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.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Response To Hebron Kidnappings Shows A Cynicism Addiction

On Thursday evening, three Israeli teenagers were abducted in the West Bank. They are: Naftali Frenkel (16), Gilad Shaar (16), and Eyal Yifrach (19). The identity of the abductors has not been released and the whereabouts and status of the three young men are unknown. They were last seen by a Beer Sheva man who gave them a ride in the area of Hebron.

A family unsure about the whereabouts of its children is all too common in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether political or not, the human dimension of fear and anguish from not knowing where a child is transcends national identities. For that reason, most Israelis and Palestinians can take a step back, even for a moment, and see this tragedy apart from its political implications.

Unfortunately, the response from many Israeli and Palestinian activists has been heavily politicized. Sparing no moment to exploit the opportunity for political gain, these activists are treating the event as a political football rather than a case of three missing teens whose lives are almost certainly in danger.

Pro-Palestinian activists contrasting the kidnapping with the arbitrary detention of Palestinian youths risk politicizing an issue whose moral power comes from being depoliticized. Arbitrary detention of Palestinian youth is a story about kids in jail. Making it a contest of "who bleeds more" is not only cynical and petty, but will hurt the legitimate cause of highlighting IDF mistreatment of Palestinian youth.

Pro-Israel activists shaming the international community for not condemning the kidnappings are picking a fight they are unlikely to win, and one that will not bring back three missing teenagers. It is cynical and regrettable to see the kidnapping of three boys turn into a political football against the UN, ICRC, and other NGOs. While many of these organizations hold double standards against Israel, this dubious campaign is taking the story away from the core human tragedy which would generate international support in the first place.

Cynicism is an understandable reaction for those who have experienced trauma in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When residents in the region choose to use it as a coping mechanism, that choice should be respected. However, this kidnapping highlights how the medicine of cynicism is turning into an addiction. Protesting IDF detentions or UN double standards will not bring back three teenage boys. Politics aside, cynicism is impeding the return of children to their parents and perpetuating further politicization, dehumanization, and suffering.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Israel's Deep Disappointment Shows Failure To Evolve

Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer said yesterday he was “deeply disappointed” with the State Department’s wait-and-see approach to the new Palestinian unity government. The statement comes just months after Israel used the same “deeply disappointed” rhetoric to describe Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments placing some blame on Israel for the breakdown in peace talks.

But while Israel is understandably upset, it’s strategic objective in pointing out differences with the US is unclear.


The Israeli government has gone full court press in statements and social media in reiterating that Hamas is a terrorist group, but it is unlikely to have the Clinton-blames-Arafat moment that followed the Camp David accords. While Israel is right that Hamas continues to target innocent civilians for political purposes, it’s hard to determine exactly what the Israeli government hopes to achieve from its campaign.

De-legitimizing Hamas has been a strategy with mixed results in general for Israel. Pointing out Hamas’ use of violence against civilians will do little to persuade a second-term Obama administration, especially after the failure of the Bush administration’s non-recognition of Hamas after Palestinian elections in 2006. Also, given the political capital Secretary Kerry is investing in peace efforts, he is unlikely to echo such one-sided rhetoric at this stage.

The remarks have put US pro-Israel organizations in a sticky spot. AIPAC expressed “concern and disappointment” over the unity government, but urged Congress to review US aid rather than placing pressure on the executive branch directly. In contrast, on April 28, it characterized Secretary Kerry’s remarks - particularly the suggestion that without change Israel could become an apartheid state - as “offensive and inappropriate,” while emphasizing that it “shares President Obama’s perspective that…the use of the term ‘apartheid’ to characterize Israel is inaccurate and unhelpful.”

If anything, the campaign appears to be a copy and paste of Israel’s talking points from whenever it conflicts with Hamas. This strategy reflects an Israeli administration whose strategy vis-a-vis Hamas appears to be more of the same. But the situation is not the same, and US treatment of Hamas has shifted in response to the experience of 2006 and the Arab Uprisings in 2011. The daylight that exists between the US and Israel is the result of a Netanyahu administration whose unclear strategy lags behind the current political realities of the Middle East.