Netanyahu’s Test

The prime minister needs to show restraint and manage the ongoing kidnapping case wisely. Otherwise, he may create a further escalation.

Haaretz Editorial
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: AP
Haaretz Editorial

The kidnapping of teens Eyal Yifrah, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar presents Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a leadership test that’s far from simple. The event occurred against the backdrop of Israel toughening its policy toward Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails. Only last week the cabinet approved a bill designed to block the release of convicted terrorists in future deals, and the following day the Knesset approved the first reading of a bill permitting force-feeding, designed to break the hunger strike of security detainees. A few weeks ago, Netanyahu preferred to halt the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and not to free the fourth group of prisoners who have spent significant time in jail – a group that includes Israeli citizens.

Netanyahu, who began his political career with sweeping opposition to negotiating with terrorist organizations, changed his position when he agreed to free 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, in 2011. Netanyahu also freed dozens of longtime prisoners during the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. But the leadership of the Habayit Hayehudi party and the right-wing lobby within Likud, who identified Netanyahu’s political weakness, made it clear to the prime minister that, from now on, they will tie his hands and prevent him from freeing additional prisoners. Netanyahu preferred to be dragged along with them and to keep his job.

The kidnapping raises difficult questions about the wisdom of the strict policy toward the Palestinian prisoners: Have hardening the Israeli hand, the intention to do damage to the humanity of the hunger strikers and the prevention of future prisoner releases encouraged the kidnappers? Have the numerous kidnapping attempts in the West Bank not flashed as a warning light over the heads of the political leadership in its decisions toward prisoners? Has political survival taken over from diplomatic considerations in Netanyahu’s policies?

Follow our live blog and interactive map for the latest updates on the missing teens

The prime minister has avoided these questions for now. As is his way, he exploited the event for public relations, and tarnishing the image of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian unity government – even though the teens were kidnapped from an area under full Israeli control, and even though the PA’s security forces are aiding Israel in the search for them.

Netanyahu needs to show restraint and manage the crisis wisely: To focus on finding the kidnapped teens and capturing the kidnappers, to avoid demonstrative military actions such as his predecessor Ehud Olmert took in 2006, and to hold off the pressure to make things even more difficult for the Palestinian prisoners. An attempt to use the crisis to punish Abbas and his unity government, or to tighten the vise of the occupation and the settlements as a “proper Zionist response,” will only create a further escalation.

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