WHAT can Ariel Sharon possibly hope to gain from yesterday's assasination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas? This is the question that needs to be asked amidst all the routine condemnations of the killing in Europe and the Middle East and the pious pleas for moderation from both sides from Washington. Mr Sharon has said that this attack was just part of Israel's on-going determination to remove the leaders of all Palestinian groups involved in suicide bombings in Israel. As recently as 16 January the Israeli deputy defence minister said that Sheikh Yassin was “marked for death”. But surely the Israeli government does not really imagine that these killings will cow the Palestinians; surely it can see that the attacks will instead increase the determination of the Palestinians? So what other reasons are there? Some observers of Sharon's tactics believe that his aim is to weaken Hamas as much as possible before deciding whether to implement Israel's possible withdrawal from the Gaza strip; this would prevent Hamas from gaining prestige among Palestinians by claiming that it had been responsible for an Israeli “retreat”. This tortured and flawed reasoning overlooks the fact that every Israel attack on Hamas and the retaliation it causes strengthens that organisation's position in relation to the Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority which is trying to keep it under control.
PRESIDENT Bush's road-map, backed by the European Union, Russia and the United Nations is now to all intents and purposes dead and buried. “This is going to be very, very bad news for the peace process” said the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, yesterday. More pragmatically, when asked by a journalist about prospects for the “peace process”, President Mubarak of Egypt replied, “What peace process?”