Netanyahu and Abbas: The Odd Couple

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Credit: AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have lots in common. Both say they want peace, neither is prepared to pay the necessary price and both eschew violence. In contrast to several of his predecessors, Netanyahu is neither eager for battle nor prone to getting tangled up in unnecessary wars. Abbas, unlike Yasser Arafat, understands that Palestinian terror undermines the Palestinian cause, which is why he is genuinely trying to eradicate it.

The relative quiet that descended on Israel-Palestine during the Netanyahu and Abbas years is no coincidence. It’s because the two leaders have internalized the limits of force and understand that its excessive use can have disastrous results. Netanyahu and Abbas are not doves, in the strategic sense: Neither is looking to bring about the great Israeli-Palestinian peace. But up to a point, both are tactical doves who believe the right way to advance national goals is through diplomacy.

The kidnapping of Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel posed a complex challenge to both leaders. Netanyahu was pressured to respond with great force, while Abbas had to contend with broad – and disturbing – popular support for the kidnappers and the kidnapping. But the two restrained leaders remained restrained. Each exploited the tragedy to advance his own agenda. Each lashed out at the other, as expected.

But both also really and truly acted in a rather impressive fashion. Netanyahu’s Israel did not make any unreasonable moves, and Abbas of Palestine showed real courage when he spoke out forcefully against the heinous crime. Without admitting it to their governments or to their people, Netanyahu and Abbas at the beginning of this crisis did what they have not done during years of negotiations – they acted as a mature and responsible team to contain the explosive situation and prevent escalation.

On Monday afternoon, when the kidnapping became a murder, the volatility intensified. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett raised delusional ideas in the security cabinet. Other ministers also did their best to start a conflagration. But the two tall lieutenant generals (Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz) stood firm against the small-minded, and the two sane Tel Avivans (ministers Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid) helped Netanyahu to maintain restraint. That’s why the decisions of July 1, 2014 did not in any way resemble the decisions of July 12, 2006. Netanyahu successfully made it through the first day of the bloodlust and vengefulness. Even after it became clear that the teens had been killed he did not lose his bearings.

But the danger is still there. Jewish hooligans are running wild in the streets of Jerusalem. The presumed abduction and murder of an Arab teenager under unclear circumstances led to harsh comments, hot tempers and stone-throwing. The black vultures of brutality are hovering above, and stupidity lies at the door. He who was slow to precipitate military action is liable to rashly launch settlement construction. When the blood is boiling and there is no peace process to serve as a stabilizing factor, every wrong decision, every hate crime and any fatal rocket is liable to ignite a fire that could rage out of control.

So now the ball is back in the court of Netanyahu and Abbas. The Israeli prime minister must exert firm and moral leadership in the face of Israeli extremists, and the head of the Palestinian Authority must condemn Palestinian extremists. Netanyahu must enforce the law against Jews the way it is enforced against Arabs, and Abbas must renounce Hamas. To keep the situation from deteriorating further, provocations of any kind must be prevented.

The odd couple of Netanyahu and Abbas must do everything they can to preserve their one and only achievement: stability.

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