The following appeared in 'The Jerusalem Post' daily on October 21, 2001, days after the assassination of Rehavam Ze'evi.
It was a crisp autumn afternoon last weekend when Foreign Minister Shimon Peres left his Tel Aviv apartment, and drove south all the way to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's ranch in the northern Negev, some 15 minutes by car east of the Gaza Strip. The main agenda - how to respond to Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi's assassination in Jerusalem last week - posed for the two septuagenarians much more than a logistical challenge, ideological dilemma, or political impasse. Ze'evi, or Gandhi as he was nicknamed more than half-a-century ago, was for decades part and parcel of the two's inner circle. Moreover, his murderer in Jerusalem's Hyatt Hotel could have just as well targeted Sharon or Peres themselves.
Indeed, Peres and Sharon each shared with that man of sword and book at least one half of his colorful, controversial, and eventful biography. Sharon and Ze'evi led their military careers almost hand in hand, from the days when they fought as foot soldiers in the 1948 War of Independence to the day in 1966 when they were both promoted by then-chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin to the rank of Major General. The more intellectual Peres, besides his intimate familiarity as deputy minister of defense in the 1960s with the army generals of the time, shared the slain retired general's obsession with books and history.
Both Sharon and Peres - just like that entire, fast vanishing elite of seventy- and eighty-somethings who founded the State of Israel - had personal ties with Ze'evi that both preceded and endured his transformation from a brilliant officer and studious museum manager to an ultra-hawkish firebrand who advocated a mutually-agreed territorial separation of Israelis and Arabs.
Now, sipping coffee less than 48 hours after attending their life-long friend's funeral, the two agreed that the pistol shots in the Hyatt Hotel not only killed their personal buddy, but were also potentially as calamitous as those which hit Israel's ambassador to Britain, Shlomo Argov, in 1982, and touched off Israel's fateful invasion of Lebanon under Sharon's leadership as defense minister. They would only differ on what actually constituted calamity. For Peres, disaster meant allowing the assassination to result in the Oslo Accords' diplomatic collapse and Yasser Arafat's political disappearance. For Sharon, disaster meant allowing Arafat and his operation to remain intact even after the latest escalation.
In the short term, Sharon, Peres and the rest of the inner cabinet were unanimous that Israel must respond harshly to the first-ever assassination of an elected Israeli official by an Arab gunman. And so, by Thursday night, Israeli paratroopers, tanks, and helicopters besieged the West Bank towns of Kalkilya, Bethlehem, Jenin, and Tulkarm, hours after Tanzim militia leader Atef Abiat was killed as his new car exploded as he was driving outside Bethlehem. By Sunday morning, it emerged that the Israeli army had entered all major West Bank Palestinian towns, except Jericho and Hebron, made arrests of suspected Palestinian terrorists, and engaged in fire exchanges that left 20 Palestinians dead and two Israelis wounded, in what amounted to the most sweeping Israeli operation in PA-held territories since they began to be formed in '93.
Israel said Abiyat was responsible for the killing of five Israelis in four different incidents, the latest of which was the drive-by shooting last month of Sarit Amrani southeast of Jerusalem. The Palestinians responded by resuming the shooting at Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood. Though no one was hurt, and other than one mortar bomb which fell on a parked car there was also little damage to property, the sounds of assault helicopters hovering above Jerusalem reminded everyone, on both sides of the conflict, that escalation was afoot.
The question was only whether that escalation could in any way be part of anyone's broader, long-term design. The suspicion among many foreign diplomats and local politicians was that Sharon was using the incident to once and for all dispose of Arafat, his apparatus, and their agenda. Ze'evi, probably the most right-wing ideologue within the legitimate part of Israel's political spectrum, might have been happy to learn that his tragic death may have all but given the Oslo process its ultimate kiss of death.
IN ITS first meeting after the funeral, the cabinet issued the Palestinian Authority an ultimatum: hand in Ze'evi's assassins and their sponsors, or Israel will treat the PA as a terror-supporting entity. The PA, for its part, lost no time formally and unequivocally rejecting the ultimatum.
Did Sharon assume from the beginning that Arafat would reject his demand so immediately, and plan to use it as a pretext for storming the West Bank's PA-ruled cities?
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