AnalysisOn teenagers, terrorists and the strange origins of Israeli democracy

Horror at teens’ deaths won’t prevent future exchanges

The sense of solidarity seen in the outpouring of grief over the abductees is a defining characteristic of Israeli identity, the source of Israelis’ democratic freedoms, and the reason they can’t abandon one of their own in enemy hands

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Israeli soldiers begin a search operation in the village of Halhul, near the West Bank town of Hebron, on June 29, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/HAZEM BADER)
Israeli soldiers begin a search operation in the village of Halhul, near the West Bank town of Hebron, on June 29, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/HAZEM BADER)

Three boys are dead. Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel were abducted by a clumsy Hamas cell in the West Bank with instructions — generic urging, really — to replicate the “success” of the Gilad Shalit kidnapping that saw over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many of them brutal terrorists with blood on their hands, released in exchange for the safe return of one Israeli soldier.

For eighteen days Israelis, their political leaders and the press could talk of little else. Are they alive? Israelis wondered. And if so, why haven’t the kidnappers issued demands?

Eighteen days of ceaseless arrest operations — over 400 Palestinians, mostly Hamas members, are now jailed — fevered intelligence gathering and open confrontation with Palestinian organizations.

The Palestinian Authority lent its intelligence support, with President Mahmoud Abbas calling publicly, in Arabic, for the teens’ safe return — a gesture that won him the heartfelt gratitude of their mothers and accusations of treason from Hamas and at least one Israeli Arab MK.

Yet for nearly three weeks the boys were not found. Some Israeli politicians made the connection to Shalit, blaming Israel’s willingness to deal with terrorists then for the fates of Eyal, Gil-ad and Naftali now. To be sure, the prisoner exchanges continue to gall and anger many Israelis — and even many of Israel’s friends overseas. Can Israeli leaders not see that prisoner exchanges create an overwhelming incentive for future kidnappings?

Yet while the costs of past exchanges became stark and agonizing, Israelis also know that if push had come to shove, if the teens had turned out to be alive and out of the reach of Israel’s security services, and if Hamas had demanded the release of terrorists in exchange for the boys’ safe return, then Israel’s leaders would have found it nigh unbearable to leave them in enemy hands.

For Hamas, the collapse of this kidnapping has not changed the fundamental strategy. The “success” of the Shalit operation — successful in the sense that Palestinian prisoners were released — along with the sheer scale of the public outpouring of grief over the most recent murders, have assured Hamas that the effectiveness of kidnapping has not abated. Palestinian politics has yet to reach the point where critics of Hamas can safely point out that its belligerency has spelled a decade of ruin for Gaza’s economy and society.

As the leaders of Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other groups have said openly in countless glorying speeches following previous prisoner exchanges, kidnappings lay bare Israel’s weak underbelly, its whimpering, distraught obsession with its missing boys.

This weakness, Israel’s enemies have argued, has strategic significance. The skewed math of Israeli-Arab prisoner exchanges are a sign of Israeli decline, of slackening Israeli morale in the face of Arab persistence and endurance. Israelis may be militarily powerful, but their threshold for pain is low. Even the inflicting of relatively little pain — how many Israelis have died in rocket attacks, Palestinians often ask — can achieve meaningful gains toward the broader goal of Israel’s eventual destruction.

Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, the three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped on June 12 and whose bodies were found on June 30. (photo credit: IDF/AP)
Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, the three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped on June 12 and whose bodies were found on June 30. (photo credit: IDF/AP)

In the wake of the teens’ July 12 abduction, Ibrahim Al-Madhoun, editor-in-chief of the Hamas-affiliated website Siraj Al-I’lam, commented (translation via MEMRI): “It’s well known that an operation in which 10 Israeli soldiers are killed is easier for the occupation than the disappearance or abduction of [a] single soldier [snatched] from [Israel’s] military forces, which are armed to the teeth. Abducting and hiding soldiers uncovers the weakness and fragility of this entity [i.e., Israel], which boasts of its strength and its intelligence apparatuses. Three soldiers [Hamas has insisted on calling the civilian teens soldiers] have disappeared into a well-guarded hideout, built like a maze, and the enemy and his arrogant army, who monitor [the area], do not know how, when and where they have gone.”

It is hard to gauge how widespread this belief is among Palestinians. Hamas, at least, utters it openly, as do many Fatah activists. In a sense, the entire Palestinian national movement, which still defines the Jewish state as a non-indigenous plant lacking organic roots in the land, views Israel as transitory, a powerful army supported by a fundamentally unstable politics.

Israel will continue to negotiate the release of Palestinian prisoners, including murderers, in exchange for the return of its own, Hamas believes. And it may be right.

