The murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank has sent shock waves through Israeli and Palestinian society and raised fears that the relatively quiescent Arab-Israeli front will explode into a new war.
A stormy Israeli cabinet session considered a variety of retaliatory options for the killings of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrah, including another major military operation against Hamas in Gaza and further boosting Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.
In fact, the steps already taken by Israeli authorities in the 18 days between the boys’ disappearance and the discovery of their bodies under a pile of rocks not far from their settlement homes amounted to pre-emptive retaliation: Hundreds of Hamas operatives in the West Bank were arrested and five young Palestinians killed by Israeli forces responding to violent protests. In the immediate aftermath of the confirmation of the murders, Israel destroyed the homes of the suspected killers and bombarded largely empty fields in Gaza while Hamas leaders went into hiding.
Israel is right to hunt down the two Palestinians who are believed responsible for the killings; to do more and inflict additional mass punishment on the entire Palestinian population is simply to perpetuate the violence and deepen generations-old grievances.
Israel and the West Bank have been relatively quiet during a period of intense turmoil in the region but it was naïve to assume they would stay that way in the absence of serious peace negotiations.
During nine months of talks, Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu never tabled a proposal demarcating possible borders for a Palestinian state, while profiting from cooperation by Palestinian security forces.
The U.S.-mediated negotiations collapsed in April after Netanyahu reneged on a third promised Palestinian prisoner release and the Palestinian Authority leader, Mahmoud Abbas sought recognition from 15 U.N.-related agencies. The final shoe dropped last week when the State Department announced that Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, was resigning as U.S. special envoy for Arab-Israeli peace and returning to his Washington think tank.
Recent polls show deepening pessimism among both Israelis and Palestinians about the prospects for a two-state solution. Sixty percent of Palestinians on the West Bank now believe that an Israeli state and a Palestinian state cannot peacefully co-exist. Nearly half – 45 percent – of Israelis agree with them.
Strong leadership could change those numbers. But Abbas is old and thinking about stepping down while Netanyahu wants to stay in power and fears being outflanked by politicians to his right. Meanwhile, the Barack Obama administration appears to have given up. It never put forward its own peace plan, acknowledging that it lacked the political will to try to compel either party to accept U.S. ideas. These days, U.S. officials are more concerned about staving off Israeli objections to a potential nuclear deal with Iran and saving what remains of Iraq than trying to resolve what is still a core issue provoking anti-U.S. and anti-Israel sentiment throughout the region and the wider Muslim world.
Short-termism also infects Israelis, who fear taking any risks for peace and seem to believe that military might alone will preserve their control indefinitely over territory that soon will be neither majority Jewish nor democratic. To rely on military power alone, however, condemns Israel to a never-ending cycle of violence and diminishing international support.
The late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin used to say that Israel should “fight terrorism as if there is no peace process and pursue peace as if there is no terrorism.” Unfortunately, Israel’s current leaders have forgotten the second part of the equation.
The Palestinian leadership, too, bears responsibility for not confronting a clan that has a history of undermining peace agreements and even acting counter to the direction of Hamas. The murder of the Israeli teens is a major blow to the unity agreement Abbas reached with Hamas last month; how the Palestinian Authority deals with this incident will likely determine the future of that accord. However, an overly aggressive Israeli response will only strengthen groups even more radical than Hamas, and make it more difficult for Abbas to cooperate with Israel in security matters going forward.
As shown by the growth of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIL) – now styling itself hubristically as the Islamic State – the Arab world is seething with anger and frustration. Much of that anger is now playing out in fighting between Arabs. Inevitably, however, Israel and the United States will also be targets. Israeli leaders must think carefully about how they retaliate for the deaths of these unfortunate teenagers, one of whom was a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen. They should not let this tragedy escalate into a larger confrontation that will only embitter and endanger more Israeli and Palestinian young people in the future.