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Israel Ponders “Proper Response” to the Brutal Murder of Three Teens

by Shmuel Rosner

3 weeks ago

An Israeli woman holds a sign with images of three missing Israeli teenagers, at a rally in Rabin Square in the coastal city of Tel Aviv June 29, 2014. Photo by Reuters/Baz Ratner

Few attacks mark a watershed in the long, bloody war of Israel's enemies against it. A majority of them are just heart-breaking routine.

The Park hotel suicide attack on the 2002 Passover Seder night was a turning point. The following night, the government headed by Ariel Sharon voted almost unanimously in favor of launching the so called Defensive Shield operation – the military action that was the beginning of the journey to put an end to the second Palestinian Intifada. Thus, the Park Hotel attack was a murderous act that changed history. But most others don't. Most others leave Israelis puzzled, angered, saddened – leave them to cope with the sober realization that not every horrendous murder finds its history-changing response.

How does a country respond to the kidnapping and cold blooded murder of three innocent youngsters? The statement from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, released before the cabinet meeting, was charged with symbolic language. It quoted poet Haim Nahman Bialik's most famous line from On the Slaughter: "revenge for the blood of a little child - has yet been devised by Satan". A curious choice by a man who has his way with words.

Later, in the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu was a voice for cool headedness and reason, resisting the call of another famous line from that Bialik poem: "If there is justice, let it show itself at once". I’m writing this article following one cabinet meeting (on Monday) yet before another meeting, scheduled for Tuesday evening. But it is clear by now that Israel doesn't quite have a ready-made proper response to the murder. There are measures to be taken against Hamas in the West Bank, and possibly in Gaza as well, but Israel has reasons to hesitate.

In the calls for identifying a target for retribution, that have been flooding the airwaves since yesterday evening, three main schools of thought have emerged – four, if we count the do-nothing camp.

The first one calls for using harsh measures against all Palestinian institutions, the Palestinian Authority of Mahmud Abbas included. The argument is that it's the incitement of the PA and its financial support for the families of terrorists that makes it a proper target for punishment.

The second identifies Hamas as the target: in all Israeli quarters there is a realization that Hamas should be tamed. If there's a debate, it is over tactics and timing. For example, should Israel begin a campaign of targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders following the murder? Should Israel invade Gaza following the murder and the intensification of the daily barrage of rockets on Israeli towns?

The third school of thought calls for building more settlements – an act nicknamed "the proper Zionist response". It is, obviously, the most blatant attempt to politically utilize the tragedy. Yet it also has its inner logic: if what the murderers want to achieve is to scare the Jews away from Judea and Samaria, or, possibly, away from the land of Israel, additional building will demonstrate to them and to their supporters that Israel canot be easily scared away.

Netanyahu and his Defense Minister, Moshe Yaalon, didn't seem enthusiastic about any of the three options, according to their initial remarks. Joining them in opposition were Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, and opposing them were ministers Naftali Bennet of Habayit Hayehudi and Gilad Erdan of Likud. That is to say: the usual suspects voiced their usual opinions. No clear path which everyone could agree about presented itself to the ministers of the cabinet. Centrists wanted caution, hawks and settlers wanted justice to "show itself at once".

It is too early to determine how Israel will choose to respond to the murder – if it is even going to respond – against whom it will respond, and whether it will be just a demonstration of frustration and anger or the beginning of something more meaningful. The statement from President Obama on Monday night – condemning "in the strongest possible terms this senseless act of terror", yet calling "all parties to refrain from steps that could further destabilize the situation" – was a reminder to the government of Israel that it will not necessarily have the support of world leaders if it takes harsh measures in response to the murder. Israelis, during the eighteen days of searching for the missing teens, were often puzzled by the lack of international interest in this tragic and dramatic story. Highly absorbed by this story, they understandably fail to see that other, even more dramatic stories, such as the developing war in Iraq, capture the headlines for good reason.

That is one reason for Israel's difficulty as it ponders its response to the murder. On the one hand, the fact that the world is busy with other things gives Israel an opening to act without it becoming an instant news sensation and a main story. On the other hand, the international community, while understanding that this was an especially horrendous act of violence, doesn't see it as a turning point in the "conflict". If Israel turns to high gear brutality in its response, it will not have much support in the world. Surely that will also be the case if Israel decides to build in the territories to make a point.

Netanyahu has to consider the price Israelis will pay if a war against Hamas in Gaza turns the summer vacation that just began into a summer of sitting in shelters. He also has to consider the political ramifications of using such measures – both internationally and internally. And he has to make a convincing case in defining a proper goal for the action: Hamas is already very weak – that is why it wanted to join the Abbas government. And some Israeli experts believe that Israel would do well to let its decline run its course without boosting it by launching attacks that will force Arab leaders to voice their support for the organization.

During the days of searching, Abbas' Palestinian Authority closely cooperated with Israel's security forces in their attempt to locate the three teens. Abbas was praised by many Israelis (if not by the government) for also issuing a strong condemnation of the kidnapping. In fact, in the Tel Aviv rally in support of the families, just 24 hours before the bodies were found, one of the mothers, Racheli Frenkel, bravely commended Abbas for his words in front of a crowd that was markedly hawkish.

Yet Abbas is the prime target of Israel's diplomatic response to the murder. Applying pressure on him to end the short-lived political collaboration with Hamas is something that Israel started doing right after the kidnapping of the teens. Their senseless murder will make it harder for him to justify his current choice of coalition.

Israel might eventually have to make do with less than a proper response to the murder. As enraging as this might seem, the history of Israel is a long strain of having to live with violence to which there isn't always an immediate proper response. And even if it doesn’t have a proper response, Israel – it seems – did learn a lesson from this murder: it is currently not easy to find an Israeli that would openly admit to having supported the deal to release Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity in exchange for more than a thousand prisoners. It is even more difficult to find one that will support such a deal in the future.

So one clear response to the murder is the response of the Israeli public. Israel, at least for now, seems to have toughened its position against trading with kidnappers. And it is pondering the capturing and jailing of all the released prisoners from the Shalit deal.

Even while Israel was still hoping to hear that the kidnapped teens are alive, there were many voices of leaders clarifying that they will not support any serious kind of exchange deal. Following the murder, the calls of regret over the Shalit deal are becoming even louder (last week it was revealed that one of the released prisoners murdered an Israeli a few months ago). While we still don't know if the kidnappers of the teens intended to trade them, it is reasonable to assume that the motivation for kidnapping clearly goes up if its perpetrators can hope to achieve as much as the kidnappers of Shalit were able to achieve.

So maybe this murder will become a watershed event after all. Maybe it marks the realization that the era of overpriced prisoner exchange deals should be ended.

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