How Netanyahu turned a police matter into a war

These are the familiar steps to a tragic and bloody dance

When three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in the West Bank on June 12, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a choice. He could have simply ordered Israel's security forces to find the boys and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Instead, Netanyahu made a different choice. He immediately announced that the extremist group Hamas was responsible (though his government has to date produced no evidence). He then launched a broad crackdown on Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank under the pretext of searching for the missing boys, and arrested hundreds of Palestinian activists, including dozens who had been released as part of the deal with Hamas to release captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011.

On June 30, the bodies of the three boys were found, buried in a shallow grave near Hebron. And it appears that Israeli authorities had good reason to believe that the boys were already dead, indicating that Netanyahu exploited their kidnapping to achieve a political objective against Hamas and to undermine the recently inked unity deal between the two Palestinian rival factions, Hamas and Fatah (which was also a possible goal of those who carried out the kidnapping).

"The blood found in the car, the sound of gunshots in the emergency call, evidence of live ammunition, and the fact that there hasn't been a single instance of two or more people being held hostage in the West Bank in decades — all that led to a single logical assumption: The teens were no longer alive," wrote Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf at +972. "Yet at the same time, the Israeli public was told the teens were being held by Hamas, and a public campaign calling for their return was launched."

In the wake of the discovery of the teens' bodies, anti-Palestinian demonstrations took off in Israel, with gangs roaming Jerusalem's streets looking for Palestinians to attack. A 17-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was taken off the street and burned alive, his body dumped outside Jerusalem. In the demonstrations that followed Mohammed's funeral, his 15-year-old cousin Tarek was arrested and beaten by masked Israeli policemen, captured on video.

Meanwhile, the rocket fire out of Gaza increased, and with it, the domestic political pressure on Netanyahu to mount a much larger and forceful response.

The kidnapping, wrote the Forward's J.J. Goldberg last week, therefore "set off a chain of events in which Israel gradually lost control of the situation, finally ending up on the brink of a war that nobody wanted — not the army, not the government, not even the enemy, Hamas."

At a security briefing on July 9, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said the attack on Gaza "will expand and continue until the fire on our communities is over and the quiet is back."

But the key thing to note here is that Israel already had quiet. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority provided years of quiet through security cooperation with Israeli security forces. Yet Netanyahu's response to this unprecedented calm — which Israel had long sought — was to undermine his ostensible partner Abbas at every conceivable opportunity through settlement construction, incursions into Palestinian cities, on top of the daily harassment and humiliations of Palestinians that are the reality of the occupation.

In Gaza, Hamas had largely held to the terms of the cease-fire signed in 2012. While rocket attacks did occur, they were usually launched by competing extremist groups. Israeli forces also carried out their own periodic attacks and incursions inside Gaza during that time. But in general, things were very quiet for Israel.

Yet here we are again. Neither side has a strategy that really gets them what they want. But we go through the steps of this familiar, tragic, and bloody dance.

As I write this, there are rumors and reports of an imminent ground invasion by Israel, and of a cease-fire in the works. One thing is certain, though: If Gaza is simply put back in the drawer, we'll end up with another round of fighting in a couple of years.

The Obama administration, for its part, has continued to insist that the status quo is unsustainable. Speaking at a conference in Tel Aviv only last week, just as the rockets began to hit Israel in greater numbers, White House Middle East coordinator Phil Gordon delivered a rebuke of Israel's refusal to end the occupation.

"[H]ow will Israel remain democratic and Jewish if it attempts to govern the millions of Palestinian Arabs who live in the West Bank?," Gordon asked. "How will it have peace if it is unwilling to delineate a border, end the occupations, and allow for Palestinian sovereignty, security, and dignity? How will we prevent other states from isolating Israel or supporting Palestinian efforts in international bodies if Israel is not seen as committed to peace?"

In a press conference shortly afterward, Netanyahu responded. "I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: That there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan." Netanyahu also specifically dismissed the security assessment carried out by U.S. Gen. John Allen, the deepest assessment of its kind ever undertaken by the United States, which had offered options for Israel's phased, coordinated withdrawal from the West Bank. "I told John Kerry and General Allen, the Americans' expert: We live here, I live here, I know what we need to ensure the security of Israel's people."

For those of us who watched with frustration as Secretary Kerry's recent peace effort collapsed, these remarks were importantly clarifying: For Netanyahu, the two state solution is off the table. Recognition of this should be the starting point for U.S. policymakers. Both the Palestinians and Israelis have factions that reject national aspirations of the other. The difference is, on the Israeli side the rejectionists are currently in control.

I doubt the extremists who kidnapped and killed those three Israeli boys could have dreamed of a better outcome.

As for the answer to Gordon's rhetorical questions: I guess we're going to find out.


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