West Bank Kidnapping Exposes Israel's Disjointed Security Establishment

The thick layers of clichés made by Netanyahu, his ministers and uniformed top brass highlights the disaster, rather than covering it up.


Israel’s military establishment likes to act the world champion, like the Spanish football team. This week, at the moment of truth, five out of five team members were found wanting - the coach, goalkeeper, defense, offense and midfield; all dysfunctional.

Coach Benjamin Netanyahu took care not to anger his voters, the soccer spectators. He arranged a selfie, devoid of content, to show the captain in the field rather than in his office a short drive away. And he timed it for 6:30 P.M., so as not to drown out the 7 P.M. starting whistle for the Germany-Portugal kickoff.

The three youths’ abduction is a security disaster. The thick layers of clichés made by Netanyahu, his ministers and uniformed top brass highlights the disaster, rather than covering it up. A fatal attack is always a sad story, terrible for the victims’ families, but mostly it has a beginning, middle and end. All within minutes. An abduction is a story whose ending is revealed only later. The abduction of hostages is fraught with uncertainties. Its battlefield is not in the field but in the Israeli and Palestinian publics’ awareness.

The moment the three teens got in the car of the abductors, Israel lost. It has been trying to turn the loss into a draw for the past week, with a series of acts against Hamas in the West Bank and crack-downs on the civilian population to extract a sliver of information. This line, seeking to convey that previous Hamas achievements can be rolled back – mainly the release of numerous prisoners in the Gilad Shalit deal - was destined to failure. It endangers Israel by violating the balance in the field and increasing the terror against soldiers in the West Bank. It is also costing Israel international legitimacy for the operation, especially if the collective punishment of hundreds of thousands of residents in the Hebron district spills over into the Ramadan holiday.

The population understands that the government and army cannot take such provocation lying down. It lowered its head, ready to wait out the storm. But the longer the raids and searches continue, indifferent understanding may turn into active resistance. The generals whose voices are heard – operation commander Nitzan Alon, Yoav Mordechai of the coordination division, Aviv Kochavi of Military Intelligence and deputy chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot – are the clearest spokesmen for the supreme need for checks and balances, so that the tactical defeat doesn’t lead to a strategic one.

In principle, there is nothing new with shaping the general policy and implementing force against a national liberation movement that is wholly or partly underground. That’s the familiar dialectic of the Jewish community in mandatory Palestine.

The Israel Police, the direct heir of the British police, have been pushed into the role of the primary suspect for failing to act on the first sign of the abduction. The police will never be able to prove that swift action on the part of its station, after the call to the hotline and the consultation with the officer on duty, wouldn’t have led to finding the abducted teens quickly. One guesses the kidnappers used the old weapon of disguise against the Israelis – pretending to be Jewish as our commandos pretend to be Arabs.

The police’s argument that its switchboard operators are flooded with crank calls is irrelevant, even if it’s true. The hotline has a filtering center to ward off crank calls from Palestinian telephones or from numbers identified with serial pranksters. In case of fear for someone’s life – even in a regular criminal incident – the operators are authorized to trace the caller immediately, with the help of his communication company. Understanding the seriousness of the whisper “I’ve been kidnapped” requires repeated listening, as the operators indeed did, but what they did afterward is no less important.

The police will always have a feeling of a botched opportunity in real time to trace abducted persons and rescue them.

The police, lacking drive and initiative, is at least investigating, even though the kidnapping warrants an inter-agency probe. Unless forced, other security institutions avoid cooperating with an investigation ran by a different agency.

The security establishment's best feature over the past few years has been its ability to weave all the threads into a single tapestry – a command center incorporating air, sea and land forces. This center, which has been successfully duplicated within the Gaza Division, the General Staff's operations division and the Shin Bet, is among the most advanced in the world, but it works only in attack mode. The IDF has failed to incorporate its officers and the Shin Ben in a similar command center to prevent abductions. The ties between the Shin Bet and the police's Judea and Samaria District are unstable and competitive. Instead of allowing the police's hotline operator or shift manager to decide whether to report an incident to the IDF and the Shin Bet, an abduction protocol was meant to be put in place. This hasn't happened. The defense has been neglected yet again.

How did the Shin Bet – especially in the Hebron division – fail to anticipate abductions after Khaled Meshal publicly hinted as much when Netanyahu reneged on his commitment to release a fourth group of Palestinian prisoners as part of the peace talks? And if it did anticipate such incidents, why wasn't it properly prepared? Did the IDF, which views the Gaza and Lebanon fronts as more volatile, fail to update its priorities? The mistake has cost Israel prestige and deterrence, has exposed the Shin Bet's weakness and robbed the IDF of a week's training.

The kidnapping has slipped under the radar, as Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon admitted earlier this week. A real committee won't be established to investigate the case, because it would have to begin its probe at the roots of the political failure. The kidnapping and the barren week that followed don’t only reflect the failure of the police, the Shin Bet and the IDF. Because when a team loses, no one is more responsible than the coach.