Arab teen’s killing limits PM’s options against Hamas

Arab teen’s killing limits PM’s options against Hamas

Three marathon sessions later, the cabinet still hasn’t decided, and as time passes, a massive campaign seems increasingly unlikely

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting, on June 15, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Pool/Abir Sultan)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting, on June 15, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Pool/Abir Sultan)

As Israelis anxiously await their government’s reaction to the killing of three students, the killing of a fourth teenager might significantly curtail Jerusalem’s ability for maneuver.

On Tuesday evening, Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to avenge the June 12 abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers. Since then, the Israeli public has not heard another word from the prime minister about which concrete steps he actually intends to take.

His security cabinet has met three times since the bodies of Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel were found Monday — eighteen days after they were snatched from a hitchhiking post south of Jerusalem — discussing for hours on end how Israel should respond to their deaths. Many different measures were raised: from expanding settlement construction to expelling Hamas terrorists from the West Bank to Gaza. Some top ministers called for an extensive military campaign, including targeted killing of terrorists and toppling the Hamas regime in Gaza. But no decisions have been announced.

In his statement Tuesday, Netanyahu hinted at a relatively moderate response, while many Israelis — including senior ministers in his security cabinet — called for harsher measures. But then something happened that may have changed Israel’s game plan, whatever it might have been. (After a fierce disagreement among ministers over how to respond to the killings, leaked after the first cabinet meeting Monday, Netanyahu instructed them to maintain absolute radio silence over the debate. It’s rare that nothing leaks out from a cabinet meeting, but so far the ministers have been keeping their mouths shut.)

Early Wednesday morning, Muhammed Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old teenager from East Jerusalem, was kidnapped and slain. Even though Israeli police have yet to conclude their investigation, many in Israel and abroad suspect the killers were Jews out to avenge the Israeli teens. International condemnations started pouring in almost immediately after the news of Abu Khdeir’s death broke.

The many statements — from the White House and the State Department, the United Nations and the European Union — all came with calls for restraint appended to expressions of condolence, a more-or-less explicit warning aimed at Jerusalem. The situation is tense enough, the world’s leaders appeared to be telling Netanyahu; do not add fuel to the fire.

“Those who undertake acts of vengeance only destabilize an already explosive and emotional situation,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said. “The world has too often learned the hard way that violence only leads to more violence and at this tense and dangerous moment, all parties must do everything in their power to protect the innocent and act with reasonableness and restraint, not recrimination and retribution.”

Israel, of course, doesn’t like to be told what to do by Ban Ki-moon, Catherine Ashton and the other voices calling for moderation. But the strong language and surprisingly swift delivery of their statements sent a clear message that Jerusalem might not be able to ignore. To be sure, the cabinet will still have to respond, in some way or another, to the abduction and killing of three young, innocent civilians. There is little doubt that the IDF will, in the coming days or weeks, take steps to weaken Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza.

But given that Israelis are suspected of having killed a Palestinian 16-year-old in a gruesome act of revenge — and Israeli investigators are increasingly convinced that it was indeed a hate crime committed by a Jew — Netanyahu will likely have to exercise restraint.

In private conversations, people close to Netanyahu don’t deny that Abu Khdeir’s murder — which the prime minister termed “reprehensible” — diminishes somewhat the desire for revenge that parts of his constituency undoubtedly harbor.

“We have the ability to hit Hamas hard,” Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon said Thursday. The people of Israel are ready to suffer the short-term ramifications of an extensive Israeli operation against Hamas (i.e., intensive rocket fire on the south) for the sake of long-term quiet, he asserted. “The prime minister needs to understand that the drawing out of the cabinet discussions leads to an erosion of Israeli deterrence.”

Indeed, the longer Israel waits before delivering a response, the less international legitimacy it will have for a wide-ranging military operation. And if the police investigation confirms that the Palestinian teen’s killing was in fact an unlawful private initiative of revenge, the cabinet will be hard pressed to launch too harsh a response. Instead, it appears more likely that the government will have its hands full trying to allay the rage in the streets of Jerusalem, and to stop Gazan terrorists from shooting rockets at Israel’s south.

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