Netanyahu's Dangerous Posture on Kidnapped Israelis Could Lead to Conflagration

Photo by Tali Mayer/NurPhoto/Sipa USA via AP Images

A mass prayer for the release of three Jewish teenagers, believed to have been snatched from an area between the Israeli occupied West Bank towns of Bethlehem and Hebron while hitchhiking, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on June 15, 2014. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Islamist Hamas movement of kidnapping three teenagers on the third day of a massive West Bank manhunt for the missing youths.

Update, July 1, 1:30 p.m. Israel time (6:30  a.m. EDT): Israeli troops and security agents yesterday afternoon found the bodies of the three kidnapped Israeli teens buried in open country north of Hebron in the West Bank. The manhunt for the two alleged murderers, Hamas activists from Hebron, continues. From the information released so far, it appears that the kidnappers did intend to keep live hostages. But when one of the boys dialed the police and whispered, "We've been kidnapped," their abductors killed them, according to news reports. Before an emergency security cabinet meeting last night, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared: "Hamas is responsible; Hamas will pay." Reportedly due to sharp differences between ministers, however, the meeting adjourned without deciding on an Israeli response, and will resume this evening. Meanwhile, the cycle of rocket fire from Hamas-ruled Gaza and Israeli air strikes appears to be escalating. Israeli military sources were quoted as saying that the rockets were apparently fired by Palestinian factions that reject Hamas authority. In the West Bank, the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli troops in clashes since the kidnapping rose to six.


Life in Israel in recent months has been preternaturally tranquil, as long as you keep no more than a quarter of an ear on the news. Jerusalem cafés are packed. If you take a summer hike in the Galilee, nothing in the mountain breeze reminds you that a few dozen kilometers to the east is a failed state called Syria, where a war of all against all has driven nearly half the population from their homes, or that the realm of chaos extends all the way through Iraq.

For that matter, the land on the other side of Israel's northern border is best described as Hezbollah territory, even if maps show a state called Lebanon there. Across the border in the south, the Sinai is a battleground between jihadist rebels and the Egyptian government. Jordan is still a functioning state—unless the fighting in Iraq and Syria spills over its borders. Feeling calm in Israel is like sipping lemonade in your living room while your neighborhood is in flames.

In truth, Israelis have actually had their ears entirely, obsessively on the news since the kidnapping of three teenage Israeli hitchhikers in the West Bank two weeks ago. The greeting, "Is there news?" means, "Have they been found? Are they alive? " While the Shin Bet security service released the names of two suspects yesterday, which it identified as known members of the military wing of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic movement, neither they nor the victims have been located. What's clear is that the both kidnapping itself and the Israeli government's reaction threaten to bring the fire much closer to home.

The abduction was an act of terror—an overused word, but still necessary to describe a real evil. In the simplest sense of "terror," this was an assault on innocent civilians for political purposes.

If the perpetrators are holding the three teens as live hostages, the immediate goal is clear: to trade them for a large number of Palestinians in Israeli prisons. It's an old tactic. But as they condemn it, many of Netanyahu's domestic critics correctly note that his decisions have amplified the motivation to use it. In 2011, Netanyahu reached a deal with Hamas to release more than 1,000 prisoners, many of them convicted murderers, in return for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held hostage in Gaza for five years. From Shalit's release, Netanyahu gained a short-term boost in popularity and, perhaps by a coincidence of timing, a national celebration that helped deflate protests against his economic policies.

This spring, on the other hand, Netanyahu refused to carry out the last stage of a much smaller release to which he'd agreed as part of the American-backed peace negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. That's when the talks collapsed. The all-too-easy conclusion for some Palestinians was that Abbas's diplomacy failed to free prisoners and that Hamas's violence worked.

Whether or not the three Israelis are alive, the abduction also fits the more complete, historical definition of terror as a strategy: Terror serves as so-called "armed propaganda," aimed at showing the terrorists' total dedication to their cause, and as a detonator: It provokes the government, or colonial power, or other enemy to react in ways that fracture both its own legitimacy and that of its moderate opponents. It enables the few to drag the many into violent conflict. (I'm drawing here on the classic writings on terror of political scientist David Rapoport and on conversations with him.) An individual terrorist may think no further than anger and the aura of armed struggle. But that aura was created by ideologues who quite consciously developed this strategy.