A free country

Palestinians find Israeli weakness in the pathos the Jewish state exhibits over its abducted teens. Others find it elsewhere. Perhaps the most popular, pervasive theory of Israeli decline, at least in the West, holds that Israel’s downfall will come after the imminent collapse of its democratic institutions. Israel’s democracy, its critics argue, is under threat.

This sentiment has a long and storied pedigree. In 1977, when Israel’s left-wing Labor Party faced its first election loss after 29 years in power, many on the left warned that the victorious right-wing Likud would lead the country to fascism. When the Oslo process stirred bitter disagreement between Israelis, up to and including the assassination of a prime minister, the entire edifice of Israel’s democratic institutions was said to be teetering on the brink of collapse. More recently, Israeli democracy has been ostensibly threatened by right-wing Knesset bills which were said to restrict freedoms and unfairly target critics of the government.

Judging by its critics, Israeli democracy has been in a state of imminent collapse for generations.

Yet Israeli democracy miraculously survived Menachem Begin’s premiership, Rabin’s assassination, and even the “antidemocratic” bills of recent years. (The only such bill to pass the Knesset in five years of unassailable right-wing parliamentary majority was a law increasing transparency requirements — but not actually restricting donations — for foreign governmental funding of Israeli NGOs.)

Yes, for all the dire talk, Israeli democracy still stands. Despite seven decades of permanent war, a fractious and bitter politics, and deep-seated ethnic and religious divides, Israeli elections are still free, the press is as cacophonous and critical as ever, the courts are independent and minorities enjoy the rights (if not all the obligations) of other citizens.

To be fair, it is not at all clear how Israeli democracy survives. Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis has often marveled at the fact that the vast majority of Jews (he calculated upwards of 95 percent) who came to Israel in the 20th century hailed from places that had no tradition of democratic freedoms or liberal institutions — Czarist or Soviet Russia, Iraq, Yemen. Despite possessing no actual experience of liberal democracy, free public debate, a democratic intellectual tradition or even a constitution, Israelis simply behaved, from the very start of political Zionism, like democrats.

Israelis hold signs during a rally calling for the release of three kidnapped teenagers -- Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel -- in Tel Aviv, Sunday, June 29, 2014. The bodies of the three were discovered near Hebron the following day. (Photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Israelis hold signs during a rally calling for the release of three kidnapped teenagers — Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel — in Tel Aviv, Sunday, June 29, 2014. The bodies of the three were discovered near Hebron the following day. (Photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

How did Israeli democracy survive the immense stresses that faced the fledgling state in past decades? How does it survive the challenges that face it today? How, indeed, did Israel become a democracy in the first place?

Hebrew University historian Alexander Yakobson is among the few public intellectuals who have offered an answer to this question. Perhaps we struggle to find the liberal intellectual origins of Israeli democracy, Yakobson has suggested, because its cultural roots lie elsewhere: in the distinctly tribal sense of Jewish collectivism at the heart of Israeli identity.

“It is possible that the secret to the strength of Israeli democracy rests with something that is itself hard to square with a working democracy: the pseudo-tribal sense of Jewish solidarity, the widespread feeling that we are a sort of extended family,” he argues. “The vast majority of Jews who came here, from all backgrounds, did not want to see other Jews killed or imprisoned for political reasons — and their motives [for this magnanimity] can be better categorized as tribal rather than democratic.”

These Jews, the refugees of post-Holocaust Europe or post-Farhoud Iraq, who fled the brutalities of 19th-century eastern Europe or 20th-century French anti-Semitism, could not bear to arrive in a new country, a Jewish country, and witness once again the wanton killing or persecution of Jews.

“In any society where this is the prevailing feeling, it is impossible to sustain any sort of dictatorship,” Yakobson points out. Tyranny relies on fear. If killing becomes intolerable within a particular political community, then fear can no longer serve as a mechanism for its political order.

The few instances in Israeli history in which Jews did kill other Jews offer compelling evidence of Yakobson’s point. The destruction of the Altalena weapons ship off the Tel Aviv coast in June 1948, the killing of Peace Now activist Emil Grunzweig in Jerusalem in 1983, the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 — all became formative memories in the national consciousness of Israelis. In each case, the victims were controversial. Most Israelis supported the Haganah, not the Etzel fighters commanding the Altalena. Most Israelis viewed Peace Now in the 1980s as a radical fringe group. And about half of Israelis considered Rabin’s policies dangerous for the future security of all Israelis. Yet in each case, the act itself, the failure of Jewish solidarity signified in a Jew killing another Jew, has come to dominate the way the events are remembered.

