The Israeli nation is united in its desire to see the safe return of the three students kidnapped in the West Bank, but for some on all sides of this incident it is something more: it is an opportunity to be exploited for political and other gains.
Breaking the Palestinian unity government, undermining Hamas’ influence on the West Bank, destroying its infrastructure there and delegitimizing the Islamist group in international public opinion rank highest for the Netanyahu government.
The prime minister says he has “unequivocal proof” of Hamas’ responsibility but so far he’s not sharing it.
Hamas is acting like he’s right. Its political leader, Khaled Mashaal, would neither admit nor deny responsibility, only “bless” and “congratulate the abductors.” And why not? They were doing what the Gazabased terror group has long advocated – grabbing hostages for prisoner swaps.
Netanyahu initially sought to humiliate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas by saying the kidnapping was a direct result of his reconciliation with Hamas. It was also Abbas’ responsibility, he added, because the abductors came from and returned to PA territory. That piece of over-the-top rhetoric risked losing critical cooperation from PA security forces.
It also upset Israeli security officials who wanted that assistance.
Abbas condemned the attack, with a bit of American encouragement, but Netanyahu rejected that and demanded the Palestinian leader dismantle unity government as a sign of good faith. In contrast, President Shimon Peres, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and opposition leader Isaac Herzog praised Abbas’ call for the release of the students and offered the cooperation of his security forces.
Only in the face of widespread criticism of his rude response and after a week of delay did Netanyahu reluctantly express appreciation for Abbas’ “important words.”
Abbas not only condemned the abduction as a terrorist act and ordered his security forces to assist in the search, but he made that announcement in an unprecedented address to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting in Saudi Arabia.
Abbas was denounced as a traitor and called Israel’s policeman by Hamas and even some in his own Fatah faction.
It was also an opportunity for Abbas to damage his rival and erstwhile partner, Hamas, to show Western donors how law abiding he is and ready for statehood and to be a player on the world stage.
As I said above, there are always those who seek to turn tragedy into opportunity.
One Jewish organization sent out an email suggesting “six ways to help the abducted boys.” How? Pray and send the group money. “DONATE NOW” it declared in big capital letters.
The Netanyahu cabinet, always on the lookout for ways to support the settlement enterprise, authorized an additional $1.5 million aid package for settlements, citing youth security.
A controversial ultra-religious rabbi, Dov Lior, blamed the kidnapping on changing procedures for conversion and turning over some territory to the Palestinians.
A haredi (ultra-Orthodox) newspaper said the abduction was God’s punishment for drafting yeshiva students into the army.
Former and possible future Republican president wannabe Mike Huckabee took his campaign to Israel, where he visited the family of Naftali Frankel, the American citizen who was abducted, and used that as a platform to attack the State Department for urging restraint on all sides.
Huckabee was part of a parade of Israeli and other politicians making highly publicized photo-op visits to the boys’ families.
Naftali Bennett, head of the Bayit Yehudi party, used it to renew his call to annex major portions of the West Bank.
Another cabinet officer called for collective punishment of Palestinians by cutting off electricity to the Gaza Strip.
Ze’ev Elkin, chair of the Knesset committee on foreign affairs and defense, said this incident showed the need to renew targeted assassinations.
Some on the Right complain that referring to the missing teens as “settlers” and “yeshiva students” – which they are – shows bias.
The massive roundup of Palestinians, including some freed in prior prisoner releases, is seen by many as an attempt by Netanyahu to make up for criticism that he blundered by releasing 1,027 prisoners in 2011 in exchange for a single Israeli captive, Gilad Schalit. The deal was negotiated with Hamas, which got a big boost in popularity at the expense of Fatah. Many have been rearrested in the current roundup.
Israeli-Arab Knesset member Haneen Zoabi insisted the kidnappers are not terrorists and accused Abbas of “betraying the Palestinian people” by cooperating with Israel. An Abbas aide dismissed her as a “demagogue.”
Behind this tragedy and exploitation there may be an unexpected opportunity.
The PA-Hamas reconciliation agreement is on life support and Netanyahu is working overtime to pull the plug. If Abbas scraps that pact he could open the door to resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks by removing Israel’s excuse for refusing to meet.
It would also keep open the two-state option, which is out of the picture as long as Hamas is in the picture.
That doesn’t mean Abbas and Netanyahu are about the return to the negotiating table anytime soon; they dislike and distrust each other too much, and both have governments where opposition to any new talks runs high. But the removal of Hamas from the PA will make possible closer cooperation between them on several fronts as they rebuild their frayed relationship.
If Netanyahu doesn’t overplay his hand and really does present proof of Hamas’s complicity in the kidnapping, the Islamist group’s hopes of using the unity agreement to extend its influence in the West Bank and merge the two Palestinian security forces will be dashed.
Abbas and Netanyahu could emerge big winners in this incident if they play their cards right – but the history of both suggests they will be far more responsive to local political factors than to new opportunities for peace. The Palestinian leader’s major rival will be severely damaged, his stature in Israel and abroad will be enhanced by his condemnation of the abduction and his cooperation in the search and Israel will be indebted to him.
Netanyahu will be a victor if the unity agreement is scrapped, Hamas is weakened, and – it’s a big if – if he can be gracious in his victory and resist the temptation to gloat and overplay his hand.
Neither man has the courage or the vision to make peace but they can use this opportunity to take some steps in that direction until new leaders with those qualities come along.