In this case, the attack harms the legitimacy not only of Israel, but also that of the Palestinian Authority. It may also be intended as a challenge to the Hamas political leadership, which signed a reconciliation agreement with Abbas's Fatah movement, designed to reunite Gaza and the West Bank, in April.

When the negotiations with Israel failed, Abbas needed to shore up his domestic standing, and to prove abroad that he represented Gaza as well as the West Bank. For Hamas's political leaders, the accord was a painful but pragmatic way to escape isolation after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Part of the price was becoming silent partners to Abbas's diplomatic strategy. For more extreme Islamic groups and some of Hamas's rank and file, the agreement was an unacceptable surrender of the principle of armed struggle.

Any Israeli government would have launched an intensive search to find the kidnappers and hostages. Netanyahu went much further: He not only announced immediately that Hamas was responsible for the abduction—but said that Abbas was as well, because of the unity pact. That is, he exploited the kidnapping to justify his earlier stonewalling in the peace talks.

Alongside the search efforts, the army and security services have arrested hundreds of Palestinians in the West Bank, including Hamas political figures, activists in its social welfare projects, and ex-prisoners released in the Shalit deal. Explicitly, the sweep has explicitly been aimed at more than finding the kidnappers. Political sources quoted in the media have described it as wide retaliation against Hamas.

Netanyahu, in his most bizarre statement, declared that the arrest of "Hamas terrorists, including those who were released in the agreement to return Gilad Shalit… is an important moral component" of the operation—as if he were criticizing a different prime minister, coincidentally also named Benjamin Netanyahu, who had immorally freed those prisoners. The raids have sparked clashes with Palestinians. As of this writing, Israeli troops have killed five people. The scent of wider violence is in the air: escalation provoked by terror.

Abbas, bravely, has denounced the kidnapping, and Palestinian Authority security forces are continuing to work with their Israeli counterparts. But as Ami Ayalon, former head of Israel's Shin Bet security service, told me this week, "If I learned anything in four and a half years [as head of the agency], it's that we have security when they have hope." Without any diplomatic progress, Ayalon says, cooperation is seen by the Palestinian public as collaboration and "Abbas is regarded as a collaborator." The Israeli crackdown sharpens that impression. Delegitimizing moderates, it hands another achievement to terrorism.

If the two suspects named yesterday are in fact the kidnappers, the question remains whether they were following orders from above—and who gave those orders. Israeli scholar Shaul Mishal, director of Middle East program at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, says hierarchal control is breaking down in Hamas just as it is in Arab states. "Today," he says, "there are many groups who have no address" in a central body.

Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal's comments earlier this week highlighted the political leadership's bind: On one hand, he claimed that Hamas's political wing does not control its military wing. This may be disingenuous, but could also be an admission of being taken by surprise. Yet by praising the kidnappers, he dissociated his movement from Abbas, heightened tension with Fatah, and undercut the reconciliation agreement. Toeing the old ideological line, Meshaal sacrificed the payoff for pragmatism, and looked weak in the process. If anyone is likely to gain from that weakness, it's opponents of pragmatic concessions within Hamas and the more radical Palestinian Islamic groups outside it.

Those groups, says Israeli scholar Mishal, co-author of The Palestinian Hamas, are driven by a  single-minded commitment to "resistance" (read: armed struggle) and reject any form of political process. Hamas belongs to the stream of "social Islam," concerned with welfare and health as well as Islamic practice. Its opponents are more militant, and often have a much younger membership. They are committed to a pan-Islamic vision rather than to a Palestinian state. 

From all this, I'll hazard an estimation: The potential winners in the wake of the kidnapping are groups that have much in common with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (that organization's Arabic name lays claim to territory much wider than Syria). The ISIL's  march toward Baghdad in recent days has shown how flammable the region is and has boosted their cachet among the young and angry. Hamas's proponents of unity will suffer a drop in credibility. But the big losers are Abbas and other Palestinian proponents of a negotiated outcome—and Israel, which could find out how fragile the current tranquility really is. 

Netanyahu, like any Israeli, would prefer that the abduction never happened. But by exploiting a terror attack for his own political purposes, he has increased its impact. He is playing precisely the role that the strategy of terror assigns to him. A calmer leader, with a clearer eye, would know the difference between pyromaniacs and peace partners. 

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