|04TELAVIV1765||2004-03-23 13:10:00||CONFIDENTIAL||Embassy Tel Aviv|
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 TEL AVIV 001765
1. (C) Summary: Israel's politicians wasted little time in
taking to the airwaves to defend, or in some cases take issue
with, the March 22 killing of Hamas spiritual leader Shaykh
Ahmad Yassin. Sources in the PM's office expressed
satisfaction with the U.S. response, and an MFA official said
the assassination presented an opportunity to build up the
Palestinian Authority, although he could offer nothing
concrete to support that assertion. A Gaza settler lobbyist
reportedly declared the attack a victory over PM Sharon's
disengagement plan. Average Israelis, meanwhile, are
preoccupied with their personal safety, fearing an upswing in
terror attacks. End Summary.
Predictable Reactions from the Political Establishment
2. (C) No great surprises emerged in the reactions from
various Cabinet and Knesset members to the killing. Those on
the right end of the political spectrum tended to emphasize
that Yassin was a legitimate target, and to support the
calculation that the hit now was appropriate. Those on the
left were typically schizophrenic, with some voicing support,
while others expressed concern about stoking the flames of
terror. Listed below are a few representative sound-bites:
-- Finance Minister Netanyahu was quoted on Israel Radio as
saying that no terrorist enjoys immunity, regardless of his
status. He said he believed that over the long term the
elimination of Yassin would disrupt terrorism and deter
terror leaders. He also noted that on his release from
prison in Israel (which took place under Netenyahu's
premiership in a deal with Jordan), Yassin was cautioned not
to engage in terrorism, and that in reverting to terror,
Yassin had become a legitimate target.
-- Deputy Prime Minister and Industry and Trade Minister Ehud
Olmert defended the decision, while noting that the Yassin
killing would not necessarily curtail Hamas attempts to
-- Defense Minister Avraham Mofaz called Yassin a terror
leader, likening him to Osama Bin Laden. He said the
operation (dubbed "Stick Shift") was part of the State of
Israel's overall policy on the fight against Hamas, and that
this fight would continue.
-- Picking up on this theme, NRP MK Gila Finkelstein stated
publicly that Yassin had been a "marked man, along with
Rantisi, Nasrallah, Arafat, and Bin Laden."
-- Opinion in the Labor faction was divided: Opposition
leader Shimon Peres said the decision to assassinate Yassin
was a "mistake." Speaking at a Labor faction meeting, Peres
questioned the wisdom of assassinating leaders who were not
"ticking bombs." Noting that leaders can be replaced, he
expressed the view that the more effective way to combat
terror is to remove the reasons for terror." He added that
if he had been a member of the Cabinet, he would have voted
against the operation. Meanwhile, MKs Haim Ramon, Benjamin
Ben-Eliezer, and Danny Yatom (the former head of Mossad) all
voiced approval for the killing.
-- Interior Minister Poraz (Shinui) told Israel Radio that he
had opposed the Cabinet decision to target Hamas leaders,
including Yassin. He noted that he had warned his Cabinet
colleagues that such an action was liable to increase
-- Israeli-Arab MK Ahmed Tibi called the killing of Yassin
"madness," accusing GOI leaders of having become "arsonists,"
thereby exposing the citizens of Israel to harsh reactions.
-- A Labor Party source in the Knesset told the Ambassador
that an unidentified Gaza settler lobbyist was heard
declaring victory over PM Sharon's disengagement plan
because, the lobbyist said, the assassination signaled the
start of a war against Hamas that would supersede the
"Satisfaction" with U.S. Response
3. (C) Unnamed officials in the PM's office were quoted in
Israeli media as expressing "satisfaction" over the U.S.
response to the attack, pointing out that, unlike the
Europeans and the UN Secretary-General, the United States had
not "condemned" it. Israel Radio concluded that the U.S.
Administration was "speaking with two voices" on the issue,
pointing out perceived differences between the statements
made by officials at the White House and at the State
Department. The director of the MFA's policy planning staff,
Tzion Evroni, told the Ambassador March 23 that he and his
staff believe the assassination presents an opportunity to
build up the Palestinian Authority, but, when pressed for
details, had nothing to offer in support of that assertion.
Op-Ed Pages Devoted to
4. (SBU) Day-after op-ed pieces on the killing, of which
there are many, all reflect an overwhelming public weariness
and convey a collective sense of fearfulness, fatigue, and
fatalism. For example, commentator Nahum Barnea, writing in
Yediot, notes the progression of Israel's "targeted killing"
policy, which at first was limited to operational leaders and
"engineers," then political leaders, and now spiritual
leaders. He charges that, "No one in the system, not even
Sharon, believes that the assassination of the shaykh will
reduce the scope of terror. There is no strategy here, just
bitter frustration and mounting difficulty to look the voters
in the eye." Asking rhetorically how many Jews Yassin will
kill in his death, Barnea evokes a number of fears: "The
fear of a rekindled popular uprising of the kind that befell
us after the Hasmonean tunnel was opened (in 1996) and after
Sharon ascended the Temple Mount (in 2000). The fear of a
mega-terror attack. The fear of a religious, Jewish-Islamic
war. The fear of attacks on Jewish communities, from
Istanbul to Buenos Aires."
Public Opinion Finds Killing Justified,
Even While Anticipating Upswing in Terror
5. (SBU) Popular opinion does not lag far behind that of the
opinion leaders in the press. A Dachaf Polling Institute
poll released in Yediot Ahronoth shows that approximately 60
percent of the public viewed the Yassin killing as justified,
but only three percent thought it would decrease terror in
the short term. A whopping 81 percent of the population
predicted that terror would increase in the short term, while
15 percent foresaw no impact. Asked about the longer-term
consequences, 32 percent predicted a decrease in terror
attacks. A similar pattern is apparent in a Hagal Hadadash
poll published in Ma'ariv, which also showed that 43 percent
of the public would support assassinating Arafat.
6. (C) Anecdotal evidence that Israelis are hunkering down in
anticipation of Hamas strikes in retaliation for the killing
was already abundant on the day of the attack. Indications
of this trend are mounting on the day after. For example:
-- A daily commuter between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem told
poloff that the trip yesterday took twice the usual time,
since Israelis who normally travel via Route 443, which cuts
into the West Bank, were afraid to do so. In addition,
checkpoints outside all cities slowed incoming traffic.
-- Inner-city roads have been much more congested with
traffic than usual, suggesting that Israelis who have the
means to do so are avoiding public transport. An Israel TV
Channel 2 reporter conducting "man-on-the-street" interviews
yesterday captured this phenomenon. A young Israeli woman at
a bus stop who had not previously heard the news responded to
the interviewers question, "They killed Yassin? Wow! (Pause
for thought....) Then, I'm taking a cab!" The camera showed
her hailing the first cab that came along and diving into it.
-- Demonstrators outside the Defense Ministry's Tel Aviv
compound yesterday gave voice to the public's sense of
vulnerability with signs (in English) reading: "Stop Playing
with Our Lives!" This theme was sounded again today as
protestors at Hebrew University, where Sharon was scheduled
to meet with new immigrant students, held up a mock roulette
wheel and changed, "Sharon is gambling with our lives."
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