Monday, June 30, 2014

US Should Act In Response To Killing Of Israeli Teens

At 10 this morning, Washington time, Israeli security forces discovered the bodies of Naftali Fraenkel, 16, Gil-ad Shaar, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19, the three Israeli teens abducted near Hebron in the West Bank on June 12, 2014. The discovery prompted meetings of the Israeli and Palestinian security cabinets. Several Israeli Ministers of Knesset made statements urging revenge and Israel's Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said that "Hamas will pay" for the senseless deaths.

Highly emotional moments invite strong policy reactions. In 2006, Israel's security cabinet decided to launch a war in Lebanon after Hizbullah launched rockets at Haifa. The decision was made after only two hours. While Netanyahu has proven savvy in his military policy, the pressure he faces from Israel's right (and center) is enormous. While Netanyahu is unlikely to re-invade the Gaza Strip a la Operation Cast Lead, some military response to the killing is almost a given. The danger is that an over-reaction could end up hurting Israel's security more than helping it.

As the situation unfolds overnight, the United States should act decisively. President Obama's statement condemns in the strongest terms the cold-blooded killing of innocent teens - one of whom is an American citizen. However, America's interest in stability, weakening Hamas, and returning to negotiations would be well-served in the long-run by acting on these sentiments. Specifically, the Obama administration should reassure the Government of Israel and reassure PM Netanyahu that, generally speaking, he has US support. Israel's reaction to the news has been motivated by a sense of isolation and vulnerability. Reassuring the Israeli government now can help reduce fear and the desire for revenge. This in turn can enhance prospects later for targeted actions against relevant Hamas operatives rather than an expanded operation that will only perpetuate suffering on both sides.

On the flip side, the Administration should urge Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to condemn the killings, break the unity pact with Hamas, and make overtures for a return to the negotiating table. The efforts, however, should be quiet so as not to appear that PM Abbas is motivated only by US pressure. Genuine attempts by the Palestinian Prime Minister to end the unity agreement would also be an important point of leverage for the US in the coming weeks. They could moderate any further Israeli actions that would negatively impact innocent Palestinian civilians.

All parties, American, Israeli, and Palestinian, should mourn the loss of the three Israeli teens, as well as the nine Palestinians killed since Operation Brother's Keeper. The outrage and anger in the media are, at their core, a reaction to the deep pain which has become part-and-parcel of life in the Middle East.