By his own estimation, Menachem Begin’s greatest political triumph in five decades of activism and leadership came in the immediate aftermath of the deadly skirmish over the Altalena, when he publicly rejected retaliation against David Ben Gurion’s Haganah. Jews would not kill other Jews, he said at the time. There would be no Jewish civil war, he declared, before going on to become the leader of a peaceful, patient opposition for the next 29 years.

For Peace Now, few events did more to legitimize its message in the politically decisive decade of the 1980s than the fact that a Jewish opponent of the organization attacked and killed a fellow Jew. As President Shimon Peres would write in 2013, 30 years later, the killing of Grunzweig “by a member of his own people during a peaceful demonstration in the center of Jerusalem” was a “strike at the soul of Israeli democracy.”

And during the trial that followed the Rabin assassination, the shooter Yigal Amir was asked by the presiding judge if he regretted his actions. Amir replied that he did feel regret — not for the killing of the “traitor” Rabin, but for the fact that one of the bullets he fired at the prime minister missed their target and wounded a member of Rabin’s security detail.

Portrait of Yitzhak Rabin. Had Rabin not been assassinated in November 1995, says Yossi Beilin, 'We would now have peace.' (photo credit: Flash90)
Yitzhak Rabin (photo credit: Flash90)

Israel’s most notorious political assassin, who believed God had called on him to stop the Oslo peace process by killing its political father, was troubled, so he said, by the fact that another Jew, a security officer of the State of Israel, was hurt in the process. It is exceedingly difficult to engage in political violence when the wounding of a targeted politician’s security detail is viewed by the assassin as a violation of his basic ethical code.

Much has been written about the collectivist ethos at the heart of Israeli Jewish identity, the sense of Jewish solidarity that grew out of the tragedies and brutalities of the 20th century. But few have credited this solidarity with the creation of Israel’s democratic politics, its culture of free and open debate, its liberal public space.

When Israeli leaders speak of Israel as “both Jewish and democratic,” most foreign listeners hear an apologetic tone or simply empty pablum. But ever since Israel’s Declaration of Independence articulated the two principles that undergird Israeli public life, the phrase has become a kind of shorthand for the inextricability of the two commitments: Israel is free because no sanctuary for Jews can be truly safe otherwise, and it is Jewish because it is the place where Jews can go to be free.

This sense of collective solidarity is not simply patriotism. It is a deep-seated identity-forming narrative rooted in a specific set of historical memories and buttressed by a sense of shared culture and fate. It is Israel’s raison d’etre, its historic purpose in the minds of most of its citizens.

Those costly Hamas ‘successes’

It is not surprising that Hamas and other Palestinian political movements do not appreciate all the advantages that Israel has gleaned from this commitment: the economic, military, social and other benefits of democratic politics.

In its takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Hamas sought to intimidate its opponents by throwing fellow Palestinians, fighters from Fatah and other competing groups, off the roofs of buildings. The group’s continued insistence that its kidnappings are “successful” contains a similar brutality. Its greatest success, it says, was the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit. But the abduction of Shalit began the chain reaction that led to years of siege, economic collapse, and thousands of dead and wounded Hamas fighters and Palestinian civilians in multiple rounds of conflict with Israel.

Palestinian security personnel inspect a damaged building following overnight Israeli air raids in the central Gaza Strip on June 28, 2014. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD HAMS)
Palestinian security personnel inspect a damaged building following overnight Israeli air raids in the central Gaza Strip on June 28, 2014. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD HAMS)

The Palestinians have already paid a steep price for the latest kidnapping. At least six Palestinians are dead from clashes with IDF troops searching for the teens in the West Bank. Hundreds of Palestinians, mostly Hamas members, have been jailed by Israel in the past two-and-a-half weeks. And in Gaza, where Hamas is hated for finally, utterly wrecking the local economy through its alliance with the now-fallen Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas is poised to drag the beleaguered inhabitants into yet another round of fighting with Israel.

The Palestinians can scarcely afford many more Hamas “successes.”

If Israel’s deepest institutional strengths flow at least partly from its culture of solidarity, there is a similar connection between the ease with which Hamas murders other Palestinians and the political dysfunction that plagues the Palestinian national movement.

For Israeli leaders, meanwhile, the idea that Jewish youngsters are being held in an enemy dungeon away from the warm embrace of their families and people will continue to grate unbearably against the most basic demands of Israeli identity. The next time they face the same awful choice, Israeli leaders may once again find themselves striking deals with terrorists.

They will undoubtedly be castigated as fools yet again by some foreign observers and domestic constituents. But there is a deeper narrative at play, a fundamental impulse of Israeli Jewish identity and politics to which Israel’s leaders are attuned, to which they owe many of Israel’s greatest institutional strengths, and which, at the end of the day, they cannot ignore.

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