JERUSALEM — These days before Yom Kippur are a time of self-examination among Jews, requiring collective confession and penitence. The growing public debate here over the bungled assassination attempt against Khaled Meshaal, a leader of the militant Islamic Hamas in Jordan, resonates along with the prayers being recited in synagogues asking God's forgiveness for sins ranging from self-righteousness to murder.
Yet unlike the outrage being expressed abroad, domestic criticism against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is focused on the attempted assassination's political rather than moral failure. Had the Israeli Mossad struck in Gaza, where the Palestinian authorities have until recently tacitly encouraged terrorism, few Israelis would have been appalled. But by compromising the sovereignty of Jordan, the closest Israel has to a friend in the Middle East, Netanyahu revealed a fatal political clumsiness.
Almost all Israelis agree that assassinating those who order suicide bombers into our markets isn't "state terrorism" but self-defense. Hamas, after all, is hardly a conventional enemy: Its bombings are mini-preenactments of its vision of Israel's destruction.
Beginning in the early 1970s, when Yasser Arafat's PLO targeted Israeli schoolchildren and Olympic athletes, the Jewish state developed its own antiterrorism doctrine, a concession to Middle Eastern reality: Terrorists with no moral restraint would be treated in kind. That doctrine has been upheld by left-wing as well as right-wing governments. Hamas' head of operations, Yehiya Ayash, was blown up in Gaza in 1996 by order of former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. The most poignant symbol of Israel's antiterrorism doctrine was the 1976 Entebbe rescue, in which Israeli commandos violated Ugandan sovereignty to free 98 hostages of a hijacked plane and kill their terrorist captors. The commander of that rescue operation was Yoni Netanyahu, the prime minister's brother.
With the failed assassination in Jordan, Benjamin Netanyahu has delivered an anti-Entebbe, perhaps the single greatest humiliation in Israel's war against terrorism. His ineptitude allowed Hamas murderers to posture in the media as victims and peace-seekers. And his adventurism forced him to free Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin from an Israeli jail in exchange for the release from a Jordanian prison of the two would-be Mossad assassins. In so doing, he sabotaged the war against terrorism, the war he was elected to win.
Just last week, Netanyahu's strategy of linking further Israeli territorial concessions to a genuine crackdown by the Palestinian Authority against Hamas appeared to be vindicated. Arafat had finally begun arresting suspects at the top of Israel's wanted list and shutting down Hamas institutions. But now, after Netanyahu has helped turned Yassin into the hero of the Palestinian street and forced even King Hussein to embrace him, no one expects Arafat to be more hard-line on Hamas than Netanyahu himself.
Netanyahu deserves Israelis' appreciation for having placed Arafat's failure to contain terrorism at the center of the peace process. No other Israeli prime minister has faced such a sustained campaign of delegitimization. The day after his election, war threats began emanating from Arab capitals; the international community accused him of destroying the peace process. He held his ground, insisting that agreements between the Palestinians and the Israelis would be honored by both sides or neither. Now that firmness has been squandered in a reckless gamble.
Within the next two years, Israel could face its ultimate war against terrorism: a long-delayed showdown with Iran, the spiritual and operational center of Islamic terror. If Iran soon acquires not only long-range missile capability but also nuclear weapons, as intelligence reports indicate, Israel will almost certainly have to launch a preemptive strike, much like former Prime Minister Menachem Begin's attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981.
Israel cannot enter what may be the most dangerous time in its history headed by a man who has lost credibility even among his supporters. Netanyahu must accept the verdict of these days of judgment and resign.