of Sheik Yassin might be justified -- politically if not morally -- if it stopped the spread of the terrorism Yassin had helped foment. But even by this test, the assassination seems unlikely to achieve its intended result.
A pragmatic critique came from Sharon's own interior minister, Avraham Poraz. He explained Monday to Israeli reporters why he voted against the operation in a secret cabinet meeting: "I'm afraid that Hamas's motivation will increase. [Yassin] will become some sort of martyr . . . a national hero for them, and, I'm sorry to say, this won't prevent Hamas from continuing its activities."
Killing the partially blind and paralyzed Yassin "will only reignite and re-energize Hamas," agreed Daoud Kuttab, a prominent Palestinian journalist. "There is nothing in this operationally, except to show they are leaving Gaza strongly, not weakly." And how does Israel imagine that Gaza will be governed once it pulls out? Before the Yassin assassination, Egypt had signaled a willingness to help with security. And Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority had drawn up plans (with the tacit approval of Yassin) for restoring law and order after the Israeli army leaves. Both efforts may now collapse in the uproar over Yassin's death. It's hard to see how Israel will benefit from the resulting anarchy.
So why did Sharon do it? One obvious answer is that he is a gambler. Throughout his career, he has been willing to roll the dice on bold military operations that promise to transform the strategic landscape. That risk-taking instinct is part of Sharon's charisma among Israelis, and it explains his continuing popularity despite his many failures over the years.
But there is a deeper issue, one that goes to the heart of Israel's dilemma in dealing with the Arabs. Sharon symbolizes the belief that the Palestinians can be intimidated by military force -- and that peace will be possible only when they are sufficiently weakened and humbled. If Israel is tough enough, by this logic, it will eventually break the Arabs' will and force them to accept Israel's right to exist.
That rationale sent Israeli tanks rolling into Lebanon 22 years ago, in an operation Sharon believed would break the PLO and open the way to peace. But it didn't work out that way, and many Israelis now agree that the Lebanon war was a costly failure.
It would be fatuous to give the Israelis advice about their security. They live under the shadow of terrorism, and they must find their own solution. But they should consider the evidence of more than two decades that Sharon's approach isn't working. Rather than being humbled into submission, the Palestinians have embraced a strategy of suicidal rage. How will this gruesome cycle of violence end? Today that's impossible to answer. But perhaps both sides could begin by considering the possibility that Machiavelli was wrong. Sometimes it may actually be safer to be loved than feared. An Israel that took risks for peace might find unexpected rewards.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company