Alongside the military operation currently underway to locate the three kidnapped youths and to weaken Hamas, Israel is also waging an international diplomatic campaign with two goals: delegitimizing the Palestinian unity government, and validating the IDF’s actions in the West Bank.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seizing every opportunity to call on world leaders to condemn the kidnapping, which Israel blames on Hamas, and in the same breath, to pressure Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to break up his deal with the Gaza-based Islamic extremist group.
The international community, Netanyahu said Tuesday, “has to condemn Hamas for its terrorist activities and I think it has to support Israel’s right of self-defense and I think it also must call on President Abbas to end his pact with Hamas.” Supporters of peace “must tell the Palestinian Authority that they cannot build a government that is backed by the kidnappers of children and the murderers of innocents.”
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman has been busy over the last few days calling his counterparts in Germany, France, Britain, and many other countries across the globe, to thank them for condemning the kidnapping Thursday of Gil-ad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach. He also told his counterparts that Israel will do everything in its power to bring about the release of the teenagers, and will “severely punish” those responsible for the abduction.
Liberman instructed the Israeli delegation to the United Nations in New York to ensure the issue of kidnapping will be discussed at the next meeting of the Security Council on June 24.
By now, virtually all Western governments have officially denounced the kidnapping, and as of Thursday morning there had been calls for restraint but no criticism of the IDF operations in the West Bank, which have included the arrest of some 300 Hamas men, and other actions Israel is taking to pressure the organization.
However, Netanyahu on Wednesday spoke of a “wide-ranging operation” that will “yet include many actions” against Hamas, and Israeli military sources added that even the onset of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, on June 28, will not deter them from finishing their mission.
Will the international community’s support run out?
It is already apparent that the international community does not necessarily believe Israel’s claim that Hamas is behind the kidnapping. In their carefully crafted written condemnations, world leaders avoided mentioning who they think could be behind the crime. Even if Hamas’s involvement were to be proved incontrovertibly, it is unlikely they will pressure Abbas to break up the unity government, as they consider it a technocratic body.
While politicians and diplomats refrain from speculating about the kidnappers, in European media and civil society there is doubt about Hamas’s responsibility for the abduction.
Writing in Spiegel Online, Germany’s largest news website, Tel Aviv-based correspondent Julia Amalia Heyer estimated that the likelihood of Hamas’s involvement is “rather low.” In her piece, which was posted prominently on the site’s homepage, she accused Netanyahu of “cheap propaganda” in blaming Abbas for the kidnapping, and approvingly quoted human rights organization B’Tselem’s argument that Israel’s actions in the West Bank are akin to collective punishment.
The international community’s reaction to a drawn-out campaign in the West Bank will depend on how cleverly Israel acts, according to Jonathan Rynhold, a political scientist and senior researcher at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
“Israel has got legitimacy to act against Hamas. But that legitimacy will last up until the point where Israel’s response is considered to have gone over a certain line,” he said. “Nobody will try to restrain Israel from acting against Hamas, because it has done a good job convincing the international community that Hamas is behind the kidnapping.”
But if the government took drastic steps, such as expelling senior Hamas members from the West Bank to Gaza, as Yitzhak Rabin did in the early 1990s, Jerusalem would lose some of its international political capital, Rynhold predicted.
Ironically, perhaps, Israel has more room to maneuver in the Palestinian territories because the United States, and to some extent the European countries as well, are preoccupied with the deteriorating security situation in Syria and Iraq, he said. Sure, they would always find time to condemn Israel’s actions if these were deemed to have crossed a certain line, Rynhold said, but that’s pretty much all they can do.
“There are different levels of condemnation and different amounts of pressure that go with them. The EU can verbally express lots of things, but to back that up with political will is another issue. That gives Israel greater room for maneuver than it would have otherwise,” Rynhold said.
As long as the IDF continues its operation in its current scale, no one in the international community will come out too strongly against Israel, he assessed. “It depends on international laws and norms and how far they push it.” After all, there is a certain understanding in Western democracies for Israel’s mood; nobody wants to see teenagers kidnapped by terrorists, he said.
Other observers, however, warned Jerusalem against launching too extensive an operation — less because of a possible international backlash than for Israel’s own sake. The past has shown that rolling out a major military campaign, with long-term strategic goals, as a response to a single incidence of terrorism can be dangerous, according to Alon Liel, a former senior Israeli diplomat.
“By expanding a military operation launched as a gut response to a specific act of terror, you in fact create a policy that you didn’t really plan beforehand,” he said. Both the first and the second Lebanon wars started with Israeli reactions to single attacks, and only later grew into large campaigns, he noted. The current operation, officially named Operation Brother’s Keeper, similarly started as a spontaneous reaction to the kidnapping. Without the teenagers’ disappearance, Israel would not be acting the way it is now in the West Bank, he said.
“Such a strategic decision needs to be carefully examined not only by the army, the intelligence services and the police, but by the entire government, which must consider such a campaign with all the legal and regional implications,” Liel said. These were also the recommendations of the Winograd committee, which looked into the failures of the Second Lebanon War, he recalled.
Israel doesn’t have much leeway in the international community for a drawn-out military campaign, especially since that community largely faults Israel for the collapse of the peace talks, Liel added. “But you cannot ask Israel to stop looking for the boys, even during Ramadan,” he insisted. “Whatever the cost is for us in the international arena, we have to continue until we find them.”